The Ptarmigan Summit
February 13, 2018
Backpacking at 12,000 feet in western Colorado for elusive white mountain birds
We were at the mountain's peak â€“ 12,400 feet. A cold fall wind whipped across my face and roared against my body as I fought fatigue, and the muscles of my legs screamed with the wind. Hundreds of miles of mountains and dense forest blanketed the landscape in front of me.
Slowly hiking the mountainside, I studied every rock in an attempt to separate snow from camouflaged ptarmigan. Libby, my friend's five-month old German shorthaired pointer, ran below me; and my Lab, Lincoln, covered the territory out front.
Libby was working at a fast trot when she came to a complete stop and went into a hard point. Body tense, the young pointer stared down the mountain, eyes locked on a small rock outcropping.
I slowly made my way to her, and loose rock skittered down the mountainside with my every step. I soon spotted what she had smelled. The white head of a ptarmigan appeared from below the outcropping. Libby lunged and a covey exploded like cotton in the wind.
Illinois Elevation: 650 feet
Brian and Steve, my upland bird-hunting buddies, and I had vowed to plan an epic hunting adventure every year. After throwing around ideas â€“ Hell's Canyon for chukar, the Boundary Waters for grouse, Michigan's Upper Peninsula for woodcock â€“ a campfire dare quickly turned into reality.
"We could try a true backcountry challenge â€¦ ptarmigan in Colorado," Brian had texted to Steve and me. "Chasing ghosts above 12,000 feet."
He meant white-tailed ptarmigan. The three species of ptarmigan are mostly known to inhabit Alaska and Canada, where residents can often walk out the backdoor and come home with a limit. In the Lower 48 we aren't that fortunate.
One of the few creatures that live on alpine mountaintops almost their whole life, the white-tailed ptarmigan is the smallest bird in the grouse family. Its plumage is seasonal, a beautiful white in the winter and a grayish brown in the summer â€“ both of which offer a natural camouflage for its environment of rock- and snow-covered mountainsides. Known for their white-feather covered talons and rounded tail, ptarmigan offer sportsmen willing to climb for them a rewarding hunt.
This pursuit wouldn't be easy â€“ it would be a true test of mental and physical capabilities. We would need to hike deep into the wilderness, carrying packs of 30-plus pounds of essential survival gear for a multiday hunt. But that wasn't the hard part â€“ hiking to elevations upwards of 12,000 feet was.
At that height, the air thins and breathing is difficult. Altitude sickness often kicks in, making your appetite disappear, your body dehydrated and your head feel like a punching bag. Not to mention the risk of high-altitude pulmonary edema, a condition that causes otherwise healthy mountaineers to develop fluid in the lungs. If not caught in time, with the afflicted returning to lower elevations, the condition can be fatal.
The physical nature of the hunt aside, the likelihood of finding a covey was low. Although the range of white-tailed ptarmigan stretches into western Colorado, their natural habitat is so far from civilization that scouting reports on sightings of the birds were slim. Knowing exactly where to hunt them was the problem along with locating birds in a vast expanse before exertion takes its toll.
It was a shot in the dark. Using Google Earth and onXmaps to scout terrain, we decided to hunt a mountain outside Durango, Colorado, in the San Juan National Forest. Risks and challenges be damned, a date for early October was set.
Basecamp Elevation: 10,700 feet
The engine growled as my foot pressed down on the gas pedal, coaxing my SUV over the loose stones and exposed bedrock of the hairpin switchbacks that would take me over 10,000 feet up a mountain to rendezvous with my friends. Daring to go no more than five miles per hour or risk shearing an axle, shredding a tire or worse, 10 miles had turned into two hours.
"They're calling this a 'road,'" Brian had warned me before I started the ascent. "Do not try to drive this at night. And don't freak out. Just take it slow."
Tilting hard left as the tires rolled over a particularly large stone, the SUV jolted right and back to even ground, rocking me in my seat. Glancing in the rearview mirror, I could see Lincoln anxiously staring out the window, ears perked, anticipating the adventure that was coming. The road flattened out, the 4Runner settled and the densely packed trees gave way to lush green basins.
Welcomed by the sight of my companions â€“ and the wagging tails of Brian's Lab and Llewellin setter and Steve's two GSPs â€“ we spent the first night in basecamp at 10,700 feet, celebrating the start of our hunt with grilled blue grouse, baked apple pie, a glowing fire and a star-filled canopy.
