Big flakes of a heavy, wet snow were quickly blanketing the 5,550’ ridge top we’d just gained. The climb had left us wet and bloodied. We needed a place to set up the tent and hole up in this building storm and let our minds relax after a mentally taxing technical climb. We didn’t know that the real mental battle was just about to begin.
A week earlier we’d left the truck to fight a wet jungle of alders and willow brush in the rain. An alpine traverse led to a glacier climb in a snow storm, complete with a near miss of a gaping crevasse. As we trudged through a foot of snow down the back of the pass we wondered if we were embarking on our first winter sheep hunt. Snow turned to rain as we headed into the valley below and took shelter. The toughest first day we’d endured was behind us as we crawled into warm, dry sleeping bags.
Steve now knew firsthand what I had tried to describe from earlier scouting trips; this was big, wicked country that was badly intimidating a couple veteran mountain hunters. The weather wasn’t helping either. Heavy fog and rain resulted in an epic nap day on day 2 with no further progress into the mountains.
Better weather the next day had us exploring a nearby drainage after turning up two rams just across the creek from our camp, both short of legal. Another vantage point loaded with blueberries offered good snacking snack as we glassed the vast country around us. We picked out many white rock sheep, but the optics revealed none of the living kind. The “easy” spots that our research had promised would hold rams weren’t panning out. We were in the land of No Bueno. Time to lace ‘em up and head for a drainage we were calling the Big Booyah several miles down the valley. We burned ourselves out on a long climb, assuming we could ridge walk it all the way. After navigating several false peaks and hidden ravines we realized this ridge was too broken to traverse. We descended back to brush line and commenced the Scott Luber Death March as Steve coined it. Just because your legs don’t work anymore is no reason to stop. Three hours of side hilling later we set up camp for the third night on ground that was literally blue with berries and rested our tired feet. We were within striking distance of the Big Booyah.
Anticipation and a stiff wind aided our climb the next morning to the top of the snow-capped ridge. We endured as much wind as we could stand, glassing the valley below till shivering with cold, we were forced to find a respite. The Big Booyah had failed to live up to our expectations. We pushed on. The next valley turned up a full curl on a far ridge. Finally after looking at miles of prime sheep country we had a legal ram to hunt. The ram fed out of sight just before dark and we set up camp eager for daylight. The next day more rain and fog kept us tent bound till mid-afternoon but finally the sun broke thru and we were on our way. We found him but limited remaining daylight foiled further stalking opportunities. We’d get on him for sure the next day…
5am, breaking camp in the dark and on the climb as the day wakens. Clouds were peeling over the peaks above us, not a good sign. Our route had been chosen with care, at least the best we could anticipate from the valley floor. The right fork of the slide chute appeared to offer the safest passage. By the time we got there, it was spitting snow. Fog was building and soon our chosen route was obscured from view. We climbed by faith, we’d missed our route but still hoped we could make the ridge safely. We fought for every step on the steep loose rock. The mountain was so steep in places you could reach out in front of you and touch the ground. The chute narrowed. A narrow path led to a leftover snow field. The snow was near vertical and too steep to climb, but a narrow passage led along the back of the snow. There was literally a tunnel with sheer rock to one side and a steep snow wall to the other. Somewhere in this area our climb became less of a hike and more of a technical mountaineering route. Sketchy doesn’t quite capture it. But we were too far committed to turn back now and climbing down is always more difficult than climbing up. So we continued. This is where I lost some blood, the result of my hand smashed against a jagged rock. I nearly froze up near the top.This was getting way beyond my experience. Two steps across near vertical snow at the end put us on the ridge top. I had to trust Steve’s toe hold for that last step. The consequences of a slip were grave but there was no other option. There was no going back down now. Our reward for making the ridge was a brief glimpse of 6 rams well below us in the Big Booyah. Booyah! Somewhere on the ridge ahead of us was a full curl and there were more rams in the drainage below. But the storm was building fast.
We found one very semi flat spot to pitch our shelter. We sat inside the tent on the rocks as the icy cold crept in on us. Out came our Thermarests. Then we gave up hope of hunting that day and crawled into our sleeping bags. And the storm raged. For three days we endured that storm on the ridge. First a blizzard, then it rained, then it snowed again. All the while we were in the clouds, visibility...nil.
These were days six, seven and eight. The days you’re supposed to be on and hunting rams. It was tough to stay positive. Time was slipping by. Boredom. We ate little more than a granola bar during the long days and shared a mountain house for supper. So, yes; one mountain house can serve two people. We were squirreling away our food knowing we might have to extend this planned 10 day hunt and not knowing how long this tent bound suffering would last.
On the third night of the siege the wind shifted to the NW. Maybe the weather would break. Finally, day 9 of the hunt we woke to clearing skies. We loaded our packs and the hunt was back on. But now it had been several days since we’d last seen a ram. No longer was the group of 6 rams nearby. We scoured the face of the mountain in front of us, cutting back and forth over each ledge looking for the lone full curl. Nothing. There was still one giant mountain and beyond that a sheepy looking drainage to explore. Dread was building at the prospect thought of more miles and more vertical in such little time left, but desperation was setting in. Then the voice in my heart, “Sit and wait.” God is that you? We don’t have time to sit and wait, we need to cover ground and find some rams and find them now. “Sit and wait.” Sigh, maybe we should sit and wait. It seemed so counter to what I thought we needed to do. I suggested what I’m hearing to Steve. He was all for it. So we found a good spot with a prominent view of the mountainside and sat. And waited. Like a couple white-tail hunters over a field of corn. But we didn’t have to wait long. Not 30 minutes into it, Steve spots a lone white spot across the valley. Through the spotter, he’s a no doubter. We’d been given a gift. Now to just go get him.
