Apex to Humbled; How I almost died.
This is a story I’ve told many times around the campfire and to friends, but never written it down until now. This is a big lengthy, but I hope those of you who do choose to read it, you enjoy it. You can find the short version at the very very bottom of the page for those of you who are too impatient and want me to just get to the damn point.
I am a photographer, and as any other landscape photographer will tell you, we do stupid things in an effort to get a photograph that many others have not, or are not willing to get. Most of the time this involves getting off the trail or just going somewhere when others know to stay away.
One summer afternoon I drove into Big Bend National Park in Texas, which is right on the border with Mexico in the little bowl to the west of the state for those who don’t know. Most people think of West Texas as this barren desert, and while there is a lot of flat sandy oil rich land out there, we also have some really nice mountain ranges. Big Bend is home to one of these ranges and I was set to be hiking for only a single day there so I wanted to take in as much as I could in the short time I had there.
When I arrived I was greeted by a park ranger who asked me what I was interested in, and that because it was the middle of the summer I would likely have most of the trails to myself. They have 2-3 million visitors a year, but most of those are in the winter months because of the blistering summer sun. The ranger gave me a trail he thought would be a good hike with views of all 5 of the major peaks in the park called the Lost Mines. Ohh, Lost Mines sounds awesome I thought to myself…
Lost Mines was absolutely awesome, and the ranger was right, there was absolutely zero people on the way up, no single person at the top, and it was the quietest I’ve ever heard nature. It was if I was wearing noise canceling headphones and all I could hear were the noises in my own head. Creepy and amazing all at the same time.
I loitered up there for a good 30-40 minutes by myself before making my way back down the 2.5 mile trail. I had seen the signs for wildlife on the way up, but I guess all the animals had taken shelter during the afternoon heat, because I hadn’t seen a single animal all day long up until this point.
At the bottom of the trail I was met by the recycling specialist for the park who was attempting to find some cell reception somewhere to make a call. National Parks don’t have any cell towers for obvious reasons, which makes it difficult when you actually do have to make an important call. I asked him where he would go if he wanted to try and catch a sunset in the park, to which his response was “The trail you are coming off of is a pretty great one for sunsets, but since you’ve already done that, have you considered hiking up Emory Peak? Its the highest point in the park, and you have the best views for miles around. You’ll have to be fast though. You’ve got less than three hours daylight, and its 5 miles to the top.”
I’m thinking to myself, I’m a runner, I’m in good shape. It will put me at 15 miles for the day, but its nothing I haven’t done before.
I rushed back to my car, quickly ate two energy bars, refilled my water containers, and headed up the trailhead at a pace that most would find uncomfortable. I had a mission. Get to the top of the mountain as quickly as possible so I have time to set up my shots for sunset. In my head this is a doable task.
About a mile into my hike as I’m climbing these low grad trail steps while watching my feet to make sure I don’t trip over some of the loose rocks I hear a loud crack to my right. My heart skips. I stop and look to my right to see the largest black bear I have ever encountered in the wild. I’ve seen a few from afar, but never this close, and never this unexpectedly. This bear with its back turned to me, with its head cocked looking over his shoulder just locks eyes with me and we both stand still for what seemed like forever. It was probably only a second or two. Both of us flinch and the bear takes off in his own direction while occasionally looking back at me in curiosity. My heart racing at this moment started to subside and the lactic acid production from the rush of adrenaline started filling in my legs, weighing them down as I continued on my mission to the top. You know the feeling I’m talking about I’m sure. It was at this point however, I started to think about the very real danger I was putting myself in on the way back down the mountain after the sun goes down. I could easily walk up on a family of bears in the dark and the situation could be less curiously friendly.
I tread on like any other photographer would do, and the rest of the hike was fairly uneventful up until I got to the top. Of course when I get there, this is no longer a hike, and turns into a climb to get to any real vantage point. I set most of my pack down and took up just the camera gear I needed to the top. At the very top was some radio equipment and a small radio tower that I guessed was a short wave frequency antenna. I still didn’t have any normal cell service here, and was just shown an emergency roaming badge on my phone.
By the time I got my camera and tripod out and set up, I had actually missed the setting of the sun, but I still had enough light to take a few photos. I even thought I might stay there and do some long exposures for a while of the stars, but luck was not on my side this night as a storm looked to be blowing in. I could see it moving across the sky in the distance, maybe 30 miles away or so, but I couldn’t tell how fast or which direction. I didn’t figure it would be smart to be standing at the highest point in a 100 mile radius next to a radio tower if that storm was in fact heading my direction.
I gathered my things and headed back down the mountain as quickly as I could while I still had some ambient light left, unfortunately forgetting that I hung my two nalgene bottles in the tree at the top in the process.
I lost the light after about 20 minutes and went to grab my headlamp, only to find out that it wasn’t working for some reason. No worries I thought, I always keep one of those flashlights that don’t need batteries in my backpack when I’m camping or hiking. Powered by Fap. You know the one I’m talking about. This light isn’t the greatest candle output, but it would be enough to get me down the mountain without tripping over anything.