Spike Camp Elevation: 11,500 feet
In the morning, the comforts of my SUV's rooftop tent were traded for a pack filled with sleeping bag and pad, lightweight tent, shotgun shells, JetBoil stove, dehydrated food for three days, and two liters of water. Keeping my pack light was of the utmost importance to reduce wear and tear on my body as we hiked to higher elevations. To help reduce the weight on my back, Lincoln donned his own pack filled with kibble and water.
With our dogs leading the way, we hiked through lush pine trees and kept our ears open for the flush of blue grouse. Our topo map studies prior to the hunt had shown that as we headed to higher elevations, the thick forests would thin, leaving us with rock-covered mountain peaks. Finding a water resource and a flat, sheltered location to set spike camp would be the first order of business.
The foreign scents of musky elk, bear droppings, mountain birds and sweet pine had Lincoln's nose pressed hard to ground in wonder. His gray body flashed behind the trees as a ghostly apparition, intermittently returning to my side before being overtaken by curiosity, and off again he'd go. Slowly, the trees fell behind us, opening to a wide valley and exposing what we had been hiking toward: steep peaks and prime ptarmigan country.
As we made our way across the valley, the sounds of four legs splashing through water could be heard over the blowing wind â€“ the Labs had found water for us. The valley would prove to be the perfect location for spike camp. We unloaded gear, set tents, loaded shotguns and headed for the treacherous mountainsides.
Summit Elevation: 12,400 feet
The muscles of my young Lab flexed as he bounded upward, his athleticism showing as he traversed the sharp rocks with ease, his nose to the ground. I trekked close behind my flusher, all the while carefully navigating the loose rocks. A slip would send me tumbling down the mountain.
Flat surfaces were gone. My thighs and calves burned from the constant climbing as we angled upward. To conserve his energy, I directed Lincoln to continue forward and higher rather than losing elevation by following his nose and backtracking. My eyes flashed between rocks searching for movement. We still weren't high enough.
Lincoln crested the saddle and disappeared. The thin, cold air froze my lungs as I reached the top of the ridge and my body was exposed to the elements. Spread out in front of me were hundreds of miles of untouched wilderness â€“ and a treacherous mountain peak that wasn't visible from the valley below. This mountainside was dangerously steep with a deadly sheer drop-off and loose stone plagued its surface.
"The birds are going to be up there!" Brian yelled over the wind.
I stared uneasily at the mountain. The crest stood ominously against the sky. Fear crept into my mind and sent a cold chill down my spine. The dogs ran toward the peak, following the scent on the wind. If ptarmigan were on this mountain, they were up there â€“ another 400 feet above us.
Following my young Lab, we headed for the summit. The mountainside angled steeply, and at 12,400 feet, spots of ice and snow covered portions of the sharp rock. Slowly and meticulously I stepped along the loose stones, pushing my body against the cold, roaring wind. The clatter of shifting rock sounded as the dogs covered the territory around me.
Steve and I walked closely, carefully following our dogs, keeping them far from the edge of the cliff. Brian had climbed his way to the flat peak of the summit, the white fur of his setter flashing against the blue sky as she circled in front of him.
Then it happened. Lincoln trotted 30 yards in front of me, nose running between rocks, and Libby, the five-month-old GSP, strolled casually just below me, unsure of what we were doing on this dangerous mountain. Then suddenly she stopped, one paw raised, tail straight as a board. Her eyes were locked on a rock outcropping 10 yards below her.
"That looks like a pretty serious point, Kali!" Steve yelled. Surely, I thought, this young, inexperienced bird dog was on a false scent. The older dogs had already passed this part of the mountain.
Carefully, I made my way down to her, loose rock slipping under my feet. And then I saw what little Libby had smelled. A white head of a ptarmigan peeked from under the rock outcropping. My eyes widened in shock and the word "Ptarm!" sputtered from my mouth as I raised my Citori. Libby lunged, and the covey exploded.
Three shots rang out, and three birds fell. Our whoops of excitement echoed across the granite as our dogs jumped into action, racing for the falling birds. Lincoln trotted to me, placing a snow-white ptarmigan in my hand, tail wagging in excitement.
Watching the birds soar over the summit, we continued the chase, shots echoing across the mountain range, and two more of the elusive birds fell.
That night we dined on ptarmigan grilled on a flat rock over an open flame and savored the taste of accomplishment. The sun had not yet set before we retreated to our tents in complete exhaustion.
No longer fueled by adrenaline, every muscle in my body ached. Lincoln lay next to me, licking his paws. I ran my hand over his thick fur, and he paused to look up at me â€“ then back to work.
The mountain awaits worn feet at sunrise.