Nine Days in the Chugach: Part II by Adam Smith

We awoke to a slight drizzle on opening day. It was tough to make the call to get out and get wet, but it had to be done if we wanted to make the most of our time. We separated and packed the inner tent from the rain fly on our Hilleberg to try and keep the inner as dry as possible. Back down to the ice. Thankfully it was mostly downhill at this point.

After a few hours of glacier travel, we were close to the fork. A few hundred yards and we would turn the corner so to speak. We were hitting the same area where we had seen the chunky black bear on our first night. We peaked over a moraine to see a boar gorging himself on blueberries! He was the largest black bear I had ever been within rifle range of, it took all I had to not turn this sheep hunt into a bear hunt! He was no booner, but he was nice and would have made for a delectable dinner over an alder sapling fire.

We skirted the bear, gave him our wind, and made ourselves visible to him at roughly 200 yards. As soon as he saw/smelled us he bolted straight up the mountainside, a sure relief that we wouldn’t have to deal with him at close range. Onward we went. Within the next 300 yards we would encounter five bears. Two sows with cubs and one smaller boar. They all spooked. The sows and cubs went up the mountain, and the boar went out across the glacier. A route I personally would not have chosen. Silly Yogi.

Once we got past the bear infested berry patch, we followed a saddle up to get a good view out across the glacier at all the new terrain. Let the glassing games begin! After 10 minutes or so, our plan began to crumble. We spotted a deep crevasse in the glacier that appeared impassable. Imagine a huge icy staircase, except the stairs were roughly 50+ feet in height.

This is where I began to get concerned. For those of you keeping track, we had been in the backcountry for four days and seen a total of zero sheep. We had nine days left. I was a bit apprehensive. No wonder this is a draw tag, there are no sheep here! Frustration was creeping in. I knew we had no choice but to keep at it and continue to log the miles.

We pulled out the map, and this is where that ace in the hole comes into play. When we flew with Chris, we took a bunch of pictures figuring we might use those pictures to aid us at some point. This was that point. We used the pictures to look at the drainage and pick a route up into the country we wanted to get to. After much deliberation, we concluded that we needed to get off this glacier completely and head up another drainage towards a totally different glacier. After a few Delorme text messages to our pilot, we verified where we could be picked up with a full load some 10+ miles away. Now only one thing separated us from new country, a loooooong walk. Game on.

Let’s hit the fast forward button. After cliffing out above a swift moving glacier-fed creek twice, scaling down another cliff face, making a ten foot jump down into the river bed, and a seven mile walk, we pick up where I started the story.

We walked up the east side of the river until a point where we were presented with no option but ford the stream. We hit a cliff face that came directly down into the water. Going up was not an option, we had to cross now or find a spot nearby if we wanted to continue upstream towards the glacier we wanted to hunt.

**Enter shit show referenced at the beginning of the story**

Blake stripped down, and agreed to go first. Thankfully, because he had a lighter pack than I did and in his words, “because his body had been handling the wear and tear better.” Smart ass. HE DIDN’T TUMBLE HEAD FIRST DOWN A MOUNTAIN! Damn straight he should be feeling better!!

The first spot Blake tried to cross was essentially a death trap. I snapped a few pictures of GI Joe in his skivvies trying to cross the river. No dice. When his trekking pole began to shudder due to the force of the water, I knew he had to retreat. As he regressed, he expressed that he was, “f***ing cold, and we needed to find another f***ing spot to cross and now!” I knew that was just the onset of hypothermia talking and I need not pay attention to this surly SOB that had suddenly consumed my hunting partner. We scrambled back downstream to a spot that appeared to be slightly tamer.

Upon reaching our only opportunity to continue this hunt, I stripped down to my skivvies and in we went. We had decided to buddy cross, as that was our only real chance at being able to keep our balance. To give you a mental image, imagine two guys standing face to face, this is how we entered the stream. We both used a trekking pole in our arms closest to the side of the creek we were moving towards. On the other side, we locked arms. We were making good progress until two-thirds of the way across when I decided to throw a wrench in the plan. As I stepped, I lifted my foot too high. Instead of dragging my foot so that I would feel what was in front of me, I lifted my foot off the river bed in the attempt to make one big step and get out of this hell hole. Jokes on me, into the river I went pulling Blake with me. Luckily for me, he had a good foot hold and managed to anchor in.

