One was good-sized. We had to get closer and put the big glass on them. The next hour was agonizing as we crept down the ridge just off the crest, being careful not to roll a single rock or make a sound. There was a stout breeze at our backs and we weren’t in danger of getting winded yet, but we would be close to upwind by the time were in comfortable spotting and shooting range. On our bellies now, we crawled to the top of the ridge to get our first view of the sheep since we left the top.
It was a sickening feeling to know they could have vacated the area as we crept along out of sight. To our relief they were still there and our position was good. With just heads and a scope above the ridgeline we put the glass on them and ranged them at 250 yards. One was obviously too small–the other looked to be very close to full curl. From where we sat it also looked like he had at least one broken tip, but from this distance it was extremely difficult to be certain. A wise hunter once told me that it is ideal to shoot a sheep that is legal by two standards in case you happen to misjudge one.
After a closer look I was fairly confident that he wasn’t quite full curl, which is to be expected if a sheep is double-broomed. I could see the close tip and it was clearly broken, but the other was much harder to get in a clean view. I was fairly certain I could count eight growth rings as well, but that is an inexact science and a dangerous basket to put all of your eggs into.
We deliberated for what felt like an eternity. The rams were bedded down and didn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. They sat, ruminated, and continually scanned the terrain below them, never looking up. Danger comes from below–or so they are wired. We took turns looking through the scope and had all but given up not being able to see the far horn clearly enough to make the call when he finally turned and laid his head down looking straight towards us. His second tip was broken too, he was legal and it was time to make a play.
Two hundred and fifty yards isn’t a long sheep-shot by any means, but we thought we could close a little more distance and up the odds of putting one on the money. The sheep were in a precarious position, and in two or three short steps they could be in no-man’s-land on the side of the steep peak, with no easy way to get to them even if we could find them again.
The plan was for me to cover them from this spot while Andy worked down the ridge to a lower vantage point, from which he would take the shot, assuming one presented. Andy left as I trained my crosshairs on the bedded ram and waited. The seconds passed like hours as I watched Andy crawl his way down the ridge in my peripheral vision while trying to keep my primary focus on the sheep. Suddenly–for no reason…I hadn’t moved, I swear–the larger ram, our target, locked eyes on me and stood up. I remained frozen, and many agonizing minutes passed as the sheep stared me down, neither of us moving a muscle.
Snot streamed down my face and my neck began to cramp from being frozen in the prone position. In my peripheral I saw Andy sliding up to the ridge, but I could tell from my perspective above that it looked like his view was going to be obstructed at the point he had chosen to look over. Still not moving, and watching the sheep watching me, I saw Andy start to crawl back down, knowing that he couldn’t see them. He was close.
As he moved, the sheep busted him and looked away from me for a split second as they crouched to bolt. Their glance averted for a moment which presented a small window for a shot. I pulled the trigger. He was off his feet instantly and struggled on the ground for a kick or two before standing back up. I launched another and he cratered back into his bed and didn’t move again.
After so much calculation and observation, the final events of the stalk all happened so quickly. I had to make a snap decision in matter of a second whether to take the shot, and it is still hard to believe it call came together. Andy and I both stood from our respective perches on the ridge and pumped a victorious fist before scrambling down to our prize to pay respects and get to work.
I’d wanted Andy to shoot, and my emotions were certainly mixed–feeling elation at having a ram down but also a bit guilty for having to pull the trigger, robbing Andy of that honor. We had done it. The king had fallen and we felt blessed beyond belief to the point that words were hard to find, so we settled for a big, ole, man-hug.
I’ll hurry through the events of the next two days for the sake of, uh… brevity? We boned out the meat and loaded up our day packs to cover the six miles back to our big packs where we would regroup and figure out what to do next. We rode the adrenaline high back to our gear, and things got a lot harder from there. Fifty pounds of meat and 30 pounds of head and horns had to get added to the 65 pounds of backpacks we had already. We stumbled, drunkenly at times, back up and over the pass and camped at the site we had left that morning, some 14 hours prior.
I couldn’t be bothered with carrying my camera and/or using my camera on the stalk and so I don’t have a picture of him in one piece, which I regret. He was a beautiful sight and magnificent animal, as they all are.
You try smiling with 125lbs on your back.
Keeping stride with “the specimen” was no easy task.
Casing the groceries back at camp.
Sheep tenderloin in the frying pan–oh, so sweet.
There is more to the story if you guys aren’t entirely bored yet. A long day of walking downhill found us back at the trailhead. I could talk about how crushing the packs were, or our hamburger hips, compressed spines, and deformed scapulae, but I wouldn’t want to let on that I am getting soft. I am pretty sure I could have marched another mile or two with that load on top of the twelve or so we’d covered so far, but I was really, really glad I didn’t have to find out.
