For more than 40 years, Rifle resident Hal Coombs has led annual weeklong trips into the Flat Tops Wilderness in search of three things: elk, unspoiled nature, and bonding time with family and friends.
To get away from other hunters, the group rides about 1.5 hours into northwestern Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness before setting up camp. —Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap
Hal Coombs (left), a six-foot-two-inch retired firefighter who's been leading annual elk-hunting trips into the backcountry for more than 40 years, began bringing his son Zach, now 36, along when he was 12. —Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap
“For a true hunter, it’s about the hunt,” says Hal Coombs, who uses a monocular to scout his surroundings for elk. “The icing on the cake is to have meat for the winter.” —Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap
The majority of the group is family, including 61-year-old James Ruark (left) and his nephew Zach Coombs. —Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap
Over more than four decades, Mickey Spalding, who lives in Aspen and makes the hunt almost every year, has helped perfect the process of loading up the group's gear from a parking lot at Trappers Lake. —Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap
Making three trips, the hunting party hauls more than 1,000 pounds of gear to the campsite. —Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap
Sixty-seven-year-old Vietnam veteran Hal Coombs hunts with a Remington rifle. —Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap
Fifteen-year-old Emmet Kuper pitched in on everything from taking aim at elk to cooking breakfast on the wood stove in the tent (which the Coombs designed and constructed themselves). —Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap
The group—(from left) Emmet Kuper, Mickey Spalding, Hal Coombs, James Ruark, and Zach Coombs—is always thankful to get a few inches of snow as tracking the blood of wounded elk is extremely challenging in the area's reddish fall foliage. —Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap
This was Emmet Kuper's second year on the trip. The teenager, a friend of the family, calls Hal Coombs "Grandpa." —Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap
After being skinned and quartered, a cow—like the one Zach Coombs shot—yields 125 to 150 pounds of meat; a bull can provide up to 250. —Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap
Rifle resident Hal Coombs says the group is happy if they get three elk in a week, and they usually don’t take more than four. —Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap
Although Hal Coombs jokes he’ll keep doing the trip until he’s 99, he’s encouraging the younger hunters—his son Zach Coombs (pictured) in particular—to carry on the tradition. —Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap
When Hal Coombs first began hunting elk in Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness in the mid-1970s, the six-foot-two-inch Vietnam veteran’s goal was simply to get away from all of the other hunters camped out along the roads. He and a friend, Mickey Spalding, decided to hike far into the backcountry, leading a single horse into the stark late-fall landscape, and a tradition that’s continued for 40-some years was born.
Over time, the group has evolved and faces have changed: Coombs’ sons were allowed to join the hunt when they turned 12; women from the family are welcome and occasionally come along; and Coombs’ most steadfast hunting companion, 72-year-old Spalding, has made nearly every trip. “Just being out there, not running into other people—it’s gorgeous country,” Coombs says. “You get to see bald eagles and all kinds of other wildlife you wouldn’t see if you were sitting on your couch.”
In 2015, five men (including 15-year-old Emmet Kuper, a family friend who calls Coombs “Grandpa”), seven horses, and photographer Kaylinn Gilstrap made up the hunting party. Hauling more than 1,000 pounds of gear and food—everything they needed to survive for a week and safely pack out the meat from their kills—four miles into the wild required months of careful planning. Mornings began before dawn, with wood-stove-cooked breakfasts followed by long days in the saddle tracking elk, sometimes through inches or even feet of snow. But for Coombs, it’s all part of the bonding experience, which the retired firefighter says is as important to him as the goal of bringing home food to stock the freezer. “We’re meat hunters, we’re family, and it’s expensive,” 67-year-old Coombs says. “Not anybody can just do it. But it’s worth every penny.”
Click through the photo gallery above for more on Hal Coombs' hunting trip.
—Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap