Mountain Lion Standoff, Santa Ynez Mountains

What I saw when I first turned to continue my walkabout. A beautiful disaster. 

“Lions often stalk their prey and attack by leaping on their shoulders and back, biting the top of the neck or head. Their jaws are strong enough to bite through the skull, crushing it. Claw marks and tooth punctures are usually evident along the shoulders and neck.”

–A Guide To Identifying Livestock Depredation, New Mexico State University

If you are within 21 feet of a knife fighter he can reach you in a second, cut you to ribbons and you bleed out and die shortly after. 

That’s an old refrain heard among street fighters. It’s taken from cops and it applies even if you’re armed with a holstered gun. Twenty-one feet seems far, but it’s not far enough.

How far is the defensive line when facing a lion?

By happenstance I turned around sooner rather than later and spotted the lion coming up behind me quite some distance away. Not nearly far enough away.

If I hadn’t turned, and events would have further aligned in its favor, I think the lion would have attacked me. I believe that’s what was about to happen.

Attacked from behind, of course. Unheard, unseen, and with no warning whatsoever.

Two piercing paws latched to the back of the shoulders and a fanged vice grip around the soft neck. Taken to the ground. And it’s all over.

Should I have the presence of mind and physical ability I might succeed in grabbing my Mora knife and sticking it into the lion somewhere, anywhere in terrible desperation.

Not likely, though. I don’t think so. Yeah, right.

The standoff was frightening and I could hear, much to my surprise, the fear in my voice in the first few words I spoke as we faced each other.

I hadn’t felt scared in those first few moments of the encounter, but the fear was plainly evident in my voice when I first spoke.

I didn’t know what to do but keep talking.

This is why the video is so unsteady at times; it’s me looking around for a lifeline and thinking, Where the heck is Stubbs with his diktat to protect my health and safety?!

I stood in grass and had no rocks to throw, not that I wanted to squat down low to fumble about for a stone anyway.  

I was not terrified, though. In some respect I might have felt some degree of control over the situation. Like I had the lion locked in a standoff rather than the other way around.

I didn’t think the cat would charge me in a frontal assault. It didn’t feel like that was going to happen. At least not at first. The feel changed at one point.

Yet, I still felt as if I was teetering without hand holds, walking a razor’s edge. That the encounter could turn grisly in a split second.

The lion didn’t appear to have any intent on leaving, as I thought should be its normal reaction.

Why didn’t the cat bolt when I first turned around and saw it? When I first talked to it? When I first yelled at it? When I continued to yell at it? When I stepped toward it, yelling at it? 

That was the perplexing question. That was the most disturbing variable in the equation I was trying to figure out to save my life or prevent great bodily harm. There seemed to be only one answer. 

The cat stepped back once, hind leg loaded.

In addition to yelling several different times, I made one pathetic physical attempt to scare the lion off. While yelling ha! several times I also took several steps forward.

The lion took a single step back, and then stood firm, cocked on a loaded hind leg. The damn thing squared up for a fight.

I’m your huckleberry, said the lion. That’s just my game.

I wilted.

I thought if I continued my weak attempt at an offensive move I might provoke an attack, so I stopped. The cat called my bluff, easily, and looked much meaner all of a sudden.

At that point I did not try things like standing taller with arms up or waving arms around overhead. 

There was no cell phone service. My days could end with a severed or punctured artery even if I initially survived an attack.

I had been hobbling about with two tender, sore knees. I wore Doc Martens that day with slick soles, not intending to hike, and was walking over lichen-covered boulders and green grass, all slippery. I had slipped and slid about a few times. 

I think the cat noticed my limping and saw me slipping around on the rocks and the grassy slopes.

I believe this is one reason the cat wouldn’t leave and kept me pinned for so long. It saw me as lame prey, an easy mark. A clumsy bipedal creature that must have appeared ridiculous.

I turned around and took a step or two forward to return to my vehicle, and there was the mountain lion looking at me, one paw set forward, still as a statue. 

We looked at each other for a bit.

I took a moment to realize I was seeing a lion and not a bobcat or coyote or whatever else. It’s not in my common experience and so well outside my frame of reference to see a lion just standing around looking at me.

I stood near a paved road in the Santa Ynez Mountains, atop the range along the Gaviota Coast. I was a long stone’s throw from my vehicle. I might as well have been a swimmer in the sea a few yards from a life raft with a great white shark circling.

