The Climb

In the end, the mountain defeats us all.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Four thousand feet above the lights in the valley, the December night is giving way to dawn. Exhausted from a long climb through the dark, I sit on my pack and knock the cap of my water bottle against the rifle stock to loosen it. I swallow with a shudder, bracing myself against the icy burn. The first winter I came here, the carcass of a cougar was lying across the elk trail that bisects this saddle. Now all traces of the cougar are gone, the tattered hide and tent of bones returned to the earth. The whisker I drew from the frozen snarl is tucked under my hatband. It's been there for two hunting seasons now, sticking up alongside an ermine's tail, but neither has brought me the luck I hoped for-if you measure luck, as I do, in elk steaks.

Standing up, I draw the whisker from the hatband and tuck it under a scale of bark on the trunk of a whitebark pine tree. I've meant to return it for some time now, for it was an old cat, with broken claws extending from naked tendons, and lately it has put me in mind of myself.

"So long, old tom," I say.

Bob is waiting for me in the creekbottom, a short hike down the mountainside. He sits on a log, his military-surplus wool trousers crusted with snow and stained with old blood. He hasn't had any luck in a few years, either.

"Anything left up there?" he asks.

I shake my head.

"I don't think we have to hunt any higher," he says. "The elk all moved down with the storm."

"You're probably right," I say.

But we head stubbornly up, anyway, by unspoken agreement. You never want to hunt as high as you need to when you hunt elk, but higher than you want to go is usually where they are, beyond the lactic-acid burn in your thighs, where your lungs push against the sternum strap as they gasp at thin air. No one has to remind us that this is a young man's game.

Still, I don't think I thought of either of us as past our primes until this season. You don't perceive growing older the same way down below, where you are embraced by the security of the lights.

"If I was that lion," Bob says when we take a break in a bleak thicket of lodgepole, "I'd be dead now, too." Then, a few minutes later: "Turn around now, we can be back in town in time for the Steelers game. Duncan is making cornbread and green chili." He smacks his lips. Just kidding, his expression says. But he's not kidding, too.

It's easy to rationalize going back. The season is almost over, and the elk seem to have migrated out of this high country. But something in the air has changed even as he spoke, a scent drifting on the downdraft. I put a finger to my lips, tap the side of my nose. There, I point with the rifle barrel, up there.

The scent wave becomes stronger-sweet, it's heavy like sea air, with something of the earth in it. Then, above us in an opening, I see shadow lines through the snow. Less cautiously now, we climb into the odor. The tracks are deep where the elk have contoured above us, heading for the next basin to the north. Their trails are sinuous and pungent, punctuated by depressions where the elk pawed through to expose clumps of dried sedges, then clipped them with their front teeth. I reach down to pinch a dropping that is shaped like a Hershey's Kiss. It's still soft. I look at Bob and smile weakly. We both know about that country to the north.

"So much for the Steelers," Bob says.

Moving quickly, we pick up the trail. It's early enough that we might still catch them as they meander along the mountainside, feeding as they go. But their strides never shorten and a mile farther on, the trails funnel together, arrowing down through precipitous timber into the basin.

"What do you think?" Bob says. "I don't think they're going to bed. I think they're moving after the storm. It's winter now. I think they're heading for those south slopes."

"Let's say they are," I whisper, and there follows a brief council of war. To our credit, there is no more mention of turning back. We both know that there is nothing to be gained by crossing the basin unless we are prepared to wait for the elk to feed into the openings, which they won't do for hours, perhaps not until evening. That means coming back out in the dark. But blood doesn't recognize the age of the muscles it tenders, and our blood is moving now, feeding the darkness that lies in every predatory heart. As we drink in the scent on the track I think of the lion in his last days, weakening from hunger as he crouched by the elk trail, his canines worn close to the bone but his eyes still blazing.

The north-facing wall of the basin is so steep that the elk have plunged down it, bulling troughs through the snow. We follow their lead gingerly, testing footholds, holding onto tree trunks. Once I slip and sit heavily, wincing as snow jams under the waist of my trousers. Careful here, I mean to say, but before the words are out Bob is down, face first, as a hidden log cracks under his weight. He comes up spitting, his head frosted white. His binoculars are caked with snow, and the floorplate of his rifle has been jarred open by the fall, the cartridges lost. He feeds the magazine three more rounds and snaps shut the floorplate, gouges with a gloved forefinger to clear the binocular lenses, shrugs. Elk hunting.

"Not much farther, now," I say, but Bob doesn't believe the lie any more than I do. Finally, below us, we hear the tinkle of the creek that fingers through the basin. Here is an obstacle we hadn't foreseen. Bob and I waste a few minutes walking first up, then down the bank.

Rather than risk cracking through pane ice or shipping water with an iffy crossing, we wade barefoot, using sticks for balance. Bruised and numb to our knees, we pull the boots back on, then follow the tracks upstream to where, 100 yards farther on, they recross the creek. The lines of tracks disappear into the trees, up the wall of timber we have just spent two hours descending.

"You've got to be kidding," Bob says, and both of us stand at a crossroads, scratching the winter in our beards.

"It's easier going up than down," I say.

Bob stares at me.

"Since¿¿¿exactly¿¿¿when?"

All I know is that the longer we hesitate, the harder it will be to keep going. But Bob has reached a wall of sorts and I am not that far behind. There's a log on the bank, too enticing to ignore, and I scrape the snow from it and take off my pack. When I sit down, my thighs cramp. I stand back up and rub them. They feel hot through my pants; the ropes of muscle quiver like eels.

