It took a half hour to close the 240 yards to reach the majestic beast. Euphoric adrenaline was met with the daunting task of hiking the steep slope in front of us at 11,500 feet elevation. My lungs were quick to recognize that the air is thin at these heights.
Finally, we arrived at my first elk kill.
The journey for this one, though, dates much further back.
At the urging of his friend Len Palmatier, my dad bypassed all his own hunting rifles for his first elk hunt, and decided instead to take Len’s .300 Weatherby Magnum. In addition to being a friend of my dad’s for many years, Len also is one of the best rifle shots on the planet. A competitive distance shooter with a rifle, he’s forgotten more about ballistics than I’ll ever learn.
Len promised his rifle was a tack driver. It delivered, and dad shot his first elk on that hunt in 1996. He also fell in love with that rifle. He returned from the hunt asking Len, who helped steer many of my dad’s ballistic adventures, to find him a .300 Weatherby Magnum for his collection.
Settling on a familiar Remington Model 700 Classic that made up many in my dad’s collection, Len put a tedious level of effort customizing it into an absolute locked-in, tack-driving machine. Len still argues this .300 Weatherby Magnum throws a superior bullet to the gun he’d originally loaned my dad to take with him. This rifle was ready to serve as the big game rifle of choice for any of my dad’s future elk excursions. I dreamed of one day joining him for those hunts.
Only he never made it west again.
While several years passed where he could have made the trip back to the Rocky Mountains for elk, he put off those trips. He died in 2014 without the rifle ever making the trip.
With several rifles of my own to consider, there was no question which gun would be on the mountains with me when I made my first quest for an elk.
My Colorado hunt was several years in the making. Following a thorough review of locations and awaiting the non-resident draw for the first rifle season, I was on my way.
The five-day season leaves little time for rest. My first two days were filled with walking, listening, hiking and close calls. I was in decent shape but some of the steep elevation climbs and an accelerated heart rate impacted by elevation, adrenaline, and pace all made me wish I was readier than I was for these Rocky Mountains.
There were close calls over the first two days. Bull elk bugling within 50 or 60 yards failed to present themselves in thick terrain. Several small bulls, amidst the normal education process nature provides them, came well within range. Those young bulls clearly hadn’t graduated adolescence to learn “not all sounds in nature are in fact the animals that they’re imitating.”
It was quickly the third day of the season. We opted to trade the flatter foothill meadows for the high-elevation terrain to start this morning.
Mikey, my Sherpa on the 60,000 acres that made up the ranch I was hunting all week, navigated a nearly hour-long drive up the mountains on a Polaris. We parked, then hiked through the mountains another hour in the dark to an elevation exceeding 10,000 ft. There it became daylight.
We could see elk feeding up the mountainside, taking advantage of unseasonable green grass still growing along the avalanche slides that make the mountain look like a deserted ski resort. One bull, a good looking 5×5, caught my attention. We were still too far away for a shot and decided to hike closer.Once we closed the distance to 300 yards, the elk fed his way just out of the opening and into woods that made keeping tabs on him a tall task. Another close call.
We moved to another area on the mountain where we could watch over the direction the bull was seemingly headed. Over the next two hours, small bulls and cows meandered through the openings of the mountain. The sun was continuing its trek through the sky, a welcomed sight for a guide and his underdressed hunter sitting still on the mountainside in the low 20s temperatures. Elk bugles warmed the spirt, coming from both the east and west of where we were settled.
At the very top of the mountain, we could see elk moving to the east, bypassing the openings of the slides. We opted to move down the mountain where we could get a better view of the direction they were headed. We settled into another spot and continued waiting. We had just agreed that we might just stay on the mountain all day. Something felt right.
Bugling continued and seemingly was starting to get closer. I convinced myself more than once that a bull was about to step into the opening at any moment. The adrenaline rush was spectacular. Cows with calves, and one small bull hit the opening. The deep growls from other bulls continued.
While watching a buck mule deer navigating a slide to the eastern side of the mountain, Mikey saw an elk.
“I think it’s one of those cows,” he said.
I needed only my eyes to tell that it was surely no cow. I quickly shouldered the scope-topped .300 Weatherby, my dad’s gun, to realize it was the same bull from the first part of the morning. He was standing on a rock some 240 yards away.
The first two days of the hunt proved how quickly you need to decide and make a shot on these bull elk. The opportunities come quickly. They leave even quicker.
Mikey and I didn’t say a word. I settled the crosshairs onto the bull and squeezed the trigger.
The bull fell immediately. The 180-grain bullet is like a sledge hammer at these speeds. The steep terrain could have easily forced him to roll down the mountain.A small deadfall caught his antlers and he settled right where he fell off the rock.
Following a moment of jubilation for Mikey and me, we started the climb to the bull elk. Already holding a great deal of respect for the animals we’d been chasing, it’s hard not to marvel at the ability of 800 lb. animals to traverse these mountains. They make it look so easy.
The trek off the mountain was grueling. It also ranks among the most exhilarating efforts in nearly 30 years of hunting.
After quartering the elk, it took nearly four hours just to get to a location we could get the Polaris.
Nearly six hours after I pulled the trigger, we made it back to camp!
The entire experience that day was remarkable. There was exhaustion, warmth, freezing hands, sleepiness, a heartbeat of 140 beats per minute, snow-capped mountains, laughs, cussing, back-slapping and smiles.
There also were a few tears.
After getting the elk quarters cleaned and hanging in the meat cooler, I walked into my cabin to change clothes. I stopped at the nail in the corner and hung up dad’s rifle. I stepped back and took in the moment.I was tired, and the moment got me. A happy tear or two rolled down my cheek. The rifle and I both waited a long time to chase elk in these mountains and I wished my dad was there to help us both celebrate.
I look forward to returning to those Rocky Mountains again someday. This journey, though, was complete – for me and the gun.