It was mid-day, December 6, some 26 years ago and I was high on an unfamiliar mountain near Chama, New Mexico, oblivious of the date but well aware of how many hours I had until dark. I was two miles from my pickup truck, one mile down the mountain and one mile across a snowy flat.

With me were two friends with whom I worked in the U. S. Department of Agriculture, Mike Perry and Many Trujillo. They had climbed the mountain with me to help retrieve an elk I had taken the day before. We had found the downed elk because the 60 inch snow we got that week slacked during our morning climb and we could see the orange vest I left hanging in a fir tree where it would blow in the wind and shed snow that covered everything else.

After warming our hands by a small fire of oak brush twigs, I tied large chunks of the elk together like a string of Christmas tree lights or ornaments on a bracelet. I laid the strung pieces one by one onto a 14-foot-long piece of heavy clear plastic and sewed the plastic over the line of elk chunks with chord, like folding a wiener inside a hotdog bun. An overhand knot in the end of the plastic formed a place to tie the lines I would use to drag the load on the slick plastic over the snow.

When in motion, the plastic sled and its load looked somewhat like a huge caterpillar as it crawled over undulations hidden beneath perhaps 250 inches of snow. The downhill slide was easy, if lugging gear and sinking in knee deep snow could be called easy, because Mike and Many left a shallow furrow in the snow ahead of me as together they dragged one of the large hind quarters of the 600-pound cow elk.

Marked trail

The furrow would make my third and final haul down the mountain, that I made alone the next day, a snap. Even after the daily heavy snowfall the shallow ditch that marked our path still showed through and led me off the mountain and across the flat through sometimes whiteout snow squalls without my having to constantly use my compass. Even as I finished the marathon drag long after dark, the depression showed clearly ahead of my small flashlight.

The purpose of this piece is to point out the differences between hunting in the Deep South and hunting in the mountains as concerns the weather. Thousands of Southern hunters will be applying for western hunting permits this month and the next. Wyoming deer license applications for instance are due in March, the elk application deadline having already passed. Colorado big game applications are due April 4.

Let me urge hunters heading to the Rocky Mountains for the first time to pay careful attention to the dates that you plan to hunt. The hunt described above is indicative of what weather you can expect in early December, and that trip was in a southernmost state for elk hunting. The dates and the altitude of your hunt are key in predicting the weather that is typical for Rocky Mountain hunting.

September is a good time to hunt the mountains for the first time. Snows should be light if any, even up to 11,000 feet elevation. October is different. By mid-October, the Rockies can see blizzards down to 8,000 feet or so. By November 1, expect big snows anywhere you hunt in the mountains. From then until May, deep snows are everywhere.

How accurate are these guidelines? They are practically useless, because in any given spot on your elk or deer hunt you can encounter a dangerous snow storm. One of my employees once became lost in a snowstorm at only 6,000 feet elevation on July 10. Luckily he found a sheepherderπs cabin for shelter. Believe what you hear about life threatening weather during mountain hunting seasons.

My New Mexico hunt was my first in the mountains. But I went fully prepared because I believed what I had read about the dangers of the fall and winter mountains. I wore thermal and goose down clothing and water proof boots and leggings. And I took a map and compass. I knew where I was on the map and the direction to all surrounding boundary roads no matter how distant. Be warned and stay safe.

Confident hunter

I had years of camping experience and a well planned survival kit that added to the confidence that I would survive any weather or catastrophe. Thus my mental state, so important, let me actually enjoy the hardships; twenty below zero mornings and never above freezing on the week long trip, whiteouts that caused claustrophobia and disorientation.

The crosshairs shattered inside my scope from the cold. But I was not as uncomfortable as I have been many times in the damp Mississippi woods in winter, when I was much closer to hypothermia than in the drier mountain air. But remember; I was prepared for the worst. Prepared.

This week I called a buddy where I hunt in Colorado. We hunt often near Steamboat Springs and I learned they have already had 300 inches of snow. And the biggest snow month is often April!

Look at the weather challenges as adventures. But never take the weather lightly. The worst often happens out there during your hunt. Be ready for it.

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