Packing up for the long march out.
Back at the trailhead we put meat and gear out to dry, unpacked and had a few celebratory beers. Dinner was again based around sheep tenderloin, and we were still riding the high of success so early in the hunt. The lingering question was, of course, “What next?” With a handful of days left to hunt we’d be silly to head home so soon, though we really hadn’t considered trying for more than one sheep and we thought we’d be lucky to find that.
On one hand we were entirely satisfied and would go home happier than we thought we could be if we left now. It would almost feel greedy to try for another, let alone the possibility that a miserable failure or troublesome event could leave us with a bad taste (at best) when we could easily quit while we were ahead now. Though these thoughts crossed our minds and came out in conversation, in reality there was never really a question.
We were going back in.
There was, however, a problem: it had started raining that evening and didn’t let up all night. We awoke to blown rivers and swollen creeks. All the prime sheep real estate involved stream crossings that were now functionally impassable, and it was still raining. Not to mention the clouds were now on the deck, and seeing the trail ahead was a challenge–let alone being able to search for animals in the distance, high above. We were shut down.
Over the course of the next few days, morale began to circle the drain a bit as the rivers continued to rise and rain continued to fall. We got a break on two consecutive days and took the opportunity to try and find an alternate drainage to explore that didn’t involve the water hazards. One of those days was a waste of time entirely, as we wandered around in the bushes at lower elevation and never found a logical path above treeline and into sheep country. The day after, we spotted a small flock of lambs and ewes at the top of a short but steep drainage only a few miles from the road and we hatched a plan for a long day trip up the valley and over a distant ridge with the hopes of finding something tucked away in some unseen nook or cranny.
“When you see someone putting on their big boots, you can be pretty certain that an adventure is going to happen.”
– Winnie the Pooh
We set out from the trailhead in steady rain. Our path led directly up a steep, cascading creek that we hopped back and forth across and clambered around as we gained elevation sharply. Our destination was only a few miles away, but 5,000 feet above: the head of a hanging valley.
Above treeline the travel eased, as we were able to leave the creek behind and travel through open meadows. We started seeing sheep immediately. Through breaks in the clouds we found groups of lambs and ewes in practically every direction. Throughout the course of the day we counted over 60 sheep and we had the chance to study all of them without seeing so much as a sickle horn in the lot. All lambs and ewes.
The final scree slope leading to a ridge above the U-shaped valley was arduous; a real bitch, if you will. One step up and two steps back type terrain. We were in the clouds again, and it was starting to snow. Having passed so many lambs and ewes along the way, we thought there had to be some rams in the area, but where were they? Well above the green zone, in the crags and rocks above, we thought for sure we would pick one out atop some rocky prominence keeping overwatch of the flocks below, but nothing materialized.
We were soaked to the bone in a building snow storm and had seen everything we could on this mission, so we retreated. The relatively small creek we bashed up earlier in the day had swollen, and we essentially waded and scrambled down it back to treeline and the flats beyond, then back to the trailhead at dark. I would have probably been drier (and certainly warmer) had I laid down in the creek. We got a fire going and were eventually able to wring and evaporate enough moisture out of our gear to keep us happy.
Another weather day had all but passed when the clouds broke and the rain subsided. We took a quick look at the major drainage we had traveled up at the outset and it was still puking mud and whole trees; small ones, but trees just the same. Things didn’t look good, but in this country water is fast to rise and fast to drop. With clear skies above and cooling temps there was a chance it would drop to the point where we could cross it and get back into the high country that offered better prospects. We’d have to wait for morning to find out.
The trailhead was now part of the river…
Morning dawned clear and crisp, and the river had dropped significantly. We packed hastily, and with two days left to hunt planned to blast in as far as we could get, camp, and then hike every peak and ridge we could with light packs to see what we could see. Crossing back and forth across the still high and muddy creek was tedious at best and the going was slow. Soon enough we reached the point where our route left the drainage and climbed to a high bench. Having learned a lesson from the last time through this front-range country, we stopped to glass before we planned to hurry towards the end of the trail and our intended route up and over the front range and into the high country beyond.
I saw sheep immediately; quite a few of them. What was more, there were rams. I don’t know what had transpired in the last few days of no hunting pressure, bad weather, and new snow, but the southern aspects of almost all of the peaks we could see had sheep on them. Small bands of lambs and ewes lower down with a ram or two above in each case. We had three strong possibilities in front of us, but being so far away we couldn’t begin to tell which, if any, might be legal.