Bob comes up beside me and sits heavily.

"Heck of a hunt," he says, and I echo the words-it's a way of saying it's over without saying it, and of seconding the motion.

I take off my hat and idly stroke the ermine's tail, then out of habit, raise my eyes to the high country to scan for elk. It's too early in the afternoon, but you never know. The basin wall we have descended, and up which the elk have apparently returned, is blue-black timber to the top, but on the south side of the creek I can see into several of the jigsaw openings in the pines.

Bob follows my eyes with his binoculars.

"Elk." His whisper is so matter-of-fact that for a second I don't know if he means elk up there, or elk in general. "About 20 of them. See those trees below the cliff, the ones that come all the way down the mountain. They're just to the left. About two-thirds of the way to the top."

"No," I say, meaning no, I don't believe this.

He lowers the glasses. "I'm afraid so," he says. He shakes his head. "I don't think my knees can make it."

I massage the varicose vein that knots like a string of pebbles over my left calf. "Damn leg," I say, screwing up my face.

But what we are really talking about is the heart.

When Bob cinches the waist belt of his pack to press on, I don't think he knows why any more than I do.

A quarter mile up the bottom, the elk we have been tracking have crossed the creek for the third time. They are back on our side again, their hooves pointing up the south side of the basin. There's little doubt they are the same elk we saw in the opening.

"Those are our elk up there," Bob says. The track seems to spur him on. I struggle up behind as he breaks trail, watching my step rather than the country.

"You think we can make it?" Bob says between breaths, as I labor up beside him.

"No," I say. Then, "I mean yes."

"You're just about as sure as I am," Bob says.

And we keep climbing.

Halfway up the pines, Bob and I stop to take off our jackets. Already the basin is swallowed by a rising shadow that nips at our heels as the sun sinks farther toward the horizon. Several hundred yards above us an immense Douglas fir tree, splintered by lightning, lies in halves at the lower end of the opening where we had seen the elk. I whisper to Bob to go on ahead of me. He needs meat more than I do.

As we approach the fallen tree, Bob, who has been moving forward in a crouch through the thinning pines, suddenly drops to his knees. I sit back on my haunches in the snow and listen. Just before he dropped I had thought I heard the mew of a calf elk; now I hear a rejoinder, not far to my right. Craning my head, I see first the ears, cocked forward, then the aquiline nose of a young cow elk. She is bedded at the edge of the pines in an opening on my right, looking up the hill toward Bob.

I avert my eyes. I don't know if it's true that elk can sense eye contact, but they surely sense human presence. It can be only a matter of a few moments now before one or another of them raises an alarm. How in hell did we manage to crawl into the herd without noticing it?

As the crash of Bob's rifle echoes off the mountainsides, the elk to my right jerks to a quivering stand, then barks and wheels into the open. Farther up I catch glimpses of color as animals flicker through the trees. Reaching the open, the elk bunch for an instant, their orange rumps glowing in the deep slant of the sun, before buckling into a run. A few moments later, we hear them cracking through downfall in a stand of pines along the contour of the hillside.

Bob is up on one knee, his rifle barrel pointing in the caught-breath silence to a place farther up the mountain. He must have dropped one there and was waglasses. "I'm afraid so," he says. He shakes his head. "I don't think my knees can make it."

I massage the varicose vein that knots like a string of pebbles over my left calf. "Damn leg," I say, screwing up my face.

But what we are really talking about is the heart.

When Bob cinches the waist belt of his pack to press on, I don't think he knows why any more than I do.

A quarter mile up the bottom, the elk we have been tracking have crossed the creek for the third time. They are back on our side again, their hooves pointing up the south side of the basin. There's little doubt they are the same elk we saw in the opening.

"Those are our elk up there," Bob says. The track seems to spur him on. I struggle up behind as he breaks trail, watching my step rather than the country.

"You think we can make it?" Bob says between breaths, as I labor up beside him.

"No," I say. Then, "I mean yes."

"You're just about as sure as I am," Bob says.

And we keep climbing.

Halfway up the pines, Bob and I stop to take off our jackets. Already the basin is swallowed by a rising shadow that nips at our heels as the sun sinks farther toward the horizon. Several hundred yards above us an immense Douglas fir tree, splintered by lightning, lies in halves at the lower end of the opening where we had seen the elk. I whisper to Bob to go on ahead of me. He needs meat more than I do.

As we approach the fallen tree, Bob, who has been moving forward in a crouch through the thinning pines, suddenly drops to his knees. I sit back on my haunches in the snow and listen. Just before he dropped I had thought I heard the mew of a calf elk; now I hear a rejoinder, not far to my right. Craning my head, I see first the ears, cocked forward, then the aquiline nose of a young cow elk. She is bedded at the edge of the pines in an opening on my right, looking up the hill toward Bob.

I avert my eyes. I don't know if it's true that elk can sense eye contact, but they surely sense human presence. It can be only a matter of a few moments now before one or another of them raises an alarm. How in hell did we manage to crawl into the herd without noticing it?

As the crash of Bob's rifle echoes off the mountainsides, the elk to my right jerks to a quivering stand, then barks and wheels into the open. Farther up I catch glimpses of color as animals flicker through the trees. Reaching the open, the elk bunch for an instant, their orange rumps glowing in the deep slant of the sun, before buckling into a run. A few moments later, we hear them cracking through downfall in a stand of pines along the contour of the hillside.

Bob is up on one knee, his rifle barrel pointing in the caught-breath silence to a place farther up the mountain. He must have dropped one there and was wa