DAY 4 Continues:
We decided we needed to stay a little longer. That afternoon we designated two of us to stay put and watch the sheep and two of us needed try to find a route up the cliffs to the sheep. Henry and I were elected to the route finding and started up the canyon. We teased that we left the two old guys behind to rest.
Once Henry and I had hiked up the steep hillside and reached the cliff wall, we dropped our packs in order to climb higher. We worked around until we found a chute to work up. We were now climbing what would be considered class V rocks, unroped. We worked our way higher until we literally could not continue. I finally decided to retreat when we crossed a piece of ice with an opening that I could not see the bottom. The reason why this was so unnerving was because I had a hand on each side of the sheer walls of the chute and for my next step I had to cross over this hole and on to more steep slick ice, with little or no footing, and no crampons. We could see higher up the chute and knew that we weren’t going to get much further anyway. So, we turned around.
When we arrived back to where Sterling and Lee were resting, we all decided that the five biggest rams were big enough that we should stick it out in this canyon until the rams calmed down and made their way out of the cliffs. Besides, the floatplane intruder had just packed up camp and flown out so we now had the canyon all to ourselves once again. We slowly worked our way back out of the canyon and back to camp.
When we got to camp it was still light and after four long days of hiking hard, I couldn’t take one more second of my sticky, sweaty, skin. I jumped in the freezing cold lake and took the best bath I ever had! I didn’t care how cold it was. I slept like a baby that night, but my hair was still wet in the morning.
When we woke up the next morning it was not only mine and Lee’s anniversary, but it was our lucky day. Right above the tents about 300 yards away were the exact five rams we had been watching for the past four days. None of us moved. They all five stood tall staring down at our camp. We knew we would have to wait to make a move, but at least they had worked their way out of the unapproachable cliffs. We watched as they slowly walked back up the ridge and around the cliffs on our side of the canyon. This canyon had more negotiable cliffs to work around. We didn’t move until the rams were behind something. Then the four of us leapfrogged up the canyon, one of us always with a spotting scope watching, while the others moved. Each time we would see the rams we would hold up until they moved. It was a long morning but we knew the only way this was going to work was with complete patience.
The last four hundred yards to the ridge line were the most exciting. We no longer had rocks to sit behind, or gullies to hide in. We were completely exposed. But we knew the rams were there because all we could see was the horn of one of the rams on the skyline. We had to move very cautiously but precisely in order to not spook the rams. We were getting so close. I knew once we reached the ridge we could maneuver through the cliffs until we got on them. It was such a relief when we made it to the top without spooking them. But now we had to try to outsmart them, by either guessing which direction they would take, or continue to sneak in on them.
On the top of the ridge there was a small but beat in sheep trail that followed the entire ridge. It was perfect for the sheep to watch for predators on either side of the mountain. We knew they would eventually either come our way or the opposite. We set up in an ideal position right under the trail where we could see the sheep approaching. We sat there for about two hours and the sheep never came. We regrouped and decided to make our way closer for fear that they would go the other direction. As we continued up the ridge line the trail was getting more and more questionable. We were moving into steeper ledges with higher drop offs. We also arrived at a point that if we continued on that side of the ridge they would spot us. So we carefully dropped off the opposite side. The rocks were loose and the fall was far. We all assumed that we could just pick our way through the rocks and work our way around to where the sheep were.
The further we went the worse it got. It doesn’t bother me to hike around the cliffs until we get to a point that I can’t maneuver on my own. I have done a lot of rock climbing and I am very comfortable in that setting. But I also know enough to know when we are in a situation that we should be using rope. There were a couple of spots that Lee had to let me use his shoulder or knee to get down a sheer cliff. I’ll be honest, I didn’t like it at the time. I was quite tense but I continued on, knowing there was no way I would succeed if I didn’t try. We fought the rugged terrain for several hours. When we finally came out where we believed the sheep to be….they were gone.
We knew they didn’t come our way so we split up, each of us looking off different spots. We continued to glass and search, we knew they had to be close. After about an hour of this Sterling finally motioned for us to come over to him. When we got to where he was sitting, Sterling had spotted a beautiful broomed off ram bedded about one hundred yards straight below us. This ram was a real trophy but not one of the five we had been chasing. The problem was we couldn’t see a way to get to him.
We watched him for about an hour, hoping he would get up and work his way toward us. We finally decided that Lee would continue along the ridge and Sterling, Henry and I would all work our way back into the steep cliffs to see if we could get around to him. It took us awhile of picking our way from chute to chute but we finally spotted the ram and he was standing up staring right at us. He turned directly away from us and was gone. We continued to follow him hoping we would see him at the next ridge. We spotted him one more time but he was too far gone and on the move. We knew we had to let this one go.
It was getting close to nightfall as we turned around and made our way back to the ridge. We finally found a great sheep trail that we easily followed all the way back. As we were hiking back we heard Lee above us. We looked up and he was motioning that there were six rams somewhere in front of us. We carefully continued up the trail, watching for any sign of the sheep. As we neared the saddle, Lee motioned that they were on the other side. We discreetly peeked over the saddle to find that there were six rams feeding on an open grassy slope far below us. They were slowly feeding toward us but they would never reach us by dark. There was no way we could approach them without being seen.
Sterling, Henry and I discussed several options. We could wait where we were and hope they would feed right to us or we could bivouac and wait till morning to hunt them or I could just slowly work my way over there in my camo and try to blend into the green hillside and hope I didn’t scare them or I could slip on a white suit, pretend I was a sheep and work my way over to join them. We had no time to waste.