He yelled at me, “Get the f*** up!! Come on, you have to stand up!!!” Thankfully we still had a firm grasp on each other and in one big motion Blake pulled me up out of the deathtrap as I regained my balance and stumbled up onto shore.

We spent a little time conversing about what just happened as fear of hypothermia flooded my brain. I dropped my soaked pack and clothes, then dug out my rain gear to throw on over my shivering body. This acted as a shell to lock in body heat. Unexpectedly plunging into glacial runoff on a gloomy August afternoon is not exactly my idea of a “nice cool dip.” Nevertheless, we got the tent pitched and beds made while I shivered and began the re-warming process. Blake kept his cool all the while as he monitored me.

We got everything sorted out and set up for a night spent there on the riverbed. For the next 36-hours, the rain pelted the walls of the tent. We laid there recovering from the massive move we had made leading up to that idiotic river crossing. We had time to reflect on our mistakes thus far and life outside of hunting.

They say every good sheep hunt has at least one life or death scenario; at this point I had been doing a pretty good job testing my own mortality. I swear that crossing that creek is the single most stupid act I have done in my entire life.

We licked our wounds the entire next day while listening to a gloomy Chugach downpour ebb and flow. This went on day and night, seeming as if it would never cease. Throughout the night we could hear the creek growing even more violent in force. At times the rolling rocks in the torrent sounded like thunder as they bounced downstream closer to the toe of the valley. Those 36-hours in the tent were earned. Sometimes forced rest is a blessing. We went to sleep taking turns reading stories from the legend Mr. O’Connor himself. Sleep came easy that night as we dreamt of deep heavy curls and creek crossings.

We awoke to a drizzle, but saw the clouds had already begun to lift. We would make the move back to the glacier we had our sights on. No matter what, we needed to keep moving if we wanted to make the most of our remaining seven days.

Up the valley we pushed. The walking wasn’t bad as we made our way towards the glacier; it was mostly typical riverbed walking. Lots of rocks which seemed to be the norm for this hunt, there were also alders strewn about growing wherever their devilish roots could take hold. We navigated our way up to the glacier rather quickly, in less than 2-hours.

Once we arrived we had to find our way onto the glacier. Typically, the only thing harder than getting on the glacier is getting off. This time, we found a somewhat easy way on. We had to do some technical climbing but after a few hairy spots we hit a saddle and worked our way up the ice and onto moraine. After a half hour or so, we gained view of the mountains ahead. The mountains we had come to scour. We deemed this a good time to sit down for a drink of water to replenish our fluids.  And of course, did what we wanted to do ever so badly, sit behind the glass!

After less than 30 seconds, while I was still digging through my pack for my water purifying drops, Blake informed me he had found sheep. AND THEY WERE RAMS!!

Let’s be sure we all comprehend what’s going on here. After seven days and roughly 27 miles in the Chugach, we had finally found sheep! How did we have this much trouble finding sheep in the CHUGACH?! My excitement was through the roof. I couldn’t get my spotter out fast enough. I began to literally count sheep, while Blake searched the rest of the mountainside for any other signs of life. In the end, we came up with six total, all rams. We watched them for 10 or so minutes, there were a couple rams that were fun to watch. They were very territorial and kept butting heads with any other ram that invaded their space.

We were still far enough out that we couldn’t quite tell how big each ram was. However, we knew that two of them needed a closer look. We devised a plan to walk right at them across the great wide open, using all the nooks and crannies the glacier spewed out in front of us to our advantage. About the time we needed to make an unprotected move in plain sight of the rams, the sheep gods sent us a gift. A fog bank rolled in and swallowed the bench that the rams were perched on. Perfect. After another hour of walking up and down the glacier navigating through all the little cuts and avoiding the pools of water on top of the ice, we had arrived on the same mountain as the sheep.

