Now I am no expert hunter. You could even call me nascent in that endeavor. That said, during my one and only sheep hunt, something shifted in my hunting ethos. What I realized (and maybe this is the whole reason the culture of sheep hunters exists) is that everyone is chasing a version of this paradigm shift. Let me try to explain.
The pursuit of a wild sheep takes you to places that you likely would never have seen otherwise. The ultimate purpose (to kill) forces you to test your body, mind, and spirit in ways that some might find masochistic. The killing of an animal is the finality that separates a hunter from a hiker, or a hunter from a bird watcher. Unlike hiking and birding, the utter finality of our purpose requires something else. It requires a journey, and a connectivity to the rhythm of the place that only comes by spending days on end immersed in the fabric of the system. It connects you to the pulse of mother nature herself. This journey provides experiences that collectively change who you are. The “why” of this journey is what sets hunters, and I think especially sheep hunters, apart.
What is this why? It is a series of tests. Tests that start well before one ever takes the first step on that mountain. It is countless hours of training, pushing, planning, and overcoming physical and mental barriers. Within the confines of the hunt, there are tests that check your fortitude to continue, that force you to accept discomfort. It’s the testing of one’s self that I believe is the true calling of sheep hunting. It’s your very character that bends, molds, and gets shaped into a new you.
What I’m about to share may not be news to those of you who are seasoned mountain hunting veterans. You may read this and affirm what I have written, and you may also say you forgot about this element or that one. But this article is not for you. Rather this article is for that person who has never hunted sheep, but who has said, “I want to go, I want to do it.” It is you who need to keep reading.
Sheep hunting is very near the pinnacle of what your body can be put through (in a hunting context). Now don’t get me wrong. I didn’t do the 14-day backpack Alaskan or Asian hunt, but I got a small taste of what that is possibly like. I would say that a good mantra to carry with you heading into a sheep hunt is this: “If you think you have trained enough for a specific hunt, you haven’t.” Head back, go ahead, just turn right back around now, and head back to the gym, Stairmaster, or whatever your chosen exercise is, and go harder and longer than you have ever done. Because whatever you did prior to the hunt, the mountain has a way of quickly showing you that it was nothing in comparison to what you now need to do. Do not skimp.
Yeah, yeah. You’ve heard it all before. I was like you. But the longer you are out there, the more your fitness will allow you to continue to climb those mountains day in and day out. Stop ignoring all those mountain fitness articles that you’ve been meaning to read. Read them. Implement the exercises. Make them a habit in your routine. And P.S. – do something especially for those quads coming downhill. Loaded downhill descents suck and will chew your quads to shreds.
Don’t believe the weatherman. He sucks. Don’t ever trust the weather forecast for your hunt. Prepare for the unexpected and plan for the worst. If the weatherman says the highs will be in the sixties, plan for snow. If the weatherman says no wind, plan for day-long 50 mph gusts on back-to-back days. If the weatherman — stop. Don’t listen to the weatherman. Be prepared for every circumstance. Not only will it save your hunt from one of misery (see section below) from a discomfort standpoint, it could also save your life. I was unprepared; I believed the weatherman. This made for very uncomfortable glassing periods as I didn’t have the clothes for the wind or the temperatures. I know now regardless of what the weatherman says, I’ll be ensuring that I have everything in place, just in case, specifically packing a set of puffy outers for those long sits.
There is a real difference between the camo clothing you use for whitetail hunting in the southeast and the technical fabric required for a mountain hunt. There is a reason why there are companies like Sitka, KUIU, and First Lite, to name a few. This technical gear has been tested by experts in the conditions that you are likely to experience (yes, even if the weatherman doesn’t say it will happen – see advice above), and it’s designed to keep you comfortable in those conditions, so that you can continue to do what you came here to do. I can almost guarantee that every cent of the cost of that puffy down jacket that you paid will be multiplied by a factor of 100 when you are sitting on that mountain with the wind blowing and you are freezing because you have sweated into these clothes that won’t wick or dry.
It goes beyond the clothes too. Binos, scopes, and tripods are the mainstay of being able to find what you are after. Again, I know I am saying nothing new to those who are seasoned among you. But as someone who has never done it, you may have never put a pair of binoculars on a tripod and stared through them for hours on end. Find a setup that works for you. For me, it was an Outdoorsmans Trigger head and medium tripod setup. Flawless and easy operation. The medium tripod was the perfect height for me sitting on the ground glassing. Someone prior to the hunt suggested I get the larger tripod for glassing while standing. For the hunting I was doing, this would not have been practical. This was critical (remember I had never done this before), and 30+ hours of glassing later proved to me that I had made the right choice, as my body was not aching from being contorted into various positions, and probably more importantly, I could be set up glassing in minutes after stopping.
If you have never done a Western hunt, you have yet to experience truly prolonged, tough conditions. Now don’t get me wrong: sitting in a whitetail stand for hours on end in the cold can be pretty demoralizing if you are not seeing anything, and sheep hunting takes that and adds that additional layer of physicality to wrap the testing of your inner fabric by 10 fold. You will fight mental demons all day long. Nothing really can prepare you for what you will experience on that mountain. There are opportunities for you to push yourself out of your comfort zone at home while training but there is really nothing like being on the mountain to test you. The unthinkable will happen. Things that you didn’t prepare for will occur. How will you handle it? Your fortitude will be tested constantly through obstacles and hurdles. You will question yourself many times. Why are you here? What are you doing? You can’t do this, what makes you think you can be like those other sheep hunters? You left your family for this? You are cold, you are sore, you are miserable, go home. You have sacrificed time off work, time with your kids, your wife, for what – this?
All I can say is fight. Fight through it. You owe it at least to your family at home who are sacrificing the very thing you have – you. Time with you. They have allowed you to take this journey to go be who you want to be. You will make it through it. Your colleagues and wife have given you this opportunity to be you, to test yourself, put those thoughts/demons out of your head and doggedly continue what you came here to do.
In the end, it will all be worth it. Regardless of whether you kill a sheep or not, you will be a sheep hunter. When you next cross paths with another hunter and you figure out that both of you are sheep hunters, there will be the moment of connectivity. Connectivity to something bigger. You will both know that you have tested your capabilities beyond what you dreamed was possible. You will now have that insatiable itch. The one that is deep down and manifesting itself by telling you that the mountains are calling you again.
Welcome to the rest of your hunting life, forever changed.