So here is me, by myself, walking down this mountain shaking a light to keep it lit, with no water on me, and a Texas drought that had everything as dry as a bone. I was almost wishing that storm would move in at this point.
I made it about a mile down from the top when I got back into the main tree line and came around the first switchback on the trail. I raised my light up ahead on the trail when I heard a noise to see that I had walked up on the worst possible scenario I could have imagined.
I had just entered what I’m going to call the meal protection zone of a very large mountain lion, who had just slaughtered a white tail deer in the middle of the trail. Mountain lion, puma, panther, mountain cat, or whatever you want to call it, its just a fucking scary animal that has the full ability to eat you. Have you ever pissed off one of those cute kitties at home you post photos of on the internet? Remember when it scratched and bit you? Yeah, now imagine that at 150-170lbs and can leap almost 20ft in a single bound.
She is not happy I’m there, and its obvious that this is a very bad situation for me as she runs up the hill above my position. I can hear her, but I can’t see her, and I’m sure I look like easy prey from her position. I’m vigorously shaking this stupid light trying to spot her.
My heart rate has far surpassed my earlier experience with the bear, and my body feels like its not mine anymore. A funny thing happens when you realize you’ve left your normal life of sipping coffee, chatting with friends, and enjoying a nice sunset, and entered the animal kingdom, full of danger and mystery. Your apex status has been removed and you’re back in your rightful order in the food chain. You have to seriously consider your survival strategy. Do you fight? Do you flee?
I slowly backed my way back up the trail getting as far away from the meal zone as I could, while still being able to see it. It just so happened this is the only place since I had left the peak where I could get the roaming service on my phone.
I didn’t have the park service number on my so I called 911 emergency services to get them to let the park service know where I was and what was going on, and that I may in fact need assistance. This turned out to quite the ordeal on its own as I got disconnected eight or nine times before I got the confirmation they had an idea where I was and that park service was on its way to help. Quickly doing the math in my head, I knew it was going to be a minimum of 4 hours before I saw anyone. I still didn’t have any water, and I’m in someone else’s current hunting grounds. I didn’t feel confident about my situation, and I actually recorded on my phone a video of myself saying I love you to family, and explaining what possibly happened to me if they found my phone. I am not sure I still have that video, but even if I had it I’m not sure I’d ever post it.
Now that I had gotten in touch with them, it was time to make my move out of the area. I walked clutching my now extended tripod as my only defensive weapon should I be surprised. I had a knife, but it wasn’t likely big enough to make any difference. My thought was that I would make my way back up the trail about a quarter mile which would put me on a different side of the mountain based on the path of the trail. There I figured I should be able to wait out the situation.
On the hike back up I started to get a lesson on what the effects of a prolonged adrenal reaction can have on your senses. Since vision was limited by the darkness, it was almost as if I had a heightened sense of hearing and acute awareness of my surroundings that would normally have gone unnoticed in a normal scenario. I could hear almost every noise around me from the grass rustling in the breeze, to the bats flying around trying to catch the bugs attracted by my flashlight. I took surveys of all the rock formations in the area to find the best position to take cover and when I found it I sat down under the rock overhang and gathered as many baseball sized rocks as I could find.
For the next two hours I would sit there in silence, listening, and trying to calm my body which was still on heightened alert. Its hard to calm down when you know there is something out there that knows your presence and as a feline is notorious for being curious about prey. I went through all possible scenarios from this point forward as if I were playing a game of chess, trying to calculate what my next moves would be based off of any number of things that could happen.
With the slow comedown off of adrenaline and my lack of water for several hours now, my body was telling me I needed to do something to help myself and I should think about making my way down to try and at least meet the park rangers half way from wherever they were at. They were still two hours away by my estimate, and I just didn’t want to sit there any longer and think about cougars, bats, and bears oh my.
I started to gather my things off the ground when out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of just one of those scenarios I was playing through in my mind. She had snuck up on me in the most silent of ways by directly walking on the sandy and rocky trail and staying out of the grass. She was 6 feet from me. I could almost touch her it seemed as she peered at me with her nose to the ground and her eyes looking up. It was almost beautiful, but the terrifying nature soon griped me and my body felt that heavy feeling again as my kidneys pumped out adrenaline once more.
I picked up one of my rocks in one hand and my tripod in the other and began to scream loudly at her in an effort to get her to retreat. She let out what I can only describe as a hissing noise as cougars don’t have any roaring abilities I found out later. She was obviously caught by surprise that I was putting up an aggressive front, and I threw the rock in my hand at her. This sent her to the cliff above me and me searching for my camera bag that was on the ground behind me. I did not want to be under her for any reason, so as I swiftly grabbed the bag, I backed up down the trail while continuing to use what was left of my now ravaged vocal cords.
