Words by Garret Rock
Photography by Bianca Germain
Dust filled my mouth as I desperately tried to stop my slide down the loose rock face. I was gaining speed with each foot traveled. Half the distance to the 20-foot cliff passed by in seconds. I was conscious of the weight of my pack, heavy with the quarters of a bighorn ram. If it pulled me into a roll stopping my momentum would be impossible.
As quickly as my feet were swept from underneath by the sliding scree, I came to a stop. My boots dug into a depression filled with sand-like rock. My fingers throbbed from clawing the ground, and a warm sensation from blood seeping my pant leg was strangely comfortable. I uttered a word not appropriate for written consideration. The finale to this hunt was proving to be as challenging as the first 12 days. Yet, there was nothing I’d rather be doing.
An Unusual Year
2020 has been an unusual year. The primary cause is realized by all. Personally, something else loomed large in my daily thoughts. Drawing a coveted Colorado Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep tag offered an unexpected respite from the afflictions of a pandemic.
As unfathomable as it seems, not even bighorn sheep were spared from its effects. Stay-at-home orders in Colorado and surrounding states mobilized unprecedented numbers of backcountry enthusiasts, mobbing Colorado’s wild places. Trailheads looked like the parking lot at Red Rocks Amphitheater during a Grateful Dead concert. To add fuel to the fire, in the most literal sense, an unusually dry summer and an anemic monsoon season contributed to three of Colorado’s largest wildfires on record.
All forms of human recreation are attributed to shifts in behavior in bighorn sheep. Motorized vehicles and mountain bikers cause bighorns to flee. Yet, it is hikers that bighorns are most weary of, fleeing more often and further than the other backcountry modes of travel. A study conducted between 2002-2010 found that increases in human encounters results in a substantial shift in “scanning versus grazing” time. This ratio is associated with stress. Bighorns in low human traffic areas spend 58% of their time grazing and 8% scanning, whereas those in high human traffic areas spend 22% of the time grazing and 29% scanning. With all these factors at play, this sheep hunt would prove characteristic of the year 2020 – unusual.
A Remarkable Animal, A Remarkable Challenge
It’s well-recognized that a bighorn sheep hunt carries the risk of challenging even the fittest and most skilled mountain hunters. I won’t try to stake a claim to where I stand on the spectrum of fitness, mountain capabilities, or hunting skills - but my life resume is suggestive of being well prepared for the challenge. Despite this, I never anticipated this hunt would actually be the challenge that it was. I was sure that we would hike many lung-burning miles. I was sure that we would occasionally find ourselves in some “sketchy” terrain. However, I did not foresee the rams quarantining in the darkest ravines, testing my will and physical capabilities to push on.
“A sportsman may have hunted deer, turkey, elk and bears for years with the greatest of success; but until he has taken his sheep, until he has matched his brains, his endurance, and his skills with those inhabitants of the rocky peaks, he is still but a sophomore.”
Sheep are skittish and senses are sharp. Their vision is superior to almost all prey animals, highlighted by rectangle shaped pupils that give them a 330 degree field of view and superb far-sightedness. Put simply, sheep can see far and wide with excellent clarity. Their sense of smell is also high on the spectrum of the animal world. They hang out in groups, organizing their beds so each group member faces a different direction to maintain eye coverage of their entire surroundings. It’s easily deduced that these senses and behaviors, combined with the terrain sheep hang out in, make for a remarkable challenge.
The first week of this hunt had me feeling like a sophomore.
The Circuit and an Eight Mile Stalk
The unit sits amidst the highest mountain range in the lower 48, strewn with peaks above or just under 14,000 feet. Carved for millennia by volcanic activity, extreme snowfall, raging spring run-off, and winds strong enough to move rocks. These forces together have created steep slopes, dramatic peaks, deeply cut waterways, and cliffs…lots of cliffs.
"It took hours to cover the 8 miles and more than 4,500 feet of elevation gain to get within range of the rams."
As we concluded the final mile of a grueling day 3 hiking roughly 12 miles and 4,000 feet, it was evident that the sheep were not in their usual patterns. In fact, they were nowhere to be found. My friend Rich, who joined for the first week of the hunt, has been hiking these mountains to find rams, elk, and deer for over 20 years. One sheep grand slam in, and closing in on another, he’s the quintessential sheep nut. “I’ve never had to work this hard to find rams out here” was the comment he made while walking back to our tents pitched at 13,000 feet. Sleep that night was sporadic.
On day four our spirits lifted soon after the sun. Rich spotted a group of seven rams miles away, likely the group we had found in June while snow still held back the mob. My top three prospects were in this group. Their location confirmed that the rams were especially wary this year, located in terrain that was downright nasty.
It took hours to cover the 8 miles and more than 4,500 feet of elevation gain to get within range of the rams. We hiked through nearly every type of terrain Colorado has to offer, scree, cliffs, creeks, brush busting, and a classic Colorado lung busting climb of 2,200 feet in ¾ of a mile that started at 11,400 feet. Smiles were mostly disingenuous, made to ward off the negativity that the brain drifts to under such discomfort. It generally worked; excitement levels were high.
All seemed to be setting up perfectly. We found the rams in a deep, dark crag in the mountain. “Hell hole” was a term that came naturally later in conversation. I set up on a small ridge above them, my rifle at a steep angle down. Initially, we could see only two small rams. After a long wait the smaller rams stood up. Then, as if queued by a timer, a new ram would come into sight from the abyss every few minutes. Each time a ram entered the view it was bigger than the last. Before long my number three ram was in my crosshairs. I knew it would be just minutes before the monarch stepped out.
