With horse trailers in tow we headed East, homeward bound after a gruelling ten days in the backcountry of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Another sheep season had barely come and gone, and I was already working out how I would finally fill a sheep tag with a trophy bighorn next year. I HAD to get back in there. “Those rams will be legal next year” kept running through my mind. The rest of the year consisted of countless hours in the basement home gym, running wind sprints between the power poles along the highway, or getting strange looks as I hiked around with a loaded pack. I was doing everything in my power to tilt the scales in my favor for the following year.
The plan was to ride the two days in again, find the band of eight before opening day, and put one down at first legal light. Easy. It was now one month before the opener and the first challenge was upon me — two of my hunting partners couldn’t make the trip due to family commitments. My brother in-law, however, was still game to go and we made the decision to hike in rather than take horses for simplicity’s sake. It would be a shorter route but one that I had never traveled. This would be his first time hunting in the mountains and I couldn’t help but feel anxious for him, as he probably didn’t realize what he was getting into.
We hit the road four days before the season would open and set up camp for the night at the truck. Roasting elk smokies over the campfire, we went through the fine details of our plan. Wake up before light, get on the trail and put one foot in front of the other for 26 kilometres. This would put us just one 9000ft mountain from where I last laid eyes on the rams one year ago. Though I had spent a disturbing amount of time looking at maps of the area, I still wasn’t certain that we could make it all the way in with this route. Furthermore, I wasn’t sure if the mountain at the end of our route was even climbable. Morning came quickly, we soon had camp put away and everything we needed for ten days loaded into our packs. The feeling that you may be forgetting something before a trip is never stronger than right before you leave civilization for over a week. We started off in the dark, for what was sure to be the beginning of a great adventure.
We covered ground quick as we navigated the gently used horse trail that lined the valley. A few times, the trail seemed to disappear, and we were glad to have the waypoints on my Garmin In-reach to reference and keep us on track. It always amazes me how much false confidence is rendered from google earth, and how a “quick hike” up that ridge or through that ravine soon humbles a person when you realize how massive the landscape really is. We finally called it a day at kilometer 21, after twelve straight hours of creek bashing and bushwhacking. The tent went up, though it didn’t look pretty, as it is nearly impossible to pound stakes into a rock infested creek bed. Ty and I both agreed that it was the toughest thing we had ever done before, as we crawled into the sagging tipi for a much-needed sleep.
The next day we loaded up and continued on our way. We hit the alpine bowl that I had picked for camp in only five hours and started seeing sheep immediately. Five young rams filtered out across the grassy slope above our camp, and I could tell that my hunting partner was starting to understand why we had put ourselves through such a struggle. Supper sure tasted good that night, knowing we had made it into sheep country and still had one day to scout before the season opened.
The next morning — toting much lighter packs — we headed for the top of the mountain, hoping to get back onto the band of eight that I imagined would not have moved a muscle since last season. We crested the first shelf and hit the deck — there were rams within 100 yards of us. Wiggling out of our packs, the glass came out and we quietly crawled ahead until we had a view of our quarry. Methodically picking through every animal we determined there weren’t any legal rams. Not wanting to educate these young rams, we would need to back down, get into the creek bottom and skirt around the mountain out of sight, taking a different draw to the saddle. Easier said than done. As we shouldered our packs and turned to head back down we were surprised to see another ram coming up from the creek bottom behind us. He watched us intently as he walked within 80 yards. Though we had little time to determine if he was legal or not, we knew he was close. Still having the rest of the day to scout, we decided not to waver from our plan and continued towards the top.
Halfway up the mountain we found ourselves on a very long, very steep side hill section with a cliff above us and a nasty creek canyon below us. It was after a few hundred yards of this that I looked back at Ty and asked, “Are you afraid of heights”? Which he replied to with a simple, “yup”. Not that there were any other options at that point. We carefully picked our way up and along the canyon until we finally came to a ledge that allowed us to cross back over into the bowl that we had started climbing in the morning. We began to see what seemed like hundreds of marmots, they had infested that entire area and every few seconds you could hear the shrill, high pitched whistle that is so common to the high places that sheep call home. We decided to call it Marmot Basin. The binoculars revealed 31 rams below us, with a few that looked near legal, but we were on a mission. We pushed on.
Cresting the top of the mountain was a great feeling. One more goal checked off the list. I was now looking into the very bowl that held the rams from last season. I was ecstatic to see a bunch of white rumps on the same slope that we’d seen them before. Pulling up the binoculars, that enthusiasm was swiftly crushed as we watched every sheep on that slope turn into a rock. Great. Not wanting to let the climb go to waste, we settled in on the backside of the mountain and started picking apart the terrain. “I got rams” was the next thing out of my mouth as I picked up eight rams directly below us. The wind was howling and shaking the spotting scope, but we could tell there was at least three legal rams in the bunch. This plan was working out eerily well. As a storm blew in, we set up a tarp against the cliff and crawled in to ride out the driving snow and rain.
The sun was sinking low when the rams all got up and headed down into the valley flats to feed. We decided this would be our chance to get down off the peak and into the basin where the wind wouldn’t be so ruthless. About a quarter of the way down, we figured it was questionable whether we would be able to climb back out. Oh well, god hates a coward. We hit the bottom and watched the band of eight head up into the base of a waterfall. We had them put to bed and now it was our turn. A tarp stretched over a dip in the mossy ground seemed to be fairly comfortable as the rain started pouring once again.
