Mountain Lions are Terrifying

Thunder cracked behind the mountain peaks. We checked the radar on our phone.

“It looks like it’s mostly rain. The mountains will probably break up any storm before it gets here,” we believed our non-expert analysis of the weather because that analysis would let us continue our hike to the top. We had been working from home in Crested Butte, Colorado earlier in the day and got a late start to our afternoon hike. It was cool and cloudy, which seemed like decent conditions for a brief hike from 9,000 to 12,000 vertical.

Above the ski resort, the dark green Aspen leaves blew and rustled showing the light green color on the underneath of the leaves. The trees’ glowing white trunks stood tall. We continued on the long path of switchbacks that were slowly getting us towards the top. As we got higher, the scenery changed from dusty trails through the light breezy Aspens to the darker paths of cushy pine needle floors created by the evergreen trees. The ski lifts had stopped and the workers seemed to have already gone down the mountain for the evening. No hikers were behind us and neither was anyone making their way back down.

“Do you have a rain jacket?”

“No,” I responded, “I’m ok though, we aren’t completely out in the wilderness.”

We jogged an open, rocky space on the trail to get to the tree area that eased the falling raindrops. At the entrance of the piney protection area, I spotted a red and white sign.

…Raise your arms, open your jacket, make noise. Mountain bikers should put their bikes between themselves and the animal.…mountain lions are most active at dawn and dusk…incidents are rare…

Incidents are rare, yet there are enough to provide a warning?

My friend was coming up to to the forest opening. Catching her breath, she didn’t notice the sign.

“Uhhh,” I muttered.

“What? Why did you stop?” she asked.

“You might want to read the sign,” I said and motioned to the red and white warning that we were entering a mountain lion area. She read it and looked at me with wide eyes.

“We gotta make noise,” she said as we both agreed to keep hiking. She grabbed a rock and a stick. I did the same.

“I think I have music on my phone…” I said.

“Play it!” she encouraged, not knowing that I only had four songs my phone had randomly downloaded to be available without wifi.

Hells Bells by AC/DC began to play and set the mood for our travels through the mountain lion area. We trekked upward, a bit concerned by the vacant hiking trail that left us as prime prey to any hungry beast.

I gained my knowledge of mountain lions on a trip to the hiking areas outside of Seattle a few years earlier. On the day my plane landed for that trip, two mountain bikers were attacked with pretty horrendous results. I didn’t understand how a panther-like creature could do that much damage. That was when I looked up how big mountain lions were. In some cases, they were enormous, and in others, they were extra large, 140 pound cats, on the prowl. That was the first time I lost my innocence and realized, mountain lions are terrifying.

Mountain lion is a cat larger than man holding it after a hunt.

On that Seattle trip, I read about mountain lion behaviors. Mountain lions seemed to be more dangerous than the average wilderness creature. Having surfed, I knew that a normal shark usually accidentally strikes a person surfing. Whereas, a mountain lion could be stalking you the entire hike, waiting for the prime moment to pounce and drag you to its den. Even if you scare it off once, it might come back to try another attack. That is what happened to the pair outside of Seattle. A shark usually doesn’t drag you down to its underwater cave…

They are rare through, we thought about the mountain lion. But not rare enough to not deserve a warning sign.

We walked with our sticks and made noise. The music went from AC/DC to Mac Dre before continuing to the two Lana Del Rey songs that probably wouldn’t instill fear in a large cat. Thunder got louder and the drops of rain quickened and became larger.

Another sign appeared as we exited the mountain lion’s layer. I had only seen one animal on our hike and it was a nice beefy deer that galloped away with our footsteps.

“We live in mountain lion habitat, and deer are the favorite food of them,” said one of Colorado Parks and Wildlife public information officers in an article addressing mountain lion concerns. This interview was published prior to increased sightings in months following.

Great.

As the wind picked up, we reach an area where multiple trails merged. It was summer and the mountain biking trails hit the service road as well as our upward hiking path. The open area near the ski lift poles gave us a chance to regroup. We looked up at the dark clouds pouring over the mountain. With sticks and spare rocks in hand, we decided:

“We should probably go down.”

We were 4 miles into our 5 mile hike. The views were nice, but it wasn’t the peak. We grudgingly took the option that would most likely prevent us from being in the local news as unprepared, out of town hikers, found in poor condition…or eaten by a mountain lion…the next morning.

We slid down a few mountain bike trails, thin with mountain bike tire tracks as well as wet and slippery from the rain. These trails weren’t supposed to be used by hikers, but no one was on the mountain to stop us and we weren’t inclined to return back through the lion lair.

We made a few errors in our descent, taking the cross-mountain service road a little too long as we continued to make noise to scare away any cats who felt like stalking us in the rain. Once the lodge was in sight, we knew we could cut through whatever was needed to get down before it got too cold or dark. I turned off my limited playlist and we made it down a bit disappointed.

“Tomorrow.”

“Yes. Tomorrow.”

“No drinking tonight.”

“A little wine?”

“Ok, well yeah.”

“”

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Caroline Walsh

Caroline Walsh

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Former CIA Analyst and Coastie. PhD Student. Author of Fairly Smooth Operator: My life occasionally at the tip of the spear, available now!