We had to make a call: right, left, or straight ahead. Each option would take the whole day if not more if we were even able to get close enough in that time. We’d have to move quickly if we were to have a chance. At the head of the drainage immediately in front of us, I picked out a sheep that looked to be considerably larger than any of the others. I could tell he was a ram but couldn’t come close to judging horn size from five miles away. We made a decision to go after him based on body size alone and hoped that we weren’t passing up a better option somewhere else. We didn’t have time to deliberate; we had to pick an objective and get after it with the clock ticking.
Again we dropped our big packs (camera included), pared down the bare essentials, and set off as quickly as our still sore legs and wet feet could carry us. We were soon breathing hard and sweating in the crisp air and leaving real estate behind us at a satisfactory pace. We stopped at intervals to glass the three possibilities. Unfortunately the big-bodied ram that we thought might be our best chance was the first to disappear behind terrain as we got closer. We were able to rule out the two other possibilities, getting really good looks at them through the scope, but still didn’t know if our plan-A was close to legal or not. We would have no way of knowing until we were on top of him and too far committed to change our plan.
On the approach, plan A in the distance.
We forged on, crossing two minor valleys each with streams that afforded a nice chance to refill water bottles, catch our breath, and charge uphill reinvigorated. We had come a long way and still had a long way to go, with the biggest challenge yet to come. A long, steep, serrated ridge waited for us above. To get into position above the sheep we’d have to run the ridge for a half-mile or more and it looked fairly heinous; maybe a show stopper. We wouldn’t know until we were there, but it was our only shot. When you don’t have any other options, the choice is easy.
After an hour of grinding up what was starting to feel like a never-ending 40-degree gravel slope, we gained the jagged ridge and began to pick our way along it, slowly and carefully. We were at roughly the same elevation as the sheep, though it had been a couple of hours since we’d seen them. From their position they could drop over several adjacent ridges and be gone; we’d never have known which way they went.
We skirted the steepest portions of the ridge on either side and in one passing to the south we spotted a lone sheep leaving the area fairly quickly in the distance. Through the scope earlier we had seen two sheep: the big-bodied ram and a ewe bedded down with him. From this distance we couldn’t tell which sheep it was hot-footing it out of there without the scope. If it was our boy, we would never catch up with him and we were done.
We paused at a small notch in the ridge just big enough to lie down and get the scope out. It was the ewe. There was a chance our ram was in the valley ahead. If he was there, we still had no idea if he was legal or if he would be in a position where we could get to him. We continued to pick our way along the horizontal crest and the terrain began to steepen to the north. We were crouched low now, pausing to stand at intervals to look ahead as the terrain in front of us began to roll into the broad bowl ahead where we hoped the sheep would be hanging out.
The third or fourth time we stood up for a view, we spotted another sheep. We could tell it was a ram through the binos and he was at least a quarter-mile out. Our hearts quickened, and we were stoked to know we might have another chance. The north side of the ridge was steep, fall-and-you’re-dead sort of terrain. To the south the angle was lower, but we would be fully exposed to the sheep in the wide open; no hope for cover or concealment. We had to stick to the north which was loose, crumbly, fractured rock.
Sometimes the going was easy, and other times it was on all fours, using hand- and foot-holds to skirt towers and obstacles in the ridge. Moving steadily along we eventually reached a small saddle that was wide enough for us both to stretch out. We crawled to the edge for a look.
Three rams were in the meadow below. Two were obviously sub-legal, and one was big. He was our boy, the one I’d picked out from the trail at the outset of the day. We couldn’t believe our good luck that somehow the sheep managed to stay put throughout the course of the day as we toiled to close the gap.
We ranged them at 680 yards. Too far for comfort. We had to get closer, but there was one major problem. We had run out of passable terrain on the ridge. The north side was now vertical kitty litter and the south side still offered no protection from the view of the sheep. From where we were we could crawl to the base of a small pinnacle, maybe 50-100 yards closer, but that was it. We were stuck between a rock and shitty place and didn’t know what to do.
We crawled to the base of the pinnacle and ranged them again. 600 yards. Still too far for a confident shot and we’d likely not have a second chance. We deliberated for quite a while. The sheep were feeding towards us, but ever-so-slowly and in no predictable pattern. They might close enough of the distance over time, but by the time they were directly under us the wind would be taking our scent right to them.
At the outset of the hunt I told Andy that one of my great weaknesses as a hunter is patience. If I had a dollar for ever stalk I’ve blown or chance I’ve ruined because I was impatient I would have quite a few more dollars than I have now. That having been said, in some forms of hunting it pays to be proactive and take the hunt to the animal rather than sit and wait. Which situation was this? Neither of us could say with any confidence, so we took the conservative choice and waited.
The rams grazed around, taking a few pulls on grass and then looking up to chew and survey the scene. They worked 50 yards closer over the course of perhaps 40 minutes, but they also began to separate, which was not good for us. The ram farthest uphill, slightly better than a sickle horn, started moving in our direction to the point where he was getting close enough to bust us. Our fear was that he would alert and the others would bolt, blowing everything. The other two sheep had started moving away now, farther downhill. Also not good.
