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December/January 1981

Mutiny on the Backcountry

Read this classic story from the December/January 1981 issue of BACKPACKER.

The other day I was sitting in a horners’ bar just outside the gates of Yellowstone Park, sipping on bourbon and listening to a familiar-looking fellow try to put together a three-month expedition consisting of five people, any age, either sex, who were possessed of four hundred dollars apiece. The horners were listening to this spiel without much enthusiasm.

Most of them were experienced woodsmen and campers–horning is a good national park job: It consists of humping around the mountains and meadows in search of shed elk horns that are then sold through an intermediary to various Korean pharmaceutical companies, which in turn sell the powdered horn to certain oriental gentlemen who fear they are not as sexually potent as they might be. Horning is not an especially lucrative job, but it is a way to visit the more remote corners of the wilderness while incidentally providing the hope of delight to some Korean, Japanese and Chinese wives.

This was the third or fourth year in the elk-horn business for many of the people at that bar. They tended to be solitary types, not much given to excessive use of language except when drinking, and they listened to the prospective expedition leader with a degree of visible dubiousness, all the while injecting such polite comments as “the hell you say,” and “get out of here.”

I suspect that the doubt these experienced woodsmen and women felt had less to do with the expedition plan–a trek up through the Bob Marshall Wilderness and into the Canadian Rockies–than with the idea that, aside from providing their own gear, they were expected to fork over four bills. Quite clearly that money was to go to this prospective expedition leader for his entirely superfluous services. It was a four-hundred-dollar insult, and since this fellow wouldn’t take no for an answer, since he didn’t seem to feel the collective mood darken like thunderheads gathering over the Absarokas, I began to fear for the shape of his nose, which I suspected would be broken at any moment.

Quite the same thing–a sense of impending violence–sometimes colors loosely organized expeditions, and fistfights in the brush a five-day walk from anywhere tend to sour even the most spectacular views. Expedition leaders are, of course, a necessity in such technically demanding sports as mountaineering, rock climbing or caving. But they can be a source of friction on simple treks when everyone in the expedition has a number of years of backpacking experience.

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