About fifteen seconds into the encounter it occurred to me to take video. Some time later into the standoff it occurred to me that I could hit the alarm button on my key in my pocket. The whole incident lasted about one minute or so.

Without having finally resorted to my car alarm to scare it off, who knows how long the lion would have kept me pinned?

What would have happened if I was farther out in the currently condemned Los Padres National Forest?

The standoff ended when I pressed the panic button on my key and the alarm went off.

That I waited so long before hitting the alarm speaks to how comfortably uncomfortable I was during the standoff.

That I hit the alarm button shows how I had reached the end of my willingness to any longer be held at fang point and gazed at like a hot plate of food, soon to be eaten.

I opened my door fast and jumped into the cab, slamming the door shut. And then the emotional release. A tremendous wash of anxiety and relief.

I sat there marinating for a moment, not previously realizing how stressful the encounter had been in the moment, and a bit surprised by how, even in a car, I felt so uneasy. 

Subsequently, every time I watched the video for the first several replays it ended in a blast of anxiety for me.

The video below followed by a transcript of my monologue delivered to the mountain lion:

“I see you over there. HAHHH!

You were behind me. I didn’t even see your ass.

Here I am staring at a boulder and you were going to eat me from behind.

HAHHH! HAHHH! HAHHH! HAHHH!!! (Yelled while stepping forward toward the cat. The cat takes a single step back, then stands firm, cocked on the hind leg muscle like a loaded spring ready to fire.)


GET. . .THE. . .****. . .OUT OF HERE!

(It was very odd, and so very unnerving, to yell at a mountain lion and watch it just stand there looking at me. I would’ve never guessed lions around here to be so bold.)

“I tell ya, I got a knife. So if you don’t kill me. I’m gonna ******* kill you.

(After I fired off my silly knife threat is when in the video you see the cat look around behind itself, funnily enough. A few seconds later I hit the button on my key and set the alarm off. Note how the cat still does not immediately bolt, but sets its footing in a flash and then stands tall craning its neck for a look, before finally running off. A bold animal, indeed.)

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10 Responses to Mountain Lion Standoff, Santa Ynez Mountains

  1. robin newman says:

    Wow! They are getting bolder or more of them? Ive hiked these SB hills since childhood (Im 68) and only encountered 1 before. A lion grabbed and disappeared with a dog near Lopez Lake last week. Stole it away from its owner as she was walking it on a leash.

  2. LOREN says:

    I have a similar story of an encounter while hiking alone. I had a big male mountain lion join me for lunch deep in Colson canyon at the old Barrel Springs campground. It was tracking three deer and I was between him and his prey. When we saw each other, he did not retreat but instead sat down seemingly to ponder if I was possibly prey too. It was pretty unnerving and I slowly put my lunch away and prepare my handgun in case he decided I was indeed on the menu. When I stood up with my pack he slipped into the brush and I booked it out of the area, staying in the open and looking back frequently.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Holy Crap! Well played.

  4. Mark Jiroch says:

    I saw that picture in a previous post and was wondering when we’d get the full story. Because no one who sees a mountain lion face to face in the wild doesn’t subsequently have a story to tell. Glad yours had a happy ending

    • Anonymous says:

      In my encounter with a Mtn Lion, I did everything my instincts told me to do, even though I knew you should not stare at a lion in the eyes, and never run.
      I stared at him, then turned and ran. He was below me in a creek bed about 50 feet off. He did not look passively like Jacks did, but fiercely attentive. I made it back to my office, 100′ (I live very remote) and slammed the door.

  5. That’s damn scary stuff – I’m sure it was going to jump you before you got turned around. Love the comment:
    “Where the heck is Stubbs with his diktat to protect my health and safety?!”
    That made me really laugh out loud!

  6. “Here I am staring at a boulder and you were going to eat me from behind.”

    My first thought, wonder what’s on that boulder he was staring at. 😉

  7. Fock dude!

    You know it’s a good tale when you live to tell about it.

  8. Rainbow Saari says:

    Hi Jack,

    What a remarkable encounter! I often saw mountain lion paw prints in the dirt as I walked the mile or so to catch the school bus that took me down San Marcos Pass, so I knew they were around. That was in the late ’60’s. Beautiful as they are, I’m glad I never met them in reality. Good to know they are still living in the area. Magnificent creatures. Glad you were able to scare it off!

    all the best, Rainbow

    On 2/25/23, Jack Elliott’s Santa Barbara Adventure

  9. TomBoy says:

    That is a super long 42″, so glad you’re ok!

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