There was only one route up to them, straight up. This was sheep country, a bit more gentle than the stuff we found the goats in a few days earlier and a lot greener. Nonetheless, it was still very vertical. We knew we had a gnarly climb ahead of us.

Upon getting off the glacier we decided we’d get camp situated and see what time it was. We had slacked on hydrating ourselves the past 2-days in the tent, because neither one of us wanted to get out to relieve ourselves! We were both hurting for fluids. Our bodies were doing well considering we were on mile 28 or so at this point. We had camp setup by about 19:30. Plenty of time to try for a stalk. If your legs are fresh and if you’ve eaten in the last 3-hours. This was my tag, so it was my call. I made the decision to wait it out and do an early morning stalk. I figured if we went now, we would be forcing it. With the impending darkness and our spent bodies, we took off our boots, donned our camp shoes and settled in for the night. We got comfy and glassed the surrounding ledges and peaks.

It was then that we found another ram along with a billy. We had walked past them earlier that morning. They were up above us on the mountain we had used to access the glacier. The billy appeared to be a fine specimen; however, the ram was a sight to see. He was a banana ram, couldn’t have been very old. But he was sick, real sick as it was visible that he had lost a bunch of weight. His hind legs were extremely thin; his bony hips had no fat on them whatsoever. He reminded me of the neglected dogs and horses you’d see on the ASPCA commercials where they make you feel heartless and ask you for your hard-earned money. You know the ones. We didn’t get too many looks at him as the fog came and went all night. He eventually would feed up into some nasty cliffs out of our view and into the heavens where he belonged, probably forever.

It was a good reminder that life here on the mountain is a treacherous one. This echoed the legitimacy that Mother Nature was a cruel mistress and she would wait for no man. We documented more of the trip with my DSLR, had dinner, and went to bed.  At least, that’s probably how Blake tells it! I laid there under my down quilt on my Thermarest for a solid hour or two wondering if I had made the right decision to wait and try the stalk in the morning.

Doubt flooded my mind. Had we camped too close to them? Had our scent swirled up the hill? Did they up and leave? Would they even be on this mountain tomorrow? Were they mature rams? Would we see them before they saw us? Could we even make it up to where they were?

I finally forced myself to sleep by pulling my beanie over my eyes and thinking about how fortunate we were to be where we were, and how incredible it was that Blake got to spend his two-week R&R from Afghanistan here on the hill with me. What a world we live in, for something as crazy as this to happen. He literally flew around the world to join me on this hunt. They say finding reliable hunting partners is a difficult task…I’d say those folks just aren’t living right!

We awoke to the sound of my beeping watch alarm at 0500. We cooked a quick breakfast, and packed only the gear we’d need to process a sheep. The hunt was on.

I led the way as we worked up the steep spires that towered overhead. Looking back, I would have never been on the stuff we’d climbed if it weren’t for the nimble-footed monarchs that leered above. It took us longer than anticipated as we worked upward. It was nearing 0700 and the thermals were likely to switch in the next hour or two. We knew we were racing the clock to either get on the same level as the sheep, and locate them, or get above them before the jig was up. We arrived in a spot where we knew the sheep had been. At this point, there were only a few options. They were either tucked back up near the back of the bowl or they had smelled us and were long gone.

We only had a couple hundred feet left to ascend when I saw the first ram. He was high above us and it was going to be very difficult to get into position, but we had to try. We dropped down to shed our packs as we knew we’d need to be as low profile as possible if we were going to pull this one off. There was a chute we planned to use to get us over and behind a rise in the hill, putting us within 400 yards. As we made the move left to right across the chute and began to make our way up the opposite side, Blake whispered sternly, “ADAM FREEZE!”