Only an eagle on the wing could have descended that mountain faster than we did. The stream crossing was too dangerous to attempt, but there was a big ram on the other side. The water was up to our waists. With near death experience #3 behind us the only thing left was to climb up and shoot that ram. Brush tore at our arms and cut our shins as we fought across the valley floor hurrying to get up the other side. With a couple hours of daylight left we were set up on the ram as he fed toward us. Just a few more steps and he’d clear the brush and be in my sights. Inexplicably he turned and fed away and out of sight. We moved in closer. We were now within easy range of the ram, just waiting for him to appear again. It had been a beautiful stalk and was working perfectly. This was the sit and wait ram but instead we went bonehead on ourselves. Like a couple of rookie nim-whits we left patience and a good chance for success behind and decided to pursue. With that decision, we gooned ourselves. We tried to be sneaky, but there, 50 yards away stood the ram surely thinking “what are you goobers up to?” He was standing, exactly where we had figured he would show up if we had just sat and waited. We ran, but you can’t catch a sprinting ram on a steep slope. We got a brief glimpse as he made the summit, then over the mountain – gone.
We’ve had so many successes together on our sheep hunts. We now had to deal with our first epic failure. We’d let the pressure of a waining day and the looming end of a hunt duration win out over our normal tactics and it cost us dearly. We knew this area was going to be tough to pull even one legal ram out of and we’d just blown our one opportunity...after so much effort and endurance, we botched it. We made camp up on the ridge top and struggled to shut our minds off for sleep, woulda coulda shoulda weighing heavy. Tomorrow we would start our two day walk of shame out to the truck. Sheep season over. With a full year to replay the most depressing missed opportunity we’d ever had.
Sunrise. Despite the doom and gloom, the world was still spinning. We started out along the ridge, heading home. Then, white dots down in the valley floor. Rams! It was the Big Booyah band down in the blueberries. We had full curl and all day in front of us. We were supposed to be at the truck today, but this is an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. A second chance after our debacle from the day before? Hope was not all lost.
Back down the mountain, back across the valley. Staying hidden and moving slowly through the brush when possible, we closed the distance. We watched in dismay as one ram headed off, leading half of the group with him, up a near vertical wall into the high pinnacles where we can not go. We silently begged the rest of the rams including the full curl not to follow. The remaining rams climbed into the bowl and out of sight, but they didn’t reappear in the pinnacles. There was still a chance.
A long climb up the mountain side. Crawl over the ridge top. There they are! Confirm full curl on the big ram. Yes, he’s got it. Rifle rest, bundle up and wait...for 3 hours we waited for him to stand. Guess we got a sit and wait ram after all. Finally he stands. He’s the last one to do so. Broadside. Careful aim, long shot. Ram is finally down. Disbelief! Did that really just happen? This time yesterday we’d just botched our chance and now another day and a totally different story. From our lowest of lows on a sheep hunt to one of our highest moments of excitement. All in one 24 hour period. The agony and despair from last night is gone. Fully replaced by sheer joy.
We dropped back down to the valley and set up camp. It would be well after dark when we got back. We climbed up the bowl to the ram. There were smiles we couldn’t erase and camera flashes! We took care of the ram in headlamps. Supper back at the tent at 2am after a fun night hike down the bowl.
We woke up grinning. That’s a set of full curl horns outside the tent. It wasn’t a dream! This walk back to the truck was now going to have a totally different feel to it now. Elation over distraught. It’s still a long round-about way with lots of climbing to get it done.
We’re so mentally and physically beat down from this trip that we’re not so sure we’d have been able to haul two rams out of there. At the end of the day, the one ram split between two packs allowed for more mph than we typically would do. We found a hollow to camp in for the night as the weather turned to hard winds and rain. Again. It’s now day 11 of a 10 day hunt. We’re pumped, but also I know my wife is probably getting a bit nervous.
Day 12 we woke to cold rain. Today is getting out day, but the long hours plod on with every slow step we take. Climbing up and over several mountain passes on the twelfth day afield, with heavy packs, isn’t as easy as it was almost two weeks ago. Sheesh, we’ve been gone from family a long time.
Wet brush (Is it ever dry in this country?) and fortunate moose trails lead us the rest of the way. Nothing looks as good as the sight of your truck at the trailhead. A cell phone call to the wives put their worry to rest. We’re headed home two days later than was planned. We’ve both now had the privilege of witnessing each other take the final ram needed to accomplish the goal of taking a ram out of all seven major mountain ranges, all by hiking in from the road.
By the numbers: Over 64 miles under foot. Climbed over 38,000 vertical feet during 12 days.
34” x 13.25” and the 7th ram accounted for. What a fitting trip to wrap up such an amazing journey.
Sheep Hunting Gear List
All the gear and food used in the Lace'em Up video listed in a free download.
The Keys to Success
What it takes to be successful as a dedicated backpack sheep hunter.
7 Rams, 7 Mountains
Steve completed the first ever walk-in Alaska sheep slam this past August 2012. Read about his journey here.