The ground was covered in more snow than we expected. I could then see Ashe County from my Brushy Mountain cabin. My view that morning was of mostly bare hills. I guess that I could not see this particular range. Where we hunted, the snow was more hard, icy and slick, and over a wider, more uniform area than I could remember ever seeing. We could look over many acres of woods, fields and mountains and in every direction the sun reflected off the glare ice like glass.
One time I slipped and fell, hitting my hand on the snow to catch myself. The snow was so hard and sharp that it cut my hand deep enough to bleed all over my pants leg for about 10 minutes.
We think that we heard a few grouse flushing in the distance, but we did not get a shot. Richard thinks that locally there was too much deep, hard snow for the birds to eat. They probably moved to another part of the county, where they could find more winter browse. When the snow melts, they will likely return here to their home range.
I had an odd experience that is a cautionary note to all us middle-aged-and-older outdoor persons who depend on our health and stamina to get us into the hills, and more importantly, back home again. As the famous Himalayan mountaineer Ed Viesturs says, getting to the top is optional; getting back down is mandatory.
Granted, what I was doing was fairly strenuous: following three energetic spaniel bird dogs, and their championship athletic owners, straight up a steep mountain, at 3,800 feet altitude, in hard snow, carrying a shotgun, a day pack full of outdoor gear, with several pounds of water, and several more pounds of lead shot shells, while wearing many layers of heavy winter clothes and boots, with no breaks. But still, I have been in other tough situations before.
For the first time I can remember, I felt like my stamina left me. About half way up, my heart was pounding so hard and I was breathing so hard that I felt sick. At times, even after resting, shedding hot clothes, drinking water and trying to get my 'second wind,' my legs failed and I could not force myself to keep walking.
If I were playing tennis or volleyball, it would not be too bad. I could quit and drive home. But when you are in the backwoods, in temperatures well below freezing, and your staying alive depends on walking several more miles over rough terrain to get back to your vehicle before dark, it can be disconcerting.
About an hour later, I finally caught up to the other guys, naturally, at the top of the tallest mountain in the area where we had permission to hunt. Adding to the stress, we were semi-lost. The other guys had never been here. I had not been here in several years. They were depending on my imperfect memory for where the trail led back to the truck. If I made a wrong turn, it could add another hour of hard climbing to get back to the right valley. Thankfully, they are nice guys. They allowed me to prevail upon them and shorten the trip. We took a route home that was more downhill than was originally planned.
I don't know if my problem with conditioning was exacerbated by recently recovering from being sick, or if I was having a 'senior moment.' Whatever, it was still great to be outdoors for the day with some great guys. I learn something every trip.