I’ve grown to love this mountain over the last few years of my life
Many people might look at it and scoff sighting the nearby mountains as much more accessible, friendly, and having more resources for recreation enjoyment.
But this love hasn’t been born from a recreational experience per say. It is much like the love that you develop for an old, beater of a vehicle. A love that didn’t start because it was shiny and new and the car of your dreams. But because it left you stranded the very day you brought it home. Or because you’ve spent more money than it was worth and now can’t afford to sell it because you have so much time, energy, and tears invested into it.
Without writing a novel to explain why I feel this way about this mountain, I will keep my explanation short: I love this mountain because it has beaten me down and then rewarded me openly. I have had a chance to see some of the most remote beauties it holds as I’ve battled it over the years.
I will also testify that it holds some of the most amazing night skies that your eyes will ever behold. I learned this on a crisp morning, around 1am, as our party was about a third of the way into the 7 mile hike back to camp after another miserable, and yet rewarding, day. I was leading the pack as my headlamp was the brightest. I couldn’t help but continually looking up to see the brilliant heavens above me through the shimmering mist of my headlamp reflecting off my breath.
The Dutton holds some dear memories to me and this year I was able to get a tag to hunt elk there. I have been so busy with work, community, and family events that I haven’t had the chance to get out. I realized that this past weekend would be my last chance so it was now or never and my freezer is getting alarmingly low. My brother-in-law is typically my hunting buddy and we tried to find a time we could both go. But there were just too many conflicts.
So here comes the part where I tell you never to do something I’m about to do: I decided that I was going to go on my own. I want you to know that I strongly advise against this. I don’t recommend it at all and never will. I do it too often and it is a choice I make against my better judgment. But I do make it because I really just enjoy being alone sometimes. And more than enjoy, I actually think I need it!
But, because I knew I would be going alone, I took special precautions:
First – I told more than one person where I was going, what my tentative travel plans were, and what my tentative timeline was going to be. And while I was there I stuck to that plan.
Second – There was no snow. Now this was a big one! It has been a very dry winter. This was a big reason why I decided to go. Snow can cause so many problems, especially if I did end up having to spend the night, so not having snow lowered the risk significantly. I knew I could build fires, travel would be easier, more people would be in that area because it was still accessible, etc.
Third – I made sure that I had my GPS with spare batteries, that I had my phone with a spare battery bank to charge from, that I had my headlamp, with spare batteries and that could be charged from the spare battery bank, that I had a good map, and that I studied that map before I went. Also, I kept an eye on my phone for a signal and checked in with my contacts letting them know where I was currently and how I was doing.
Fourth – I brought extras of everything. I mean an extra, even warmer, coat than what I needed, extra socks, extra food, extra water. I had the space in my Samurai and there was no reason not to.
Fifth – The basics. By the basics I mean the things I carry in my pack, all of the time, wherever I go. I’ll do a specific post just on this that you can see here called My Go Bag.
Sixth – I planned, and forced myself to stick to the plan, of not going far from main roads (and by main I mean the dirt roads that looked like a road versus two-track, four wheeler trails) and to not walk more than 1 mile from Sami. This was a hard one, but a safe one.
Seventh – I pulled Sami into the shop days before and checked over everything. Fluid levels, tires, bolts that are notorious for coming loose, etc. I just gave it a good once over to make sure everything was good as far as I could tell. I try to do this before every use.
So with all of these preparations made, I loaded Sami on the flat-bed trailer. Packed all I could in the vehicle so there was less to do in the morning, and went to bed.
5am came quickly and I was up, dressed, and eating a banana, Nutella, peanut butter boat: a slice of bread with CHUNKY, not smooth, peanut butter on one half and Nutella on the other. Slap your banana in the middle and wrap the bread around like a hotdog bun. I poured some milk in a Princess Sofia bottle with a sport lid I ‘borrowed’ from my daughter and headed out the door to hit the road.
I arrived at my unload spot just as the sky was turning orange to the east. Perfect timing. I unloaded and hit the road. My rifle sat in the passenger seat next to me with my camera even closer. I wasn’t sure what shot I’d need to take first but I wanted both close by, ready to go.
The landscape around be was getting brighter and brighter as I rattled closer and closer to the base of the mountain. I was criss-crossing a stream, that was frozen solid, and could already feel my internal sanity-driven battery bank being re-charged with every mile. It was quite chilly outside, but inside the cab of Sami I was toasty warm.
I came around a bend and down the hill below me I could see a small herd of mule deer. I immediately stopped, reached over, unzipped my camera bag, and pulled out my camera. They were a good 100 yards away, so I swapped lenses to my telephoto so I could get a better shot. I snapped off a few shots as they meandered out of the valley and over the next ridge. I sat in silence for just a bit, taking in my surroundings, but I had a lot of ground to cover so I fired Sami back up, shifted into first gear, and started off again.
The day continued like this as I worked my way around the base of the mountain slowly. I had decided today would be more about the adventure than about harvesting meat. I knew my chances were low as you count yourself lucky to find elk on the Dutton near a road. Typically our success was found far off the beaten path. So today was about the journey and what a journey I was having!
