“While descending the rock-band, Herzog dropped his gloves and, by the time he reached Camp IV, he was barely able to walk. Both his feet and his hands were severely frostbitten. During the desperate retreat down steep ground to Base Camp, he fell and smashed several bones in his already devastated feet. When he was forced to abseil, the ropes ripped away the flesh of his hands in thick strips.
“Once the terrain became less precipitous, it was possible for Herzog to be carried, and he was portaged off the mountain first by piggy-back, then in a basket, then on a sledge and finally on a stretcher. During the retreat, his feet and hands were wrapped and bagged in plastic to save them further harm. When they reached camp each night, Oudot, the expedition doctor, injected novocaine, spartocamphor and penicillin into Herzog’s femoral and brachial arteries, pushing the long needle in through the left and right flanks of his groin, and the bends of his elbows: an experience so painful that Herzog begged for death in preference. By the time he was off the mountain, Herzog’s feet had turned black and brown; by the time they reached the safety of Gorakpur, Oudot had amputated almost all of his toes and fingers.
“I read Annapurna three times that summer. It was obvious to me that Herzog had chosen wisely in going for the top, despite the subsequent costs. For what, he and I were agreed, were toes and fingers compared to having stood on those few square yards of snow? If he had died it would still have been worth it. This was the lesson I took away from Herzog’s book: that the finest end of all was to be had on a mountain- top – from death in valleys preserve me, O Lord.”
–Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind
Nothing so dramatic as Herzog’s experience on Annapurna awaited our hunting party when we pulled out of Durango on a Friday morning, en route to the drop camp up Hermosa Creek that we expected to convert into a magnificent southern Rockies elk hunting base. We had a thousand miles and four states behind us, and had linked up with another member of our party — who made the trip down from Alaska in a ruined Ford truck — as we crossed over the churning waters of the Animas River. The sky was gray and cold and the river was wrung clear of the tapioca coloring it had acquired courtesy of the then recent Gold King Mine spill. That spill, yet another heavy blow to an already traumatized river, was a result of some brighter minds at the Environmental Protection Agency releasing three million gallons of dissolved iron into the river.
The Animas can, and hopefully someday will, bounce back, but remains essentially a 126 mile Dead Zone full of mine leechings, ash flows, and various levels of toxicity driven by human consumption, carelessness, and general short-sightedness.
We crossed the river, stopped for some last minute coffee at a hipster joint, then piled into the truck for the drive up to Hermosa Park Road and the horse corrals at the trailhead.
This is meant to be the second part in a piece about the importance of debriefing, and there are a million points along the way where I might begin. But I am going to focus on my own experience, and what I can do better in the future, rather than rant on the wider experience — which was an enormous, and expensive, let down.
I’ll draw the big picture first: from the outset our “guides” did not properly pack the pack animals. This was an important element because the ride in, five miles as the crow flies, was treacherous. The trail was often very narrow and always rocky and in places completely covered in ice. In many places the drop-offs were not survivable. The temperature was also well below freezing and it was beginning to snow. And because no one else in the party was able to get up and down from their horse with any ease — due to various vague and sudden maladies and agues — I was forced to get down twice, walk down the honery pack animals and cut the loads, which had slipped and were hanging precariously under their bellies. This meant that the bulk of our gear was abandoned on the side of the trail for the four-wheelers — already loaded to the gills — coming up some hours behind us.
There is much truth in the old saw: amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics.
There was a legitimate question, based on the rate of snowfall, if the follow-on folks would even be able to see the loads by the time they came by. One of our party was afraid of his horse altogether, and about two hours into the ride fell off the back with a muffled “whoo” sound. He was riding behind me. For some time I had overheard him having a conversation with his horse in a tone suggesting fear, and turned just in time to see him launch out the back door and land with a thud on the ice and the rocks. He was fine, suffering only a severe bruising of the ego, and I was gifted that vision for the rest of the ride in and, frankly, for the rest of my life. It was very funny because this man — who remains a good friend — also passionately believed that he was of native American descent — until a DNA test later revealed that he was, in fact, Irish. He can be forgiven for this lifelong misunderstanding because, unlike Elizabeth Warren, he actually looked like a native American and was known colloquially among his friends as “Big Chief”.