I’m certain that night will be seared into my memory as the most miserable eight hours of my life. The rain never let up and the wind seemed to steal every bit of body heat I could generate. Sometime in the middle of the night, Ty’s hamstrings started to cramp so bad that he had to roll out of the tarp into the pouring rain to get it to release. After five minutes of muttering vulgarities that I had never heard before, he rolled back under the tarp. We had both donned our emergency bivy’s, which we found out only caused extreme condensation on the inside that ended up soaking our clothes and increasing the sound of teeth chatter. When I finally looked at my watch, it was 5 am and I hadn’t slept a lick. We exited the tarp and walked circles in the dark to warm up. Besides the swearing, not much was said that night. I guess we both knew that stating the obvious, “I’m cold” wouldn’t change the situation. We just had to grit and bear it, as cuddling just wasn’t an option — I checked.
When the darkness faded, we had our eyes locked onto the waterfall where we last saw the rams. It was now 9 AM and we still hadn’t seen them come down to feed, so we decided to hike down to get a look into the drainage. As we started to get a view of the hiding spot, I pulled the tape from my barrel feeling positive we would be within shooting distance very soon. Full view of the drainage revealed nothing more than rocks and water. They had ghosted us, and it was apparent that we had been far too confident the night before. We glassed for the rest of the morning but failed to turn up a single sheep. At that point we decided to try and hike up above the waterfall drainage, despite it looking impossibly steep and narrow. Halfway to the top, we made the call to turn around as we had left our trekking poles at the tarp, and one misstep would lead to consequences we didn’t need to deal with. We packed up the makeshift shelter and started back towards camp. There was no way we were spending another night with no sleeping bags. It was a grunt getting over that peak, but we made it over in a fraction of the time that it took us the day before. Our bodies were getting used to the beating, and we already had a route picked out. We meandered down the basin towards camp and did not see any of the 31 rams from the day before. Our opening day was not going as planned. Camp was a welcome sight at 3 PM, we soon had two hot meals in our bellies and a fire roaring. As the sun faded on our opening day, we were pleased to see sheep on the mountain above us. Maybe tomorrow would turn out better.
We both slept great and woke up feeling fresh and ready to tackle the elevation again. It had snowed through the night just enough to dust the slopes and make it tough to keep pants dry as you walk through the waist deep shrubbery. After finishing our breakfast of high calorie protein powder and bacon jerky, we started up the mountain once again. Catching a glimpse of a few young rams on our way up, we moved downwind of them and slowly made our way to a vantage point. When we got to a high spot where we could see, there weren’t any animals in sight. We assumed they went over the next ridge and quickly covered ground to find out if we were right.
When we peeked over the spine, we spotted the large band of rams. Initially, we were disappointed to see that none were legal however within twenty minutes, more sheep started to move into sight from the creek below us. It was easy to see that these rams were more mature than the rest. I shifted the spotting scope onto a ram I had picked out with my binoculars. He was bedded broadside to me at 330 yards. I carefully looked him over. Watching closely every time he would turn his head I finally determined he was legal. At that moment, my heart started hammering like never before. He wasn’t a toad, but I wasn’t about to pass on a legal ram after all the time and effort I’d put in. I looked over to Ty who was glassing another ram further up the slope. “He’s legal” is all I said, my voice sounding shaky even to me. I passed the scope to Ty so that he could get a better look at the other ram while I set my pack along the crest of the ridge and settled in for a shot. I must’ve checked the range 20 times and made sure my scope was dialed in perfectly. I zoomed in to 25x and adjusted my parallax. Everything was perfect, I just had to wait for Ty’s call. My heart rate had slowed down when Ty crawled over to me and said, “Take your shot”. I nuzzled deep into the stock and brought the ram into the crosshairs. Pushing forward with my thumb, I flipped off the safety, timed my breathing with the lulls in the wind and squeezed the trigger. Whap! When I regained the picture in my scope he wasn’t getting up. I rolled away from my rifle and let out a deep breath. I had a ram on the ground! I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all.
Much to our surprise, the rest of the rams kept on eating and didn’t pay much attention to the shot. I crawled over to where Ty had the scope set up and had a look at the other ram that was now giving us a good profile view. Though he was very close to legal, I agreed that Ty made the right call and passed. We gathered up our gear and sky-lined ourselves which sent the band up the basin. We picked our way down the steep hillside, crossed the creek and headed up the opposite slope to where my ram was laying. Walking up to him rendered me speechless. I dropped my pack and put my hands on his horns. I had waited a long time and walked a lot of miles to get the chance to do that. The celebration was short and sweet as it was time to get to work. We quartered and caped in good time and loaded the ram onto our packs. To avoid much climbing, we decided to take the low route back to camp through the creek canyon. This turned out to be a horrible mistake when we found ourselves ass-sliding down ten-foot canyon walls with half a sheep on our backs. Eventually, we popped out just upstream of our camp and put the meat in the shade to keep cool.
We cleaned up camp and loaded everything onto the packs. They sure did look heavy. Sitting into the daunting load, we cinched down the buckles and prepped our legs to stand. An awkward roll onto all fours made it easier to stand up. A good pack goes a long way under that kind of stress and I was sure glad I hadn’t cheaped out. We hiked until dark and stopped when we found a decent spot to set up the tent. After hoisting the meat into a tree, we sparked a fire and ate a big meal. Laying by the fire we felt a huge sense of accomplishment though we still had 20 km to go. I slept with the ram head right outside the tent with my rifle at the ready. I was willing to fight any bear that wanted to take a crack at it. We made good time the next day charging straight through the rivers without any worry about wet feet and hit the truck by 4 pm where we cracked two beers and slurped them down in record time. The trip was over, we were sore and mentally drained. Though we were successful, the things I cherish most are the memories. The knowing of all the hell we went through for a goal that was met. In my eyes, I got far more out of the process of it all than the outcome. It’s the climb.