It was "one of those days" in Alaska's rugged Chugach Mountains. The type of day that makes you question your sanity, your stamina, your toughness. I had backpacked nearly a full day to get close enough to access the face on which the largest Dall sheep ram I'd ever seen was living, traveling fast and light while living a Spartan existence in the hopes I could hunt him.
Camp was nothing more than a claustrophobic bivvy sack and light sleeping bag. My provisions, only dried meat sticks, some hard rolls and cheese, and a bagful of granola bars supplemented with some protein and carbohydrate powders mixed with water.
My only clothes were my technical Gore Windstopper fleece outerwear worn over Thermax longjohns, a packable Gore-Tex rain suit and ball cap, pair of Gore-Tex gloves, and the spare pair of socks and warm stocking cap carried in my pack.
The Alaska weather in late August is as fickle as the finger of fate, sunny and warm one day and brutal the next. Today began badly, and went downhill from there. By the time I had crawled out of bed and began covering the 5 miles to the rocky crags the big ram called home, the clouds had dropped and it had begun to snow lightly. It took me two hours to get there, and by then the wind had picked up sharply, blowing a nasty mixture of snow and freezing rain sideways. The temperature hovered right at freezing, but the wind chill was closer to zero. Ice began forming on the shale slides, making the footing on the loose rocks and boulders wickedly slick. Each step had to be carefully thought out before moving forward.
I climbed up and reached a pressure ridge, carefully peeking over before glassing the far side of the drainage with my 10x40's. After a bit I found the ram, laying alone on a parapet-type spire like some sort of majestic white lord overseeing his kingdom. When I had seen this ram before, he was tended by two younger rams. Today he seemed to be alone. The trick was going to be slipping over the ridge now concealing me, sliding down its face, then crossing the long open drainage to get in position for a shot. He was perhaps 1000 yards away as the crow flies, but I would have to drop down 500 feet, cross a quarter mile of open drainage, then climb again before I could try and take him.
This was a make-or-break moment. The weather was not getting any better, and I wanted to spend as little time here on this rock face as necessary given the circumstances. As I watched the ram, he stood up, turned around, and lay back down, facing directly away from me. I dug into my pack and pulled out my thin white coveralls, slipped them on, and crawled over the edge. My only chance would be that if the ram saw me, he'd think I was another sheep and not spook. The trick had worked for me before, and I was betting the farm it would work again.
It did. I eased over the ridge and began working down through the boulders and loose shale, moving as fast as I dared without risking a nasty fall. I was alone, and this was no time or place to slip and break an ankle. I reached the bottom of the ridge, then eased across the open rocks to the base of the parapet, all the while in plain view of a ram that was taking a midday siesta. A few tense minutes later and I was working my way up the 60-degree slope, angling away from the bedded sheep and praying he would let me get closer. 600 yards. 500 yards. 400 yards. Up ahead on the steep slope was a large rock. If I can get there, I thought, I'll take a rest and try the shot.
Just before I reached my rock, the ram stood up. Uh, oh. He was looking down at me, and though not panicked, all he had to do was take one step back and the steep uphill angle between us would hide him completely. I scurried forward, threw my pack across the rock, rested the .300 across the pack, chambered a round, got a good sight picture, and squeezed the trigger.
At the shot, nothing happened. No bullet hitting rock or snow, no sheep running off. Nothing. I chambered another round and squeezed the trigger. This time my rifle did not fire. Panic!! I jacked the round out, chambered another, and squeezed the trigger again. Nothing. Ohmygawd! Despite the fact that I had de-greased my firing pin, the blowing ice and snow had frozen it solid. About the time I took the bolt out of the rifle and prepared to bang it against a rock to try and loosen the frozen firing mechanism, the monster ram stiffened up and pitched off the side of the parapet face.
My first shot had hit him through the liver and one lung, taking a few seconds to do its job. This was good, and it was bad. Instead of simply dropping dead, the ram fell over 1000 feet straight down the rock face. It was at least 200 feet before he hit the first time. When he finally stopped on a massive shale slide, I knew he was going to be a mess.
When I finally made my way to where my ram lay, I could not believe the damage. One of his horns had popped right off the sheath over which it grew, something I had never even heard of before. I mean, these monster rams batter each other with terrifying power and force during the breeding season and that never, ever happens. In addition, his cape was completely ruined, and once I began the butchering process I found most of the meat was bloodshot and destroyed.
Before leaving I tried finding the lost horn. At first I could not find it, even though I climbed a ways up through the narrow chute down which the ram had fallen. Working my way back to him, an unusual color caught my eye in the slate-gray shale. His horn!! It was a true miracle that I found it at all.
I had no time to contemplate this, though. It was time to get out of there as fast as I could go. The day was coming to an end, the weather was closing in, and I needed to get back to the safety and security of my little camp before it got dark and too dangerous to continue moving along the steep, rotten, ice-covered mountain face. With a pack loaded to the max with horns and meat, I set out. Four hours of hard-as-I-could-go hiking and climbing brought my up over the rim of the big plateau on which I'd set camp. Never in my wildest dreams did I think the sight of that tiny bivvy sack would be so welcome! I was wet, bone-tired, and cold. After hastily covering my pack and rifle, I crawled inside the bivvy, stripped down to my longies, crawled inside my bag, and fell into an exhausted sleep.
It was still raining and snowing the next morning when I packed the 8 hours back down the mountain and back to my truck. My body felt as if it had been run through the world's largest washing machine nonstop since I had left home. It had been worth it, however. My ram measures 43 inches long on the side that had popped off, 39 inches long on the other, with bases of almost 14 inches and heavy horn all the way through. Had his horn not popped off, he would have pushed the Boone & Crockett minimum score of 170 points. He is the ram I had been dreaming of all my life.
Each time I hold his horns, I forget all about the cold, dangerous rocks, blistered feet, numb ears and nose, and dream of another Alaskan sheep hunting adventure.
(Editor's Note: As an Alaskan resident, the author is able to hunt Dall sheep on his own. Nonresidents must hire a registered guide before sheep hunting in Alaska.)
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