She followed me above the trail as I took step after step backward down the trail slowly to almost the location where I ran into her the first time. At this point I decided the quicker I started moving the better and I turned around and continued to walk, but at a much faster pace. As I walked by the original kill, there wasn’t much left of the white tail that had fallen prey. I thought to myself what it must have felt like from the deer’s perspective before it was caught. I thought about what was going through the cougars mind, how hungry do you have to be as a cat to eat an entire deer, and are you seriously still hungry enough for an encore meal?
I could hear that she had shifted from above me across the trail to below me, but I kept moving with the hopes that the trail didn’t actually cross over below. I couldn’t remember what the path direction was, but I just knew that a bit further down I would get to a cliff that my new friend wouldn’t be able to follow me down without exposing herself in the open. It was an area that I had set up to take some photos at earlier when the sun was still up.
I made it. I scurried down the cliff trail and watched the wall to my left get taller and taller and there was no longer a sign of her. I was likely now out of her territory, and while I was relieved, I still had three plus miles to go to get to the trailhead which I could now see from my position. I had to consider the fact that there could be more cougars, but I figured the likelihood of me seeing two of them was extremely rare. Most people never experience the sight of one even if they are looking for them.
My mind shifted now to reaching the two little lights I could see swaying far in the distance that looked like a car headlights. Two very distinct lights in close proximity that were moving, but from miles away I still had to hope I could make it without running into any more bears by surprise. I was running over the rocks and tree roots just to get to the rangers as fast as I could.
I luckily had no more surprises on the way down and reached the rangers in about 45 minutes time. One was an older gentleman who happened to be the wildlife director for the whole park, and the other was a ranger who was new to the park who just happened to be carrying a shotgun with him. I was never so happy to see random strangers with guns in the wilderness in my life, and was even more happy to see the canteen of water one of them had brought for me.
I just wanted to keep going and get back to the safety of my car, but it didn’t take too much convincing to get me to sit and tell them what happened. I could barely speak as I had majorly stressed my vocal cords, but I managed to explain to them this story, as they both stared at me in awe and disbelief at both my stupidity of going up alone at night and the amazing experience I just had.
The wildlife director had so many questions about the cat and its health that I wasn’t sure if I was of his main concern. I don’t blame him though, as he said it is so rare to see them this close that he relied on these encounters to judge the health of the wildlife in the area. He let me know how lucky I was to see one, and just how lucky I was to be able to tell them about it. He hadn’t ever been as close as I was himself. They have only had one attack in the entire parks history, but he said with the drought they had been finding evidence of the cougars getting a little more daring with prey and the expansion of their territories in the park to lower areas around people signaling their reduced fear of humans. There are an estimated 12 cougars who live in the park which is 1,252 square miles. That’s only 1 cougar per 100 square miles on average which I would say makes them a fairly rare encounter.
We made our way down the trail and the other ranger was telling me they had spotted some fresh bear tracks on the trail on their way up to find me, so that we needed to be on the lookout for them. At this point, under their guidance, I felt like I was on more of an adventure to find bears than I was trying to avoid them. The rangers didn’t want to waste the trip so we did a bit of exploring on our way down, looking for, and following some more trails. It ended up being a personal guided tour with the most knowledgeable people in the park.
We got back down to the parking lot at the trail head and there was a police officer waiting to have a chat with me. I was confused as to why the cops were involved, but when I remembered the only way I could get in touch with the park was by calling emergency services it made more sense and I had to file an official report with a written statement of what had happened that day. I would like to think that if I had a copy of that report it would read very similar to what I have written here today, only without the added emotional storm.
The rangers stuck around and talked with me for a little while even though it was pretty late, and then the nature specialist asked me if I would come in the next day and talk with him a little more after I had a chance to sleep. I agreed, and he took me to the nearest camping area where I could post up for the night.
There was no way I was planning on sleeping outside after the experience I just had, so I started rearranging my Honda Element to make room for a bed in the back. I had the doors to the back open as I did this, and as I’m leaning into my car I start hearing the grass to the right of my vehicle start to rustle and my heart just hit the roof again. I jumped in my car and closed the bottom gate behind me and thats when I heard the grass stop moving and heard little claws scratching at the dirt under my car. Okay I thought, this isn’t going to eat me, and the curiosity got the better of me so I stepped out of my car and looked under to see a family of skunks walking in line from under my car and through my camp only to disappear again through the grass on the other side. I grinned and climbed back in my car and laid down, staring out the back window at the milky way just happy I was there, and happy I now had an amazing story to tell.
This wouldn’t be the last time that summer that I had experienced both bears and mountain lions in the wild, but it was certainly the only time I felt threatened, and certainly the one that changed my perception of just how insignificantly small we are in the grand scheme of nature.
Do you have a similar story where you got attacked by a great white, a rhino, or an angry hawk? Please share it with me in the comments!
For the TL:DR types:
I was hiking in Big Bend National Park shooting photos of the landscape. I decided to go up to the top of highest point in the park for sunset which meant I needed to hike down alone in the dark. I didn’t properly prepare myself for some of the wildlife I might run into on the way down in the dark and was stalked by a mountain lion for several hours. I was less than 10 feet from this beast of a cat, and she wasn’t happy about it. I survived. The end.