Six years ago to the day I sat on the same ledge, with the same intentions: to find a bighorn ram. This time, I had a different hunting partner along: my boyfriend Philipp. My Dad, Peter, with whom I’ve shared the pleasure of mountain hunting for the past ten years was sitting on a golden hillside within sight, but separated by a wide valley.
But in order to get to that vantage ledge, a long hike in was required. It was late October. Reaching back to unhook his hiking pole strap from a pesky branch, Dad toppled backwards into a cold, lustrous creek. Luckily, his heavy pack landed on a higher rock, balancing his buttocks a dicey inch over the water.
When choosing what to pack, every ounce mattered. Blue Gatorade crystals however (the best flavour according to moi), were worth their weight in blue gold, giving us that extra kick during our ascent. Two waterfalls scaled and our legs were reaching their point of exhaustion. We were thankful when our iHunter App showed our proposed tent site a mere 600 metres away. Unfortunately, in thick timber with plenty of deadfall and deep snow, 600 metres feels like an awfully long ways away.
Our campsite had been discovered by Dad in previous years. It was as flat as could be in nature and elevated twenty feet above an avalanche chute. We were comforted by the height and hence age of the trees here, and gambled that this would be a safe location.
Ice shattered into pointy fragments as Philipp forced our water bottles through the frozen surface of the creek next to camp. Our daily walk for water wasn’t too bad compared to some years, only sixty steps as the crow flies.
The next morning we made our pilgrimage to the lookout spot from which we had spotted my ram six years ago. I was hoping for a déjà vu, one can always try, but that seemed a bit much to ask for. You see, it was the bighorn of a lifetime.
Yet, I was still happy to be back in that special place with my partner, sharing and recalling the memories of a hunt I will never forget. “See those trees there, that’s where I sat and shot up towards that single line of shin-tangle.” We spent our day glassing the basin before us and the slopes behind us.
When it was time to go back to camp, the silver teeth of our Microspike crampons bit into the icy slope. Six years ago they could have prevented a near disaster. You see, after caping my ram and heavily laden with gear I had slipped and tumbled several hundred metres down that steep, rocky mountainside. I stood still for a moment, glancing across at the slope where it all went down.
I have since become a bit apprehensive of heights and icy conditions, it was good to be back at the place that it happened and confront my fears head on.
Different day, same routine. Pumping my fingers inside my mittens, I tried to improve the circulation to my frozen phalanges. Wiggling my toes didn’t seem to help any, good thing I came prepared. A coordinated balancing act of removing clothing and adding additional base layers, fluffy socks, and waterproof pants began.
Stepping from one dry patch of gear to another, I successfully managed to turn myself into a walking talking sleeping bag. Except for the fact that I was huddled on a seating pad and not speaking a word, rather glassing the slopes for sheep. Crystal clear vision is a requirement when mountain hunting, my APO-Televid spotting scope with the angled eyepiece ensured my optics weren’t the reason why I wasn’t seeing any sheep.
Since we had two parties in the valley and two campsites, Mom had bought a second camp stove. One dehydrated dinner and one oatmeal/coffee breakfast had passed, and our first of two fuel canisters was already empty. We definitely should not have assumed that the efficiency was as good as our JetBoil. We resorted to the old school method.
Orange sparks crackled as Philipp stoked a rapidly improving fire. Though some wood was wet, strings of old man’s beard lichen and dried spruce needles made good fire-starter. Tomorrow we would collect a nice stack of wood to keep in our tent vestibule in case a snow storm pulled through. Constellations twinkled overhead, the entire night sky studded with stars, brilliant amongst the dark contrast of nebulas.
Perched on our usual lookout, I was killing time by writing another blog entry when a whistle caught my attention. Expecting it to be Philipp, my facial expression must have really shocked the other hunter. So much so that he apologized multiple times for startling me. They had come up the valley for a day trip. I guess when sheep hunting one should expect to be startled by other hunters, although it seems like it should be one of the most unlikely and remote places to meet people. Such is sheep hunting.
