Editor's Note: W.L. Gore & Associates teamed up with Capitol Peak Outfitters, Sitka Gear, Freedom Hunters, and Cabela's to give two deserving hunters an unforgettable elk hunt in Colorado, called "Hunt with Heroes." Two lucky hunters were chosen from among hundreds of entrants who submitted essays about their service to their country and community, and their passion for hunting. Warrant Officer Ron Warren was one of the winners. This account is part one of three, as told by writer and photographer Alex Tenenbaum... (See part two here, part three here)
The phone was ringing. Ron picked up and a woman's voice said he'd won some elk hunt in Colorado, said he'd be flown from Fort Rucker to Aspen, said he'd ride horseback into the wilderness after elk. She wanted his measurements, said a couple boxes full of Sitka Gear would arrive at his home. Oh, and he'd get a Cabela's gift card for whatever else he needed.
He almost hung up.
"I thought it was a scam. I was just waiting for her to say all you have to do is spend a week in some timeshare or something," Ron said.
But there were next steps and goodbyes and still no catch.
A few months before that call, his old commanding officer wrote an essay about Ron's service in action and his love for hunting and sent it to Gore. A few months before that, Ron sought counseling.
War had eaten at him. He enlisted 12 years ago, before the towers fell, before multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. On his last tour, his company got pinned in a village in Helmand, Hum-Vs disabled, got all shot up. He worked to stash his injured buddies under the Hum-Vs. Two American casualties, one of them a dad. Ron, like an uncle, had spent many stateside weekends tailgating at his buddy's son's t-ball games.
Those men were his family. And more of them would have been killed if not for the Apaches that came in heavy, laying down cover.
Uninjured, Ron flew home, received a Bronze Star for his efforts, and foundered. He lost weight, 40 pounds before meeting the counselor who helped with the terror and the loss, then helped him chart a new direction. He'd just started flight school to become an Apache pilot when the call came about winning the hunt.
"You know, this is the hunt of a lifetime," his flight officer said. "You should go."
Ron arrived at Capitol Peak Outfitters on an unseasonably warm Friday in October. Ranch trucks, a stockyard, men in cowboy hats fitting horses with saddles, bridles, bits. A shoer, dull thuds affixing new metal to old hoof.
Eight rocky miles in a Suburban and he was at Elk Camp, altitude 10,000 feet.
"How comfortable are you on a horse?" John Howe asked at dinner. Howe owns Capitol Peak Outfitters and knows the country better than all but its maker. He's ranched and ridden bulls and broke horses and his exterior is tough as saddle leather. Ron liked him immediately. "Cause we're ridin' up over that mountain in the morning."
Guides readied the horses by lanternlight and Ron and Howe mounted up and pushed into the timbers. The camp's light faded like an old memory as hooves rattled against dirt and rock and root. A steep trail, thick woods, timberline. Horsehair bunched into sweaty rivulets despite the night's cold.
Orion loomed overhead, the great hunter in the sky. Above timberline, they rode high in there saddles, silhouettes swimming in a flicker-filled sky. Horseshoes shot sparks against the talus, then cut switchbacks through blown and crusty snow. Below their traverse the earth fell away and the stars out on the horizon shined up at the horses' hooves and the horses looked out wildly over the void as if to step off, as if to leave the earth and drift among constellations. Ptarmigans flitted past and cawed at ear level and though the horses did not spook the hunters were fully awake.
The men and their horses crested Hell Roaring Divide at over 12,000 feet, plunging their bodies into some electric pulsing artery of the jetstream. Ahead, a gentler country of stub grass rippled down into pines and down into a canyon where the night's darkness held like the last water in a draining tub. Ron and Howe put their horses in a slot in the rocks and sat out in the wind. In the glass of their binoculars they found the canyon walls below and on the far wall 80 head of elk. Perhaps 1,200 yards by crow, but a two miles by horse, and the elk would soon hide in the timbers.
They rode the rim north, dismounted, slipped into the wood, the sun rising warm on their faces.
