To Hell and Back

WHITE MOUNTAIN WILDERNESS ELK Even when it's easy, elk hunting's tough, but it's darn near brutal in the towering volcanic crags west of Ruidoso, New Mexico. The peaks and canyons off the backside of the famed Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation are 9,000 to 11,000 feet high and crawling with big bulls. Unit 36's 50,000 acres are so steep, rocky and choked with underbrush that they have reduced grown men to tears. Literally. "You'll see guys come back into camp that first day pale, sick and near crying from the altitude and the steepness," says Colorado native Mike Unruh, a physical fitness and elk nut who applies to hunt in the White Mountains every year. "You won't find a tougher elk hunt anywhere, but if you're prepared you could kill the biggest bull of your life." Kentucky hunter Jimmy Boone, who arrowed a 360-class 7 by 7 in the White Mountains several years ago, agrees. "There are some absolute giants in there. But it's as nasty or nastier than the Wyoming unit where I killed my bighorn ram. The second morning I was there another hunter started throwing up right after breakfast. He'd survived the first day, but he knew what was coming and just couldn't face it." Johnny Hughes lives in Ruidoso and has guided for elk in the White Mountains for more than 10 years. "The hunters who are successful here have been in rugged, high-altitude country before and know what it takes to get through a six- to ten-day hunt," he says. "And it's not about age. We've had twenty-five-year-old guys collapse after a day, and we've had a sixty-seven-year-old who went everywhere we asked him to." Hughes's clients have killed bulls approaching the 400-class, but they've worked insanely hard for them: An average 14-hour day chasing elk on foot in Unit 36 during archery season demands that a hunter cover five to seven miles and climb anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 vertical feet. Muzzleloader hunters have it a bit easier, but they should still be in the best shape of their lives. "The first year I wasn't fully prepared and I'd like to have died, but I kept seeing this three-eighty bull and had to go back," says Nevada muzzleloader hunter Harlan King. "The next time I went, I started training four months before by loading my pack with twenty-five pounds of lead shot and climbing for five miles five times a week through the steepest stuff I could find near my house. Six weeks before the season I increased the weight to fifty pounds. Then I was ready. I didn't get the monster I was after, but I'm applying again this year. The elk are too big for me not to." Contact: New Mexico Department of Game & Fish (505-476-8000; wildlife.state.nm.us). Johnny Hughes, Elite Outfitters (505-257-5379; eliteoutfitters.com)