Some years ago, I killed a hefty mule deer buck at the bottom of a deep canyon in Utah. My companion, Rex Thomas, helped me bone out the deer and load the meat into my pack. The total load, including my gear, came to about 100 pounds.
Only one obstacle remained — it was two miles and 1,500 vertical feet to my truck at the end of the road. I sat on the ground to shoulder my pack, and then groaned as Rex helped me to my feet.
“Are you sure you can carry that by yourself?” Rex asked, shaking his head. “That slope is steep!”
“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “But I’ll give it a try. I can always come back to finish packing later.”
“Okay, we’ll meet back at camp,” my partner said. “I’ll see you later.”
To reach our spike camp, I had to hike to the top of the ridge to leave the deer at the truck, and then hike down the other side of the ridge to our camp. Rex would follow a creek that circled around the end of the ridge to reach our camp. His route was longer but was relatively flat.
With that we set out. Rex headed downstream and I climbed straight up the ridge toward my truck. It was obvious that with all that weight, I was not going to scramble straight up that ridge nonstop. So, with a little trial and error to find out how I would hold up, I tried various combinations of climbing and resting to find the most productive ratio.
Finally, I settled on 10 steps of climbing followed by 10 seconds of rest — over and over. Sticking to this pattern, I reached my truck in about an hour, deposited the deer in a cooler, took a short rest break, and then hustled down the far side of the ridge to our camp at the bottom of the canyon. To my surprise, Rex was not there.
When he arrived a half-hour later, he was even more amazed to find me already in camp. “How did you get here so fast?” he asked.
“One step at a time,” I said.
ANYONE WHO HAS HUNTED the mountains has feared the mountains, including me. Many times, I have looked at high ridges and cringed at the thought of climbing to the top. But that’s all part of mountain hunting, and you have to do it reasonably comfortably so you can hunt well when you get to the top — and pack meat when you get an animal on the ground. But how do you do that, especially if you’re from the flatlands and are not used to climbing mountains?
It starts with physical condition. I have written about this topic many times, so I won’t belabor it here except to say, the better shape you’re in, the easier mountain hunting will be. In “Hall Of Fame Bowhunter” (page 68), Randy Ulmer emphasizes the large role physical condition played in his success as a hunter and archer. Many successful mountain hunters would say the same.
However, good physical condition alone won’t conquer mountains. You have to adopt the right perspective. If you look at a mountain as a whole, you might be overwhelmed before you start. To avoid that, break it down into manageable chunks. After all, you really don’t have to climb that whole mountain at once. You just have to take one step, and then one more, and one more… Breaking it down this way, you never have to take more than one step at a time, and that is always doable.
THEN, TO GET INTO A FLOW, you start stringing the steps together. It’s what I call “climbing by the numbers,” an approach I credit for my stamina in the mountains. It’s a way of finding a pace you can maintain for a long period of time, similar to what any endurance athlete would do. An ultra-distance runner, for example, would settle into a pace he knows he can sustain. It might be eight minutes per mile, or 10, or whatever, depending on distance, weather, terrain, and other variables.
In mountain hunting, you simply have to find a pace you can maintain given the conditions. Carrying that deer up the ridge in Utah, I tried various ratios of steps to rest, and I settled on 10 steps steady followed by a 10-second rest break. Given all the variables at that time, I was able to maintain that pace all the way to the top. Clearly, I could not climb fast, but I could climb steady, and that’s what counted. It’s the old story of the tortoise and the hare.
Of course, the pace depends on the variables. On tough stretches like that ridge in Utah, my ratio will be 10/10. But on easier stretches, it might increase to 20/10, and then to 30/10 or 40/10.
While climbing, I literally count my steps. It gives me something to do, like counting sheep, but more than that it keeps me disciplined so I don’t start climbing too fast. Getting to the top is all about pacing, and climbing by the numbers is the way to stay on pace. When I get above 40 steps, I quit counting because I can hike steadily, without rest breaks, beyond that.
Climbing by the numbers gives you a psychological boost, because it breaks down an overwhelming task into palatable bites. And physiologically it makes sense, because the rest breaks provide just enough recovery to complete the next set of steps. It’s the same principle endurance athletes apply in interval training.
ALONG WITH PACING, hydration and nutrition contribute to mountain endurance. Ultra-trail runners and ironman triathletes follow the general guideline of drinking at the rate of sweat loss, and that’s good advice for mountain hunters exerting themselves for long periods.
No one can prescribe a precise drinking rate, because it depends on exertion level. Let’s just say you have to stay well hydrated to maintain energy. As soon as dehydration hits you’re going to fade, so you have to carry water and drink consistently. If you carry a bottle in your pack, you might not stop to get it out, and pretty soon you’ve gone an hour without drinking. Too late. For that reason, I recommend carrying a water bladder in your pack with a tube so you can sip every few minutes without stopping.
Fueling counts, too. The body stores enough carbohydrates for up to two hours of exercise, so you don’t need to worry much about eating on short climbs. But for longer treks, say packing meat or hunting up and down ridges all day, eating can be vital. Nutrition guides for endurance athletes recommend consuming roughly 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. To meet that level, carry energy bars, sports drinks, and similar high-energy foods, and eat consistently throughout the day.
FINALLY, USE YOUR HEAD in gauging your abilities. Hunting with the late Roy Roth, I was amazed at what he could carry. As a matter of routine, he would put two boned-out deer — about 65 pounds apiece — plus some camp gear, placing his loads between 150 and 200 pounds. He seemed to handle such loads with ease, but most of us mortals cannot do that. We have to be realistic.
In Alaska, I killed my first moose nearly two miles from camp, all uphill. My partner was still busy hunting, so I packed all but one load of the meat myself. To do that, I broke the bull down into manageable loads of 50 to 60 pounds apiece — 12 loads in all — and over the next three days made four roundtrips per day. In doing that, I adjusted my step count from 10 to more than 40, depending on the immediate terrain.
Am I saying that was easy? No. Packing a moose is never easy. But, then again, it’s not all that bad either, as long as you do it by the numbers.