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?

As my brain raced, my body prepared for war. I looked down at the knife in my hand. Its 2-inch blade looked so small and inadequate. I opened the blade at the other end and pulled out the screwdriver in the middle of the handle, creating a makeshift multi-edged weapon. Who was I kidding? The edges of both knives pointed inward. No, the one big blade would have to do. I folded the small blade closed ever so quietly. As I was doing the same to the screwdriver, I glanced up through the branches to check on the cat. In that moment of distraction, the screwdriver slipped from my fingers and closed with a snap! I cringed and shot a look to the spot under the tree. The lion was gone! Had it fled, or...?

My eyes strained through the brush to my right. There it was! It had moved. Surely, it had moved. It was coming toward me. The lion locked my gaze with eyes of blood. Isn't this what I'm supposed to do, I thought, slowly back up and give it space? The lion can have the damn mountain. I just want down.

Another step backward put thick branches into our line of sight. In the blink of an eye, the cat's 100-pound frame was directly in front of me‚ its head above my waist, eyes again locked on me in a satanic stare, sizing me up. At 130 pounds, I must have looked like a relatively easy meal. That's when the lion let out a wicked, cavernous growl, revealing four immense dominant teeth.

Before I could react, the cat leaped paws first, slamming into my chest, and we tumbled down the trail, landing side by side in a roiling mass of fur and claws and blood. My blood. I jumped up and the lion leapt at me again, barely missing. Backpedaling, I careened down the path, trying to fend off the cat with, of all things, the shirt from around my waist.

The lion stopped suddenly and I made a quick stand. I swung my pack with all my might, but the cat drew in an instant as if this were some game. I lashed out at its face with the knife. Again the cat easily dodged my swing. "You wanna go?" I screamed in frustration. "Let's go!"

I started backpedaling again, the cougar staying inches away, toying with me. That's when the path made an abrupt change, dropping 3 feet through a series of boulder steps. There was no way I was stopping; I hurtled down the boulders.

The cougar launched into the air and tore into me just as I hit the ground. For a second time we rolled down the trail together, tearing through earth and brush before coming to rest. The long black shape of a tooth hovered an inch in front of my left eye. The lion's teeth were sunk into the top of my skull! Its jaws loosened slightly, then bit down a second time, searching for a firmer hold. Blood cascaded down my face.

Using the pocketknife, I slashed at the cougar's neck. But the blade could not draw blood. I tried a different strategy, raising the knife high over the animal's head and plunging it into the back of its neck‚ once, twice‚ nothing. A torturous, hollow grating filled my head as the lion's teeth raked against my skull.

A paw shot toward my face and snagged the skin below my eye, producing an audible pop. New blood streamed forth. The other paw clasped tight around my neck, claws digging for the side of my throat. The pain should have been excruciating, but there was no pain‚ only blood.

Why wouldn't the knife cut? I looked past the cougar's head to the knife. The blade had closed on my index finger, cutting halfway through. Reaching over the cat's head with my right arm I managed to pry the knife open again. Suddenly, I realized that my right hand was touching one of the cougar's eyes. Instinctively, I plunged my right thumb into the eye, simultaneously sinking the knife into the cat‚Äos skull with my left hand. The lion shrieked, released its hold on my head and jumped back.

I stumbled to my feet, trying to regain my bearings. The lion was standing, dazed, 10 feet away. I had to get down the mountain now! I was gushing blood and running out of time. I backed out of sight, turned and ran.

The attack atop the mountain had gone on for nearly 30 minutes. My situation was still grim. I was hysterical, losing blood fast and almost three miles from the trailhead. Yet despite the multiple lacerations on my head, neck and torso, I felt no pain. My legs churned in their singular desire to get me off that mountain.

Halfway down, the trail took on a new menacing aspect where it traced a route through a thick stand of ponderosa pine trees. In full stride, I glanced over my right shoulder and saw that Hell was back again: The lion was eyeing me from the final curve! I panicked and called on my legs to drive me even faster.

I had nothing left. My fight was done. The cat was back for more, and there was nothing I could do. I again glanced over my right shoulder, expecting to see the demonic visage of my tormentor one final time. Instead, I was given a glimpse of Heaven. The face of the Lord was in plain view where once the lion had stood. The canopy thinned and the empty trail lightened. I'm sure there had been divine intervention. For the first time since I saw the cougar, I felt safe. Or should I say saved.

Rejuvenated, I turned and raced down the trail.

Near the bottom of the mountain, Carpenter's Trail opens up. That's where, a half-mile below me, a pair of hikers suddenly appeared. "Help! Call 911! Help me, please!" I screamed,laboring for air. I dropped through a series of sharp switchbacks and then they were there, a man and a woman waiting with open arms. The knife, covered with dry blood, was still locked in my left hand. My face was crisscrossed with lacerations. I must have been a frightful apparition.

They tried to get me to sit down, but in a panic I bolted up, directed my body toward the bottom and abandoned the hikers. I was in a full run and gasping for air when I plunged past the four hikers I had encountered 45 minutes earlier near the top of the trail.Then, all of a sudden, I stopped.

After 30 minutes with a mountain lion and 2 1/2 miles at a dead run, my body shut down. Through blood-caked eyes I made out the silhouette of yet another hiker heading up toward me. "Lion! call 911! call 911!" I gasped. She turned and ran for the visitor center.

I was shuffling toward the trailhead in a daze when my arms began to levitate. The group of hikers had caught up to me. With my arms draped over their shoulders, they brought me down to the bottom. I stumbled into the visitor center and dropped to the floor, while all about me people scurried for supplies. When the thunder of the approaching rescue chopper shook the building, I knew, finally, that my nightmare was over.

POSTSCRIPT

As a result of this cougar attack, Andy Peterson came within a literal millimeter of losing his left eye. Several dozen stitches were needed to close the lacerations and puncture wounds on his face, neck, shoulders, upper chest and right leg. He set a record for Swedish Hospital in Englewood by requiring 70 staples to close the wounds in his head.

EXPERT ADVICE: The Devil on Carpenter's Peak

What Andy Peterson did right: At the encounter, Andy backed slowly away and tried to give the cougar space, so it wouldn't feel cornered or threatened. At the same time, he armed himself with a weapon, just in case things turned sour. During the confrontation, Andy tried to make himself appear big and loud, by waving his shirt and pack, and shouting at the animal. Under attack, he used his weapon.

What he did wrong: He hiked alone in an area where he knew an encounter with bears or cougars was possible. He carried no defensive weapon other than a small pocketknife. A bigger weapon would have been better -- large fixed-blade knife, a walking stick, a club grabbed from a deadfall, rocks pitched fastball-style. After escaping the first attack, he ran, which triggered another attack. When the attack stopped, he ran, bleeding from serious wounds, which could have caused his death.

What you should do: Don't hike alone. Mountain lions will stalk lone hikers but are reluctant to approach groups. If approached, make yourself seem as big as possible, wave your arms and yell. If you're attacked, fight back hard, using every weapon at hand. Don't run, because running will trigger an attack. If you are wounded, stop the bleeding'Äiyou can'Äot outrun the cat, and it wants you to bleed out and die.

-Rich Johnson