YOU CAN'T CHEAT THE MOUNTAIN PILGRIM by Steve Huhtala
At 11,800 feet there wasn’t a whole lot of air to gulp down. The only sign of trees were a couple thousand feet below us, with the exception of a few tree stumps from millions of years ago. Petrified tree parts littered the near vertical slopes around us and the stumps of an ancient forest still protruded from the earth here.
This was one of those moments you live for. We were about to look over the side of a saddle where I had watched 27 rams walking across four years before near where I had just shot my own ram. I always wondered what lay over this mountain pass since that amazing day.
My partner Doc, his son Brad and I slowly gazed around the corner of a huge rock cornice.
Oh my! It was sheep heaven! Four rams lay four hundred yards level across, six more were scattered below them, including the beautiful dark ram with heavy horns that led us to this spot.
And off to their right and below, lay three rams including Doc’s favorite, a heavy based long horn sheep that carried his mass out well. But, they were here for a reason. We called this place “Highway To Hell”. There was no vegetation here, only conglomerate rock tilted on edge at 70 degrees Spires of rock looked like chimneys between chutes and cliffs. Forbidding country. It was 3 P.M. and we had been climbing and glassing since 5 A.M.
This was by far the toughest piece of real estate we’d seen yet. Doc asked, “What do you think Hoot?” I said, “ I don’t know if we can get to that ram even if you do kill him, much less get him back out of here.” “ Well.” Doc replied, “I really like him…. A lot!” He added. Doc reminded me of my bold statement to shoot the ram he wanted first, then we would worry about getting him out. Maybe I was being too cautious. So, we made the decision to send Brad above to scope out a route to the ram. Brad is a lean sheep-hunter-built type young man, so it wasn’t long before he was back with the good word. “ If he falls off the cliff into the chute we can go below to get to him. If he dies in his bed, we’ll have to get to him from above. But, it’s doable.”
Doc quizzed me once more. “ Will you be mad if I shoot him Hoot? You said if we find the one I want we’ll figure out a way to get him back to camp.” I replied, “ It’s your tag and your ram. We’ll make it work We discussed the ballistics of the situation. 325 yards, 45 degree decline,.” upslope wind, and the bedded ram quartering towards us.” I’m going to aim at the bottom of his curl.” Doc whispered. “ Yeah, sounds good” I nodded in agreement. Adjusting his gun and pack, Doc made like a German Shorthair getting his bed just right. When he finished settling his rifle, we all waited and watched. I had a ringside seat through my spotting scope. I couldn’t help but think after eight years this old ram that filled my spotting scope was breathin’ his last breath. Doc was about to let the air out of him. What a magnificent animal, what fabulous country. Kaboom! I saw the impact of the bullet hit the ram where the neck, shoulder, and brisket all converge. A perfect hit! The bruiser exploded to his feet, took three steps and disappeared from view behind a rock. The next sound was the sheep crashing off the cliff into the chute below us.
“ You nailed him Doc, you nailed him! He’s down. Great shot!” The other dozen rams scattered in all directions. Where sheep can go, defies physics. Running wide open across avalanche chutes and over cliffs can only be appreciated in person. They are absolutely amazing animals.
It wasn’t long before all was quiet. The other rams made their way to another drainage. Brad had caught the entire stalk on video.
He is a natural behind the camera and looking back at the footage, he really captured the spirit of the hunt.
Our trio picked our way around the steep loose rock and into the chute where Doc’s ram lay dead, but barely clinging to the rocks. He was a fine ram. Good bases, mass, and a beautiful dark cape. And like most sheep hunts, it was a team effort. We had to keep the back slaps to a minimum, as it was already tough to keep our feet underneath us. It was a real challenge just to gut and cape the ram in this precarious spot.
But, the biggest challenge still lay before us. We had to get ourselves and the ram off the mountain and back to camp. Looking down the canyon Doc suggested we go down and out instead of up and around to get back to camp the way we came. I knew this country and what it can do to you. I was reluctant. Doc offered to hike down the near ridge to afford a better look at the drainage below. He soon radioed back,” It doesn’t look to bad.” Brad and I thought,” What the heck. We’ll see some new country.”, and joined Doc below. We did indeed see some new country including: waterfalls, a dozen cliffs, brush, boulders, downfall, seven miles of trail and three river crossings. We staggered into camp at 2:30 A.M. the next morning.
I reminded Doc of the words of wisdom given to Jeremiah Johnson by Bear Claw Chris Lapp,
“ You can’t cheat the mountain pilgrim.” We had a good laugh and decided there is nothing that compares to a successful sheep hunt, but a nice easy antelope hunt sounded really good right then.