We had been so focused on the sheep above us to the right, we forgot to check to the left as we ascended and new terrain had begun to reveal itself. There had to be 8 or 10 sheep there. And it appeared they had us pegged. As we laid there, they began to mill about, a few of them looking our direction, the majority standing about browsing on the lush green tundra they inhabited.

We turned our attention to this new group on our left. They were much closer and were on or about the same level, if not slightly below us. There were 2 sheep I could tell with the naked eye were fine rams. I had to get somewhere I could make a shot. That’s when I noticed the most perfectly placed boulder there ever was. 15-yards away and slightly above where I currently laid, was the perfect rest. I had to get to this rock. I cautiously belly crawled uphill in the dew-covered lichen, I was soaked and it didn’t even occur to me. I was lost in the moment.

Once I reached the rock, the rams caught my movement. They all stood up, but they couldn’t figure us out. This gave me time to look over the sheep and try to distinguish who was the leader of the bachelor group. I found the 2 that were at the front of the group. One of them tipped out more than the other, and both still had their lamb tips from what I could see through my scope. Blake loudly whispered, “450 yards.” It took me what seemed like forever to find a comfortable position on the rock to take the shot, but I finally settled in and when the sheep standing in front of the one I had picked-out cleared, I squeezed off my first shot. WHAP! I heard it smack him in the ribs. I chambered another round and sent it, I pulled it just under him. Clean miss. He tried to take a few steps uphill. I couldn’t let him go up into the cliffs, so I chambered another round, put the crosshairs on him again and sent one more. This one went through the boiler room; he took one more step and then tumbled down backwards where he came to rest against a rocky outcropping. It happened. I had harvested my first sheep!

The feeling of elation I had immediately after my ram took his final breath is one that cannot be described, especially to someone that has never experienced the trials and tribulations of a sheep hunt. The ups and downs, and the pain and suffering we choose to put ourselves through are hard to convey. Our loved ones who don’t join us in the mountains will never be able to fully grasp what it is we do out in the backcountry. We find ourselves. And we find the places that bring true peace and tranquility to our souls.

Among the cirques and moraines, are the places where men find their meaning. Digging deep within themselves for that one last surge of energy to climb that one last ridge, to see that one last bowl, to find that one special ram. The longing for more, it’s what keeps us all going back; it keeps us visiting new places and seeing new country with old friends. It’s about the experiences.

And an experience we got! When we finally made it over to my sheep, we had some of the most magnificent lighting I have ever had the pleasure of encountering in the mountains. We took as many pictures as we liked, then got to work. We processed my ram in under two hours and headed back for camp.

I’d love to say that the rest was history and all peachy keen, but it wasn’t. Once back to camp, Blake agreed to take our full camp and I would carry my entire ram and whatever else I could fit. I was doing alright until about twenty minutes into the 7-mile hike back down off the glacier. Somehow, during the hunt my pack had shifted and was no longer fitting properly. I would find this out once we were back in civilization!

I had a brutal packout back to the strip, but somehow we made it. I shot off a text on the Delorme to our pilot and now, the rest is history! We flew back into Palmer the next morning to some much-needed showers and warm beds, another big thanks to David and Noemi! The memories made on this hunt are ones I will cherish forever. An incredible nine days in the Chugach Mountains on a successful sheep hunt with a dear friend. What else could a man ask for?

Now, before I say goodbye, I want to talk about success. This word means something different to all of us. To some it simply means filling tags, to others it means coming home safely. To me, it’s about enjoyment. Success is picking the easiest side of the river to walk, choosing the right time to walk out across the glacier, choosing to stay in camp and wait to make the stalk in the morning rather than hurry up the hill right before dark, choosing to up and leave the drainage we were in and come 19-miles around and up into another. Success is being able to look back on the adventure and know that you left it all on the mountain and that you learned something that you can take with you on another hunt. Success is walking away from the Super Cub when you land back in civilization with all those memories vividly etched into your brain, forever. Success is me being able to sit here and say that the ram hanging across the room from me on my wall is there because we went into the Chugach Mountains, walked all over God’s green Earth and found exactly what we were looking for – an adventure.

Posted by jomh