I prefer cutting down the back. Staying away from the gut is the whole reason for me. I've started using the Raptorazor knives. It took a little time to get used to them but it has shortened up my skinning time by quite a bit.
There is no "wrong" way, I've done it both ways. As Kurt said it might depend on how the animal is laying. One minor advantage of starting at the belly is the backstraps are usually protected a bit better when you roll the animal over, due to the amount of hide still intact there.
I work from the belly as I like to use the rolled back hide to keep the meat clean. The only exception is if I plan to cape the critter, then I work from the back. Either way is fine but given preference I work from the belly.
I go from the back to stay away from the guts, which is the #1 reason for gutless in the first place. FYI if you cut from the head toward the tail your knife will tend run more smoothly, cut less hairs, and result in less hair bits on the meat than if you cut the hide from tail to head.
Only times I've gone from the belly is if I want to save the hide as rug layout for some reason. For not saving hide, or saving cape or full-body mount I go down the back, which is the way taxidermists prefer anyway.
I've done both, but if you've got a choice I've done it from the back even just due to the amount of piss on the bull's undersides. Both elk and moose piss on themeselves and I don't like my knife and hands all in the piss and then handling the meat. Also a pain to wash off all the time. Some elk can be so rank you don't wanna have your hands in that so it's nicer to skin from the back and you can just hang on to the inside of the hide. I remember doing a bull with my buddy where the dang thing was sopping wet all the way up to his chin, and not from wallowing.
I'm Old Fashion but do the gutless, I prefer right up the belly. I've tried to start from the spine & once in the middle, I felt out of sorts & like I was cheating myself by not starting across the belly like I have for near 40 years. It's pretty simple to go right along the belly & not hit guts at all.
It seems no matter the position the elk dies in I will do what it takes to start the skinning in the belly, it's just the right way to do it for me! I let my middle finger & index finger on left hand lift the hide slightly where I slit it with the knife, I then have knife in my right hand & follow my two fingers as I lift gently & zip right through the hide in no time & start the skinning, piece of cake & no guts to worry about. Works for me & I see no reason to alter things!
On a side note, this year I pulled the heart out of a cow. It was the last step after completing gutless. I went in at the ribs and broke a rib and cut out the heart. You quickly forget how clean gutless is. Going into the cavity is a bloody mess. Gutless for life! Haha
I always go up the back because I never kill anything that wasn't big enough to mount and you cut the cape up the back. That's me trying to be funny. I agree that on an elk it is the best way to keep your hands clean and that's is very important. I either wear gloves and put on new ones to work with the meat or I take some time and clean my hands between skinning and boning. I generally end up partially gutting when I'm done so I can get the tenderloins out. My buddy Jim can extract them through a tiny incision without even looking but I have to have everything out of the way. Some day, maybe I'll pay attention when he does it.
Here's a question... Getting to the tenderloins.. I know you can just cut behind the last rib, reach in and yank them out.. but I always have issues with that for some reason so after all the quarters are off and backstraps are off, I end up slitting the belly and letting everything fall out and reach in there and get em that way.. Kinda defeats the purpose of gutless..
And to add to brads post...take your time! I’ve waited until everything else was removed on both sides and punctured the belly. It smells bad, but if it starts to bloat and is putting pressure on the tenderloins it makes it harder to get them. Poking the belly, far away from the tenders, make it easier to push it out of the way.
Here is another pic that shows what ucsdryder mentioned > you can see the gut pushing out where the 'gut steak' [tenderloin] was removed. And also noticed the section of short ribs, where the gut steaks lay in wait just under them :)
If I have access to a hanging place, limb or log high enough, I cut the legs off with the hide on and skin with them hanging. I cut the lower leg off and skin up a short ways to be able to tie a rope on before cutting the leg off.