Last Breath: Life on the Mountain, By Steve Opat

Even if you weren’t an expert and weren’t raised in that realm, you’d know what date it was. Instead of bright colored clothing and big cameras, all the people in the mountains were wearing camouflage and casting the glare of their optics. And instead of dogs (usually some mutt-looking thing), they carried guns.

Four good ole boys stirred awake behind the defilade of a large crag. The oldest one of the group acknowledged that it was the third straight year that he and his three best friends found themselves overlooking that very basin on the opener of hunting season. As they ate breakfast, they laughed at the sneaky camo-clad hunters giving away their position by glassing towards the morning sun. They decided to follow tradition and head further from civilization and on towards a drainage a few miles down the ridge – this one being so secluded and hidden by rugged terrain that hunters just simply don’t make it there.

The four of them strolled along the lee side of the ridge; taking their time to enjoy the scenery, drink the fresh air, and snack frequently. There was no need to hurry, they were confident they were ahead of the crowd and that nobody saw where they were sneaking in to.

When they arrived, there was an impressive band of lambs and ma’ams feeding at the toe of the basin below. Selecting a cozy spot in the crags above them, the four buddies rested, snacked a bit, and shared conversation about how encouraging it was to see such good lamb recruitment. Barring any major weather disasters, this mountain was going to be bountiful for years to come. There’s just something special about it. All the things a sheep needs are readily available – great pastures, ample water seeps, and an unnatural amount of natural mineral.

The herd below fed leisurely as the boys watched from their concealment above. It was a cozy relief to be shielded from the cold, rising, thermal breeze while basking in the sun in a place where nobody was hunting. They could eat and nap there until there was good reason to move.

As one old boy relaxed in the secluded crags, he reflected upon all the great memories he’d had there with the gang – easy, fun adventures mixed with skirts past death in the face of horrendous storms. Oddly, he thought to himself, “If I could choose a place to die someday, I’d be content taking my last breaths here on this overlook next to these fine men.”

Morning evolved into midday and the high sun was quickly passing behind the peaks – and no longer gracing them with its warmth. They moseyed around a bit to stretch their muscles as they worked from the east- facing crags into some south- facing spires that were beginning to warm. There they ate lunch and settled in for the routine afternoon siesta beneath the high sun. It wasn’t too long after he laid down that the fate of the day took a dramatic change.

The old boy had just nodded off to sleep, the reel of dreams starting to show, when he was jarred awake by a sharp poke in his ribs. It took his breath away, but shot his wide eyes open.

“Time to wake up buddy…”

Part 1

The pain continued to rob him of breath. All he wanted was one full inhalation, but he felt like he was suffocating on his own throat. The nausea was overwhelming. He entered a state of total panic as the anxiety of the situation overcame him. He wanted to get to his feet, but everything felt incredibly heavy – his head especially. It collapsed. He laid there feeling as though he was dying and just forced himself to breathe, praying that it was something that would pass. He attempted to relax in hopes that it would ease the pain or help him breathe through it.

Soon the old boy was seeing that strange light. The one he feared in the worst of dreams. The one that makes him wake in cold sweats and intense panic: the death dream.

Adrenaline surged and he sensed his racing heart. He forced his eyes open and knew that he had to get to his feet just to shake away the terror of that vision. He rocketed from the ground. Though on his feet, he could never control his legs well enough to gain balance. His clumsy legs and heavy head quickly skidded him into the scree where he then began sliding and tumbling uncontrollably down the mountain.

To a great surprise, his tumultuous descent was arrested by a small rock outcropping. Everything hurt. The old boy knew that body-wrecking tumbles like that are not survivable. Amazingly, he could still open his eyes. He had to look around and found his friends. He was so disoriented and miserable with pain. He kept searching for proof that this was all just a bad dream and that he just needed to jar himself awake – and he could return to the relaxing day on the rock. He again forced open his failing eyelids while attempting to lift his head. He may as well have been lifting the mountain. When his head collapsed and he realized he had no control over his body, he began to acknowledge that the dream was actually real life.

“Take three strong breaths. Be powerful.” The old boy told himself.