The camp, once we reached it, was a shithole. At 8500’ feet it had taken a severe, season-long ass-whooping. Before the hunt was over we would run out of both propane and firewood, which wouldn’t normally matter in the deep woods except that it snowed 18″ on the first night, the temps dropped well below zero, and our wall tent was riven with rips and leaked both wind and snow from one end to the other. Also, three of the four horses broke free of the hasty hitching rail — which was gnawed into kindling anyway — and ran 5 miles back down the trail to the corrals, leaving us with one spavined, decidedly hungry and otherwise uninterested horse. There was no feed for the horse, there was one tithead guide for four hunters, and finally there were no elk or signs of elk anywhere in the offing.
The point is, after the ride in, there were some mounting challenges.
“Those who travel to mountain tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.”
–Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind
We can, sometimes, be forgiven for falling in love with ourselves. That’s only true because at the end of the day we’ve got the one life we know about, and as a pure survival mechanism pouring a little love on ourselves may actually be a good idea. I hadn’t contemplated a life or death situation in some time when I set out on our first full morning to hunt an elk out of the towering mountaintops that surrounded our little drop camp. I hadn’t contemplated 18″ of snow overnight, either, and so as a debrief point its good to remember that complacency can be, and often is, deadly.
When we woke on that first morning it was still snowing. My first inclination that it was still snowing came from the snow that had fallen through the tent and onto my bedroll in the night. My cot was situated near the entrance to our tent, which at least afforded me an easy escape from the mountain of gear that occupied the center aisle. And I was close to the stove at our end, which was nice because Mike, our friend from Alaska, kept it stoked as long as the firewood lasted — which was two days short of the length of our trip. It’s worth noting that Mike is something of a survivalist, and later in our trip would do something quite extraordinary. One evening, when our hunts were done, he opened one of his bags and pulled out lengths of Tyvek. Tyvek, if you don’t know, is a flash spun polyethylene material used to wrap buildings under construction to keep them dry. While our tent erupted in the occasional laughter of grown men drinking too much beer at altitude, Mike sat quietly on his rack building a Tyvek suit with his knife and a roll of gray duct tape. I sat on my rack, across the aisle from him, in a a kind of post-survival bliss, watching him build this suit and deeply intrigued by whatever it was he was planning. Long story short — Mike spent the night out on a mountainside in his Tyvek suit. When he woke in the morning he was in the middle of an elk herd. I only know this is true because he managed to take cell-phone pictures of the herd that had surrounded him at “touch you” distance. Debrief Point: camouflage is where you find it.
After the eye-opening events of the first day I was eager to get hunting on the first morning and managed to get a ride to my drop-off point from the “guide”. Geared up and ready — I thought — for the day’s challenges, I jumped on the back of the four-wheeler and we blasted out of camp. It was still snowing hard and it was hard dark in the bottom of Hermosa Creek Canyon. The guide brought us over the creek and south about a mile to a signpost on the trail where I would begin my hunt.
An important part of this story is, as in most tales of survival — and repeatedly mentioned in any number of the hundreds of tactical debriefs I have sat in — is this basic fact: the map is not the territory. One would have thought, given my training and experience, that well-worn phrase would have been at the forefront of my thinking. It was not. From where I stepped off the chugging four wheeler with snowflakes as big as white butterflies falling through the trees, the way out looked nearly straight up. The hills were likely at 60–70° angles. I would like for that to be an exaggeration, but it isn’t. It may even underestimate the actual gradient. Shouldering my rifle and pack with a determined sigh, I looked up at the dark wall of rock and trees and deep snow in front of me, put my chin down against the driving blizzard, and started humping in the dark. What else does a Marine do?
Next Week: the exciting conclusion of The Durango Debrief.