I had seen many, many deer, pheasants, and a few hawks. And that’s just the wildlife. The scenery was beautiful and the drive was glorious. My thoughts were able to wander, ponder, and explore freely with no radio and no one else around. Again, the only word I can think of to describe the feeling I get in moments like this is therapeutic.
I eventually turned onto the Cottonwood road. It would lead me up a draw, climbing in elevation constantly, and finally up on top of the mountain where we would reach about 10,000ft. In the past we have made two attempts at this road. But they have both been in the snow which made it impossible. So I was excited to see it through to it’s completion this time.
As I chugged along in no particular hurry I was amazed at how differently everything looked without snow. The immediate surroundings were almost unrecognizable. Only when I looked further at more prominent landmarks did my memory align with what my eyes saw.
The road was following along another frozen creek and I kept seeing glimpses of color on the ice. I finally decided to pull over and investigate further. There was a natural pull-out next to an old stump with some neat coloring. This would make a great spot for lunch.
I did a bit of photography, waiting on my knees almost fuzing to the cold ice, for the sun to peek through the clouds. I never did get the shot of the ice I had hoped for, but found that the coloration was the top of the ice melting and mixing with the soil on it’s bank. It would seep onto the frozen bed and re-freeze making for some colorful textures.
I set up my little burner and plopped my left over chimichanga from yesterdays lunch into the bowl to heat it up. I then set up and took a few pictures of the stump next to where I parked as lunch warmed on the hood of Sami. As I stood and ate, again, I couldn’t help but revel in the solitude and quiet of the valley.
Further up the road, a steeper climb began as the road started to switchback. I could tell I was nearing the top as the vistas began to open up over the trees. I marveled at how far I could see. I must admit that the should of the road was hit more than once as my attention was turned away from steering.
Finally I reached my destination. It was a peak finger that I had been on a few times before. Sami was parked, shot off, and my pack placed on my shoulders. I headed down the trail, walking through a bit of snow now, and out to where I could see the neighboring hillsides.
I knew I shouldn’t go far, but I couldn’t help but keep walking a little further so I could see the next vista. I scoured the neighboring hillsides with my binoculars. This is where we have found them before. But none were there to be seen.
With the short days, after looking at my watch, I decided I better head back and start working my way back towards my truck. My plan was to make it back before dark. But on my way back I found two trees that had been toppled over. Their roots twisting and turning as they reached into the air. Again, I couldn’t resist the coloration of the old and aged wood. So I stopped to snap off a few shots.
After warming up in Sami while I ate a few more snacks, reverse was engaged, and I began my decent back down the mountain side. I felt like I was doing okay on time, plus I planned to hit a couple of short-cuts on the way back different from the way I came in. So I stopped at an old sheep camp.
As soon as I opened the door to Sami a squirrel began chewing me out for invading it’s territory. I stared back as he threw his fit. He finally calmed down and just sat in the tree above me, watching my every move.
What I wanted to shoot was an old out-house, I’m assuming at least. I never did peek inside because I didn’t think the image of what I found would be very picturesque. But it was tucked neatly in the trees and the aged wood on the door contrasted with the white paint that was pealing on it’s walls. I especially liked the small diamond-shaped window on the side.
As I headed back to my ride home a beautiful western Blue Jay, or Steller’s Jay, flew over silently and landed on a branch. I worked my way around the trees, trying to get good close shot, but he continually evaded me flying just a bit further away. So rather than harass him anymore I tried to get what shots I could from a distance.
I continued my journey back to my truck, taking a paved section of road to speed things up. I finally turned onto my final leg. It was pretty much dusk so my hope was this would be a shortcut back to the truck.
Boy was I wrong!!!
If I were to rate roads from 1-10, with 1 being the worst and 10 being the best, this road would be a negative-3!!! It wasn’t technical or even scary. It was just miserable!!! It climbed up on top of the ridges and ran along in a line that would have been faster except that the road was pretty much consisted of jumbled rocks.
These rocks were anywhere in size from a golf ball up to a basketball. With the majority around the size of a softball. So this made for a bumpy, giggling, vibrating ride. And of course with Sami not being the tightest and newest of rigs, the bumpy, giggling, and vibrating made for an ear-torturing rattling that made me want to scream. On top of that I was getting concerned that it would literally rattle something apart and strand me in the middle of nowhere on a route that no-one wants to travel.
The worst part was that I would assume the views were spectacular up there. But because of the slow going it was now dark and I couldn’t even muffle the agony I was experiencing with that. I don’t even have a desire to go back and see what I missed. The road was that bad!
Well, I eventually made it back to my truck. Sami was loaded onto the trailer and strapped down tight. As I pulled away the road felt like glass and my big diesel motor sounded as quiet as a Prius.
It was well dark and I had to concentrate hard on the road, or more specifically, the sides of the road because that route holds a lot of deer. But as I made my way back home I reflected on the experience of the day.
My motivation to go back to that mountain was to harvest meat. I had spent the money on the tag and my family needed the meat. But even though I had not seen a single elk, the experience was worth every minute and every penny.
The Dutton had rewarded me again. It was consistent in its agony and gifted a reward, and that will definitely keep me coming back again and again.