We had a friendly conversation with the two gentlemen, who were relatively new to sheep hunting but obviously very hard working. They kindly stated that they would walk into a different valley so not to disturb us here. That’s the advantage of arriving early and camping high up, you’re first to the good spots. As we watched them round the bend into a valley that Dad also had his eyes on, we were glad to refocus our attention on the slopes for sheep.
A few hours later a shot rang out. Then another, until there were four in total. Had Dad, who had moved into a location overlooking that valley earlier that day, connected with a ram? We sure crossed our fingers it was him, but a sinking feeling that it might have been those two hunters was kicking in. Hours later, we put the spotting scope on a hunter popping over skyline far away from the shot site, it was Dad. We were understandably quite upset for Dad, but also admitted that the other two chaps had definitely earned their ram.
It was time to call it a day and descend to the tent. The last swig of whiskey tasted bittersweet, but my sleeping bag was seductively calling my name. That night a snow storm came through and the temperatures plummeted. Every few hours we would notice that the tent had gotten significantly lower, and would have to shake the accumulated snow off the roof.
Our trail was worn, with snow drifts often coming up to our thighs. I sure was happy to have trained for this hunt, it’s hard on the legs. Hours into seeing nothing, we witnessed a phenomenal sight. Billions of macroscopic ice crystals glistened in the afternoon rays, a slight breeze kicking them off spruce branches to demonstrate their brilliance.
Eyes sparkling like diamonds, Philipp called me over to join him quickly. You know what that meant! “I see sheep, above where you shot your ram!” A ewe, banana ram and lamb paralleled a cliff face cloaked in snow. The ram was obviously feeling his oats, perhaps in anticipation of the rut, and had his nose tight to the peeved ewe. Not going to be left behind, the lamb charged through the deep snow and overtook the ram, claiming its rightful place behind its mother. This leap frog continued, and we were able to match these sheep to the similar track pattern that we had seen the evening before on the adjacent cliffs. Seeing them lifted our spirits, since the days of seeing nothing at all was starting to get a bit old. Our last night in camp was the coldest of all. With the tip of my nose snuggled all the way into my sleeping bag and my favourite toque pulled all the way down, I welcomed the warmth of shuteye.
The red mesh inside of our tent appeared to be made out of rhinestones, everything shimmered. Shimmying out of our sleeping bags, our hands met the frozen and damp cover of our sleeping bags. Packing up camp this morning would be fun. Cautiously getting changed into our breathable hiking clothes, we then prepped our backpacks for the long walk back to the staging area. Our fuel lasted one last oatmeal and coffee each, but just that. Lesson learnt, never assume your new stove is as efficient as your tried and trusted one.
The plan was to meet Dad along the trail somewhere around 11 am. Hiking past where he usually began the ascent to his campsite, we already saw his boot tracks angling down the trail. He was in front of us and we would have to catch up. Practically jogging, we stumbled onto him talking with other hunters further down the trail. As we caught our breaths, other hunters confirmed Dad’s suspicions, a mountain lion was in the area. In fact, he had even seen its tracks 100 metres below his tent. And we wondered why there weren’t any sheep around? Speaking of Dad’s campsite… upon returning home we saw pictures of it and could hardly believe our eyes, it was anything but level. We thought perhaps it had just been his 65 year old body complaining of a poor location, but I know few people who would sleep in the conditions he did. It was his plan C after all.
The hunters on the trail seemed familiar, and sure enough we had run into them on this same trail six years ago. They had been headed down, we were headed in, and thereafter I had shot my ram. “We should have been walking up as well last time” they reasoned. “Well, this time we’re headed out, so hopefully it’s your turn now.” It just goes to show that sheep hunters are a special crowd, and the mountains are an ironically small place.
I remember arriving at the truck near midnight, exhausted beyond description, pack loaded to the brim with sheep meat. This time, it took us a mere three hours from camp to truck, and after knowing what it felt like then, now hardly hurt. How I wished my pack was heavier. No horns adorned our pack frames, but the old and new memories accompanied us. Who knows what will be in another six years.