Then the wind whipped. It must have pushed straight down the rock walls and into the crag, because the next thing I saw were seven sheep rumps running full tilt away. No opportunity presented and that would be the last I would see of the ram I obsessed about since first sight of it in June. The six mile trek to where we repositioned our tents was painful. I dare say that the heaviest load I’ve ever carried hunting was my heavy heart that night.
The Hunt Must Go On
For the next seven days we covered ground and worked through the areas of Plan B and Plan C. Nighttime temperatures became colder during the second week of the hunt. My zero degree sleeping bag was being challenged of its stated rating. Each morning I found myself reciting the “They’ll never take our freedom” pep talk from Braveheart, except the “they” was the warmth of my sleeping bag. That initial shock of skin exposed to freezing air is a liability to my rating as a mountain man. Sophomore.
Every hour in this country is a privilege. This mountain range is spectacular, and the scale is enormous. The sunrises and sunsets warrant a pinch, just to be sure I hadn’t unknowingly floated skyward…perhaps a reaffirmation I hadn’t fallen off of that knife ridge the day prior. As awe-inspiring as simply being out there was, fulfilment was hard to come by. We were out there with a goal. As we closed in on the end of the 14-day season the goal was feeling close to unreachable. Doubt is a tough emotion to keep at bay.
By the 11th day of the hunt, we had seen plenty of rams, but the big mature rams were eluding us. That evening we caught a brief glimpse of three rams several miles away, appearing as if they crawled out of a cave, another hell hole. Like many of the days before, disappointment set in when we maxed out zoom on the spotting scope and saw 4 to 5 year old rams. That night I settled in my sleeping bag debating whether I should lower my standards or leave my tag unfilled and begin accruing points next year. I fell asleep undecided.
A Lucky Break
With 3 days left in the season, we caught a lucky break. A morning glimpse of a shooter ram just before wildfire smoke rolled in to obstruct the remaining days' views. A plan was put into place, a route was devised, and the next day we would push into the cliffs and chutes in search of the intended ram.
Our eventual route was up an avalanche chute. Looking into it was like looking toward the stage in a giant amphitheater. The walls converged to a narrow pinch point roughly halfway to a ridgeline 3,500 feet above our objective. By the looks of it, the chute must see more wet slab avalanches each spring than John Muir saw in his lifetime. There wasn’t a tree, bush, plant, or large rock that had been spared a ride on snow to the debris field. The ground was wiped clean of everything except loose rock.
Hiking through the debris field was refreshing. Thus far, it was the easiest hiking we’d done. Large, easy rocks to step on and the occasional log. As the debris faded and the chute narrowed, each step came with doubt as to whether our boots would purchase enough ground to propel us up or keep sliding back to where we just came from. I kept thinking that whoever coined the phrase “two steps forward, one step back” must have hiked this chute. I hate that phrase. The air in the chute was dead, and the sun’s rays bouncing off the bare rock made it hot. Sweat poured.
After 10 minutes of wrestling scree through a small passage towards the top, the view opened up. My eyes scanned deeply broken terrain. We had covered 2,000 of the 3,500 feet we needed to catch the ridgeline. “Over halfway” I whispered to myself. And then it happened. I climbed another 10 feet and as the view opened up, a new light beckoned, and something caught my eye. Just 120 yards away to my 2 o’clock was a ram standing tall, staring intently to see what was making the noise. In a serendipitous moment, there it stood on a small ridge. Right place, right time. Without hesitation, I removed my rifle from my pack.
Without a view of the ram, I lifted the rifle and rested it on the rock wall. I stepped on a rock and slowly raised my head until my eye met the view of the scope. Clarity for me seems to come in frantic moments. I assume the events that follow happened in seconds. Yet, I remember them occurring so slowly. The ram hadn’t moved. There were two rams bedded nearby. I scanned each ram through the scope and then moved the crosshairs back to the standing ram. The view through my Maven RS.3 was crystal clear. It was the most beautiful sight I’ve witnessed in any hunting experience. The ram’s coat was dark chocolate. Square chested, it looked like an executive walnut desk on stilts. The horns were broomed on both sides, good bases, good mass, and a long roman nose. It met my standards for a 12th day ram.
As my Christensen Arms Ridgeline recoiled the ram surged off of the small ridge and out of view. The sound of cascading rock echoed in the chute then silence. We were done.
I threw my rifle over my shoulder and began scaling the rocks to get a view. Despite only needing to climb 50 feet, it took nearly 10 minutes to get to where I could see the area the ram lay. Later I would look at the route I took up. Under sound thinking, the approach would only be considered with anchors and ropes. Adrenaline is a powerful hormone. As I took horns to hand, a Western hunter’s dream was realized. Recalling legend Jack O’Connor, I had graduated from sophomore to PhD.
It seemed impossible. After 12 days of hunting hard and climbing the equivalent of Mount Everest twice, we walked upon a mature ram in a chute we had no intention of going up.
The Ultimate Test
Jim Winjum, President of Kenetrek, once said, “Sheep hunting is brutal, exhausting, and downright dangerous…and there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.” To this point we had experienced the brutal and the exhausting. We had saved the “downright dangerous” for last, ensuring the pack out was on par with the difficulties of the rest of the hunt.
With the ground a hair trigger, each loaded step induced a landslide. It was a battle to stay upright, and to stay focused through tired legs and worn minds. The pack out was treacherous, and downright dangerous. Yet, there was nothing I’d rather be doing.
GET THE GEAR