by T. Duren Jones
I heard some strange sounds, distant and muted by the forest. Noises play funny tricks on you in the wilderness.
Rounding a turn on the trail, I saw them. The two stood side-by-side, frantically looking to and fro. They had halted when they saw me appear over the top of a hill. If they retreated, they would become further separated from the others near the ridge. Fear gripped them.
Before dawn, I left the relative comfort of my sleeping bag at my trailhead campsite to “bag” Wetterhorn Peak. Wetterhorn (14,015 ft.) is named after a mountain rising above Grindelwald in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps. This may be a bit of useless trivia, but I simply like saying “Grindelwald.” I don’t speak Bernese, but as I understand it, Wetterhorn means “weather peak,” and that day I sure found out why.
I looked out over a large green expanse and saw, not dozens, but hundreds, maybe over a thousand of them.
The peaks here are very rugged and remote—the perfect place, if tragedy struck, to have your fallen, broken or lightning-charred carcass lie undetected for centuries.
It was still dark as I headed up the trail to the base of my weather mountain. After an hour, I was able to put away my headlamp, as the rising sun began to softly illuminate an overcast sky. This much cloud cover was unusual so early in the day. But the San Juans were notorious for quick-moving cold fronts and low-pressure systems bringing in nasty weather. Sensible hikers would have turned back at this point, exercising good judgment. Naturally, I pressed on.
I double-checked my map and compass and continued my gradual ascent toward a high basin. After crossing over the rushing Matterhorn Creek, I heard some strange sounds, distant and muted by the forest.
Noises play funny tricks on you in the wilderness, sometimes echoing down long canyons, sometimes traveling great distances in the thin air and carried by the wind, often exaggerated by the surrounding silence.
I couldn’t identify the noise. At first it sounded like people talking, a distant conversation; then the sound reminded me of mooing cows. Soon, it sounded a little similar to cats meowing or babies crying. It seemed like something I’d heard before. My mind may have still been a little foggy from the mostly sleepless night, tossing and turning, trying to find that one spot on the ground that wasn’t a rock.
An unsettling thought hit me. Could it be coyotes howling? Coyotes were usually solitary hunters, but I had once seen them pack hunting in Wyoming. They had run as a group, a hundred yards across a meadow, hot on the tail(s) of two deer that had bolted past me moments before.
There are no wolves in the state of Colorado anymore, except in reserves and zoos. At least not that we know of. Still, my imagination ran wild. The thought of being drawn and quartered by a wolf pack was unsettling, to say the least (all while I screamed, “There are no wolves in Colorado!”).
The sounds faded in and out. And they were getting closer. I chose to hike on. The image of me being sliced and diced by huge, slimy fangs apparently was not enough of a deterrent. I know, it’s at this point, that the audience in the theater is yelling at the screen, “No, don’t, go back!”
I was pleased as I looked up through the evergreens to see the gray clouds beginning to break up, exposing an iconic, high-country, cobalt-blue sky. By the time I broke the tree line, the sun was out, but the wind had picked up significantly. As I rounded one more turn, I identified the sound.
What I had heard was the bleating of many sheep. I recalled how several years before, I had come upon a herd of domestic range sheep in a dense forest. The noise they make—the cacophony of sound—is unbelievable.
I looked out over a large green expanse and saw, not dozens, but hundreds, maybe over a thousand of them. They were meandering down from an even higher basin and around the base of a tall, cliffy rock formation. The herd was moving slowly and in unison as a giant mass, spilling out into a meadow. Some briefly paused and grazed on the lush grass and wildflowers.
I hadn’t seen him at first, because his white coat blended in with the sheep. A large dog was leading them. He was taking them down to Matterhorn Creek to drink and rest. The stream ran more slowly here, even pooling up at spots, due to the more even terrain in the basin. The sheep seemed oblivious to my presence, but the sheep dog never took his eyes off me. I sat down to delight in this beautiful pastoral scene and have a quick energy snack. There was surely sermon material here for some creative minister.
I could have become lost in this scene, but I did have a mountain to climb. I rose, stretched, and shook off the morning chill. The herd was moving too, in search of food in another higher part of the basin.
As I continued on and gained real elevation, the pleasant hike turned into a more difficult Class 3 (using hands and feet, but still nontechnical) climb on exposed and loose rock. A cold wind began to blow fiercely. I grabbed my fleece jacket, put on my gloves, and pulled my balaclava up around my face. Scrambling up ledgy rock gullies, I finally reached the tiny summit. Dark clouds began to collect like an angry mob around the peak. I knew I couldn’t stay long.
By the time I made it back down to the basin where I had seen the sheep, the herd had moved up to a higher meadow close to a saddle ridge. I came around a large hill and startled two sheep that had become separated from the others. They didn’t know what to do with my sudden appearance. They were trying to rejoin the safety of the herd, but I now blocked their way. They moved a couple of steps one direction, then back again. The sheep looked so lost, so pathetic in their fear and indecision, if not also a little sadly comical. They were truly “sheep without a shepherd.”
I moved on out of their way. The two sheep eventually made a big stumbling semicircle around me in an attempt to catch up with the herd. Bumping into each other in their hurry to escape, the two kept a wary eye on me the whole time and tripped over hidden stones in the grass. I couldn’t help but think, “Been there, done that!”
At times in my life I’ve had that feeling of being lost and indecisive. However, I’m able to find my way back, even if by stumbling in semicircles. I’m fairly independent, but I also enjoy the comfort of my herd. But, even more importantly, I need someone greater than myself to shepherd me home to green pastures.
Despite the sketchy weather and the scary noises, I had a great day. Hey, any day you survive being nearly torn to pieces by imaginary wild beasts is a good day.