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The Devil on Carpenter's Peak

Out on a routine day-hike, a Colorado park ranger faces death in the terrifying form of a hell-bent cougar.

 

The hiking trail of Colorado's Roxborough State Park is a 3.2-mile straight shot to the 7,200-foot summit of Carpenter's peak. One way up, one way down. No shortcuts. Climbing Carpenter is part of my weekly routine, something I do to combine a little exercise with some peace and quiet on days off from my job as a ranger in another park. It also happens to be a great place to get a relatively untainted view of nature. Horses, bikes, yapping pets and other game-scattering fixtures of civilization are prohibited on the trail, so wildlife encounters aren't too unusual. 

In that sense, the afternoon of April 30, 1998, was especially promising. When I checked in with the ranger at the visitor center she mentioned that a sow bear had been sighted with three newborn cubs on the valley floor. That report sent me off on an even faster pace than usual for the top. Three weeks earlier I'd come across the rare find of mountain lion tracks near the top of the trail, and this latest bit of news had me anticipating a special afternoon. 

With a bluebird sky overhead and a temperature pushing 80 degrees, I had the trail almost to myself. The only other people I encountered were a group of four hikers a quarter-mile from the peak making their way back down. We exchanged hellos in passing, then I mustered a burst of energy and ran the rest of the way to the top. 

The best part of Roxborough is taking in the summit view. Twenty miles to the north, Denver shimmers in the high-plains heat. Even the Flatirons behind Boulder come into focus on a clear day. But my favorite vista lies to the south and west, a panorama encompassing the South Platte River, Pike National Forest and the towering Rockies. I scaled the highest rock and circled around it, a chill running through me as I gazed on magnificent broken horizon in every direction. 

The pace back down, I decided, would be a bit slower, allowing me to take stock of spring's progress. So, after a brief rest and a snack, I took a final pull from the water bottle, tied my shirt around my waist and started down the trail. 

Out of the corner of my eye, a burst of purple caught my attention. I walked over to two identical flowers growing on the uphill side of the trail. Twins of some sort. I knelt down for a closer look, and as I did, a tremor ran through me. Something wasn't right. A gentle breeze stirred the trees directly overhead. An even stronger gust rushed through the treetops. Might be a front moving in, I thought, and I got up to make for the trailhead. But as I turned, a sight down the trail stopped me cold: A mountain lion lay under a pine tree chewing on a stick.

A mountain lion. I couldn't believe my good luck. I was elated when I found the tracks, but here was a lion in the flesh, only 15 yards away. Then fear flashed through me, overtaking my excitement. My legs shook uncontrollably as I eased back up the trail as soundlessly as possible. I reached for the knife in my pack, just in case. I had to get past this animal. My mind was churning out competing courses of action: Go to the top and throw rocks? Run past it? Scream? Wait for other hikers? What?

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