I remembered my bighorn ram hunt in Wyoming and how successful I had been when I pretended to be a sheep and sneak in on a ram with my bow. Not only had I not spooked the bighorns but they came toward me to see what I was. It was perfect and I got a great bighorn with my bow. Why not try it again? The only difference was, instead of only needing a white butt to mimic a bighorn I needed to be all white in order to mimic a dall sheep.
I decided I had nothing to lose but time. I quickly wiggled my way into a white hooded painter’s suit that we had rubbed in the dirt to dull the shine. I knew I had to go alone and take the risk of not getting this shot on film for Eye of the Hunter. I knew if I took the cameraman I would significantly decrease the odds of getting the ram. Lee was still far away on the opposite side of the canyon watching us with a spotting scope so he could not provide any suggestions.
I took a deep breath and stepped out to reveal myself as a dall sheep feeding on the hillside. I tried to make similar movements as the sheep. I would stop and put my head down for a moment then change directions. Then I walked slowly toward them. They all looked up but continued feeding. So did I. I was hunched over to look like I had four legs. I continued slowly toward them, taking my time as I went. However I knew I was in a race with darkness so each time I would come to dip and out of their sight, I would run to the next crest. Each time I moved into sight I slowed down and pretended to feed again. The sheep periodically looked up but never moved. I was getting closer and closer.
Before I took off on the stalk I examined the terrain very closely so I knew which gully to set up in. My plan was to get to that point and wait for group of rams to come to me. When I arrived at the rocky outcropping where I had planned to wait I slipped my hood and gloves off to prepare for the shot. Little did I know that the big ram did not want to lose sight of me. Sterling, Henry and Lee were all watching from a distance as the ram and I came closer and closer together. They could see what was about to happen and had no way to warn me. Neither the ram nor I, had a clue.
Just then I looked up to see the ram almost within touching distance. We stared each other down, then he was gone. I figured I had blown it but quickly jumped up to where the ram had just been standing. I watched him run over and join the other five unsuspecting rams. He stopped broadside to look back at me, still not sure if I was a real threat. Instantly and without thinking I drew my Matthew’s Z7 extreme bow, no time to get a range on his distance. It happened so fast. As I was drawing back I was comparing his distance to my bow range at home. Before the hunt I had been diligently practicing out to 90 yards on my range. In milliseconds I settled my 70 yard Black Gold pin right behind his shoulder and released. It was over. The sheep scattered and I hadn’t even seen the Lumenok fly through the air. I had no idea whether I hit the ram or not. I grabbed my range finder to get the range. 70 yards on the dot. I quickly raised my binoculars to look for the glow of the Lumenok. I couldn’t see anything. I dropped my stuff and ran to the spot where the ram had been standing. No blood, no arrow. I continued to search, hoping that the guys had seen whether or not I had hit him.
I could see Sterling and Henry working their toward me. Lee was working his way down the opposite hillside to cross the valley. I was so excited, but so worried. I kept seeing the face of the ram staring right at me from four feet away. I continued to look for any evidence of the hit until Henry finally arrived. He said he had no idea whether or not I hit the ram. All he knew was the six rams took off and ran away as fast as they could.
He had caught it all on film but from a distance. We quickly backed up the footage and watched. We couldn’t tell whether the sheep had been hit. Luckily Henry’s other job is as a guide over in New Zealand with Frazier Safaris. He promptly changed roles from cameraman to guide. He had a clear view of where the rams had gone so he took off to see if he could see anything. I continued to search for any clues as darkness was coming fast. When Sterling and Lee arrived they said they hadn’t seen whether it had been hit either. They were all just too far away.
Just then Henry came running back saying he had found blood. We all got on the blood trail and began to follow it until it got too dark to see. We grabbed our headlamps and continued to follow the trail. Pretty quick we found ourselves back into some nasty cliffs and we couldn’t see a thing. We cautiously tried to follow the trail until around 1:00 in the morning. We finally got to a point where it was no longer safe to continue. We were too far away from camp to try to find our way back. We decided the best thing to do at this point was find a spot where we could wait out the night.
It was about 1:30 am and it didn’t take long for us to find a less than ideal place we could sit. Each of us nestled into a spot and put every single layer of clothing on that we had carried with us. It got cold fast. When we were hiking around the cold was manageable but as soon as we stopped, already wet with sweat, it didn’t take long for our core body temperature to drop. I tried to get some sleep but could not stop shivering. To make matters worse, about 3:00 in the morning it started to rain. I was getting so disappointed. It was freezing cold, I was extremely tired from all the treacherous hiking we had done that day and now the rain was about to wash away the blood trail.
I remembered I had a big black garbage bag in my pack, so I grabbed it and slipped it over my head. I hoped it would help to keep me dry as I wrapped my arms around my knees and my entire body fit snugly right inside the bag. I had rain gear on as well but it felt wet from all the hiking and previous rain. It didn’t take long to realize I had made a big mistake. The condensation inside the black bag was as bad as the rain, so I took the bag off. I looked over at Sterling and Henry and they were both rocking back and forth to stay warm. Lee was tossing and turning as well. It seemed like an eternity until 4:00 am came. We were all cold, wet and so tired.
Next: Quest for Dall Sheep – pt 3
Watch for this hunt to air on Eye of the Hunter on Versus in 2012