In the trees, the legs of elk. Ears. Rump patches. Maybe 60 yards. A dozen cows gathered around one bull. A short bugle. Ron jacked one into the chamber as Howe wove like a shuttle and string between pines to the edge of an opening. Binos up, then down. A wide-eyed look and a mute signal to move in.
Ron crept through the trees toward Howe's vantage, but dark eyes made him through the timber and then what sounded like a rockslide. The elk were gone.
"Oh my God that was awesome!" Ron said.
Howe led the way through other pine stands and clearings and not entirely by accident to a lone bull feeding across the hillside. He whistled a cow call and the bull stopped dead, half obscured by trees. His horns were tall and dark and heavy, white at the tips. Ron moved out into the open for a clear shot. The bull turned to face him head on. 140 yards.
"Shoot the middle of his chest, right where the coat changes color," Howe whispered. The bull cocked his head like a confused dog. The rifle stock made Ron's cheek and too soon a thunder clap. The bull unhit stood as still as the mountain beneath him, as though he were sculpted from the same ancient earth. Ron ripped open the bolt and rocketed in another round and lifted the gun. The white peaks and the dark pines and the gradient sky stood breathless. The elk was gone.
"Well, you can't blame the guide," he said. "Practically tied the bull to a tree for me."
The subsequent days were warm and cloudless with little more than rumor of elk. They canvassed glacial valleys, plunging cirques, rock-strewn ridges, expansive bowls, aspen stands, peaks, creek bottoms. Under the grass and the trees and the snow, the earth was all red flanges and spires, great pinches of unfired and crumbling clay. Ron grew saddlesore.
On day four of the five-day hunt, the snow began to fall. It did strange things to the horses. Another hunter out with another Capitol Peak guide had his horse come untied. It arrived at camp sudden and alone, steaming with sweat that looked like shaving cream, saddle on its belly, saddlebags and blankets gone. The runaway dried in the cold, got brushed, watered, fed. And as sudden and unexpected as the horse's appearance, so came another.
A pair of hunting buddies from Pennsylvania had taken a young 4-point Mule deer, and their guide Dewey packed it proudly into camp.
The next day, 4 a.m. came in a thick, wet coat of snow.
"Be ready, guys," Howe said. "The elk have to eat to keep warm, which means they'll move to find food. We'll cut tracks. When we do, things are going to happen very, very fast."
The temperature was dropping, no wind, air dry and paper thin. Overcast, light snow, dark. Ron and Howe rode out for their final day. The on-off buzz of their LED headlamps made the tiny snowflakes appear like straight, dotted lines, like perforations. Tear here.
The sun did not rise. Rather, light filtered in through aspen trunks like a fog from the east.
They rode the morning, Mule deer does peering out between aspens, Mule deer tracks, nothing of elk. The temperature continued to dive and at midday they stopped beneath a lone pine to build a fire.
Warm and impatient, they rode on, covering more miles in one day than the sum of all previous days until the woods began loosing light.
"That's elk," Howe said, pushing his horse back and forth over the darkening ground, considering the holes in the snow as though they contained the world and there were nothing worth considering aside from them. He sighed. "It's a cow."
They rode back to camp in the dark, breaking the silence that is hunting with stories and ribbing and hankering aloud for dinner and for beer.
"I have never in my life ridden that many miles in fresh snow and not cut track on a whole pile of elk. I don't get it," Howe said.
They made the lanternlight of camp and the warmth of the mess tent. Chicken fried steaks, potatoes, gravy, cheap beer, Jack Daniels mixed with Coke and Jack Daniels straight. The fire blazed outside in the snow, and the tent filled the aromas of meat and oil and joyful voices elevated by drink.
At a quiet moment Howe said, "Really wish I could have got you an elk."
Ron laughed. "Are you kidding? If I'd just took a few seconds to set the shot the first day, I'd have had him and you wouldn't have had to work so hard."
"I got to ride five days in this country. Don't apologize. I'm apologizing. I'm sorry I missed that shot."
They drank and told tales of bull riding and horses and hunting and war, and you could tell Ron would make his way back there one day. And it wouldn't be for the elk he missed but for the friend he'd made.