I told Andy that the call was entirely his and he made up his mind to go for it. Every time the sheep would put their heads down to graze Andy would gain a few feet on the ground, belly crawling now on a wide open downhill slope in plain view of all three sheep. He wanted to reach 300 yards but he wouldn’t know that, as he left everything but his rifle behind so he wouldn’t be burdened sliding through the scree. The slope angled down about 20 degrees which made the crawling easier, but to keep an eye on the sheep and time his movements accordingly Andy had to crane his neck up at an awkward angle and freeze.
Soon enough Andy was out of my sight and I laid prone, watching the sheep and waiting. Hoping. The ram farthest uphill was uncomfortably close now and I figured any minute he would see one of us and it would all be over. The minutes were agonizing, and the ram we were after meandered somewhat aimlessly, one minute giving us a few feet back, the next wandering a few farther away. Every time he turned broadside I held my breath, hoping for a shot that didn’t come. Where was Andy and what was happening? I had nothing to do but wait and shiver in the stout breeze peeling over the ridge.
The ram worked his way out of a little creek drainage and stood perfectly broadside to us. I held my breath yet again and suddenly there it was. Andy’s shot rang out across the valley and the sheep instantly scattered. The ram didn’t act hit, and after a dozen quick steps in our direction they all paused to try and figure out what the hell had happened. Another shot, and my heart was stuck in my throat. None of the sheep reacted for what seemed like an eternity, and then… he tipped over. When I say he tipped over I don’t mean he took a few steps, wavered a bit and fell into a twitching pile. It was perhaps the most unique big game death I can recall having seen. He literally went from standing and staring to on his back with four legs in the air without twitching a muscle.
He was stone cold dead. I jumped to my feet with both fists in the air and immediately spotted Andy, sitting, in the middle of the slope a few hundred yards below, still looking through his scope, making sure the ram wasn’t going to move again. I picked up our gear, ran down the hill as quickly as I could and gave Andy a massive hug. He was in tears. Neither of us could believe we’d pulled of the improbable stalk or incredibly difficult shot, let alone found two needles in the haystack. We were grinning ear to ear as we rushed down to him.
His body was massive and he was a perfect specimen. Fitting. He was full curl plus a few inches on one side and right at full curl with a broken tip on the other. The wave of joy that we were riding still hasn’t subsided and I don’t expect it will any time soon.
We carved him up on the southern sunny slope in a small patch of grass, among soaring ridges and summits in every direction. We paused at regular intervals to wonder if this was really happening. Were we really here, and did we actually pull this off? Or would one pinch send us back to reality to find us dreaming in a soggy sleeping bag in the pouring rain back at the trailhead. The carving went quickly enough and we started the long walk, too happy to care about being tired.
Andy’s ram died just at snowline on the peak behind us.
As I mentioned earlier, the experience as a whole was so much more than a hunt and a harvest. It had a deeper meaning for both of us. For me it was the chance to reignite a passion and a motivation I have been starting to wonder if I still had. For Andy it was a lifelong dream come true and the culmination of so much planning, preparation, reading, research, and dreaming. Together it was the next step in a friendship that began in a challenging time for both of us and has continued through time and the trials that life often offers.
Not long after finally marrying, my wife and I had to decide where we wanted to live for the long term. We had to contemplate what was important to us and what sort of environment we wanted to raise a family in. I’ve lived in towns small and large across the country and have valued my time in both, but I’ve always needed to be close to mountains and rivers, wild places and wilderness. We chose Alaska, which meant coming home for my wife and back to a place from my childhood for me.
Being able to engage wild places and wild things means more to me than anything else–minus family that is–and it makes me sad to know that fewer people every day are getting the chance and/or taking the time to get outside and into the woods. It is a rare day that we eat meat that we didn’t harvest, and a sizeable portion of our vegetables comes from our ever-expanding garden. We are far from being able to say we live a completely subsistence-based lifestyle but we are getting closer. Watching the smile on my little girl’s face as she stuffs it with salmon fresh from the river or chews on a tender piece of sheep from the stew pot gives me tremendous satisfaction. Knowing that this protein is free range and organic in every way and died a humane death is also important to us.
In reflecting on the hunt, which is a daily occurrence, I wonder where things might go from here. Is a Dall sheep hunt the pinnacle of big game hunting in the far north? It is hard to imagine a better experience, and perhaps there will never be one. That’s OK. I plan to keep trying, and I am sure that question and many others will be answered along the way. We walked into the hall of the mountain king and met the man on his own terms. We carried him out on our backs and he will forever be a part of memories and our bodies. Luck was on our side, and we are grateful.