One breath: He was aware of everything around him. All the colors were so vivid. The evolving autumn colors of the high alpine; a kaleidoscope of yellows, greens, and reds. The glistening of the isolated quartz pockets hiding in the granite cliffs. The sound of the breeze fluming through the summit peaks. It rooted him. He knew that he was alive and at home. This wasn’t a dream.

The second breath: He was aware of his body. He no longer felt that throbbing pain in his rib. His body felt heavy as a stone. At the same time, he felt numb and as though he was floating. His legs were immobile. His breaths still required great focus and force. His eyelids were the only thing he could move. Astonishingly, despite the robust metallic taste in his mouth, he could still smell the rich moist air from the rising thermals. They filled his nose with the smell of the mountain. Oddly, they made him feel secure.

The third breath: The old boy was aware of his fate. His eyelids fell hard but he forced them open for one last look at the mountain and hoped to see his friends. The peaks had a different glow to them now. It was as though his images of the death light had fused with his pristine visions of that perfect place in the mountains. He was in fact dying and had fought it as long as possible. That was it. Then there was only that bright light…and then darkness.

~Ovis Dalli Dalli

June 2009-August 10th, 2018

Part 2

The old boy regained his breath and his orientation and crawled in line with his three youngster buddies who were concealing themselves amongst the rocks of the ledge. They all watched nervously as four ghostly bodies appeared from the crags across the basin and worked directly towards them. These apparitions stepped meticulously through the high pasture, climbed onto a sunny perch below, and then bedded amongst the rocks. The scene made the old boy feel like he was still dreaming.

When the heads below began to bob, the old boy and his friends knew it was time to make their move. The route was evident and the team quickly agreed on the plan and who would play each role – all of them having extensive experience in each one.

“If you want an animal to die in this state, you take Brett with you.” This was Steve’s advice and nobody disagreed. He and Brian would stay back to photograph. But mostly, they’d just stay out of the way and be ready with the packs.

The two hunters kept their heads and their guns low until the crest of a talus slope shielded their approach. Once concealed, they scurried to a small grassy prominence above the rams. The stalk was easier than any climb during sheep hunting generally is. Parting the grass with their rifle barrels, they watched through their scopes as the rams took turns being either the sentinel or the sleeper. The old ram’s head bobbed as he drifted to sleep. The old hunter’s crosshairs bobbed to the rhythm of his anxious breaths as he processed the twenty-one years of dreaming and heartache playing through his mind. He had heartache from missing a ram when he was a young soldier; heartache from all the hunting seasons he missed while deployed; and heartache from years of healing a body that was too injured to endure the mountains. Brett settled the tension with the affirmation that the big ram was as they thought from above – both full curl and older than eight years old.

The rifle blast was echoed by the thwack of the bullet striking the old ram’s side. Heads fell to the ground on both ends of the bullet’s path. The old ram was dead. The old hunter was paralyzed. He forced himself to take three strong breaths to gather his composure.

The first breath: He began to cry. He didn’t care if his friends saw him cry because he had too much emotion – too much joy – to contain.

The second breath: He held his breath as he watched the great ram bolt and take a dramatic tumble down the scree field and miraculously come to rest on a small ledge. As the old hunter exhaled, he felt intense sorrow for the strong life he had taken. It felt heavy in his gut and made the third breath come with more effort.

The third breath: Inhalation was interrupted by the sniffles of emotion. When he came to full breath, composure came to him. His joy and sorrow were sewn into an uplifting spirit of respect for that old ram and for that young team of mountain hobo buddies that had busted their asses to support him in his quest.

The two hunters laid in that grassy sniper patch until their companions arrived with the packs. They all ate, hydrated and passed the Fireball whiskey while re-telling their own version of the hunt. Someone presented an eerie observation: That ram’s day was identical to their own day right up until the instant that the bullet struck. They all realized how that bullet, that change of fate, could just have easily been a rogue rock beneath one of their boots that sent one of them tumbling to their final resting place. They all agreed that life is fickle, but also, that it’s good to get on a mountain and appreciate it. It’s good to have great friends to share these views, these days, and these memories with. It’s good to get kicked out of the <1 Club.

~Steve Opat, on behalf of Janner Morgan

First Sergeant Morgan, You’re officially Kicked Out!

 

Originally printed in Wild Sheep® magazine – reprinted with permission.

Posted by Nolan Osborne