I recall a day not too long ago when I was clinging to the side of a mountain, completely immobilized with fear.
Earlier that week I decided I was in good enough shape to attempt sheep hunting. In Alberta, we are blessed to be able to hunt bighorn sheep on an over-the-counter tag.
TJ raised an eyebrow when I brought the topic up and shot me a look that said. “You’re wasting money on the tag.” But that weekend, we set out in search of a bighorn ram. We headed up the mountain in the dark with only the glow of the headlamps lighting the sketchy trail.
The first three hours were arduous, but the ground we covered was mostly in the trees. As we reached the tree line, dawn was starting to break. At the sight of the snow-covered scree slope, I felt my heart thumping through my chest and my legs screaming in fatigue. I glanced back down to the slope I had just managed to crawl up. Then I glanced forward and knew there was still a long way to go yet. TJ tried to encourage me to go farther up the mountain by saying there were only three avalanche chutes to cross until we were in prime sheep country.
The words “avalanche chute” hit me right in the guts. My breath became short and my legs became weak. I looked over at TJ as he traveled along the trail without a care in the world. I slunk down next to a cold jagged rock, digging my fingers into any crevice I could find. TJ said, “I’m just going to head across the chutes and check the valley. If there are sheep, I’ll give you the signal to come across.” As I huddled against my new friend (“Rock”), all I kept thinking was, what if TJ sees sheep? What am I going to do? How am I going to get across? I really hoped he didn’t see any sheep. It was at that moment that I decided I had to overcome my fear of heights if I wanted to be a successful sheep hunter.
Another Spring, More Chutes
That next spring, the first thing I faced was the dreaded mountain with the avalanche chutes. In fact, there were five avalanche chutes (I counted.) Each weekend, we would pick a different, more challenging mountain to climb. I still suffered from shortness of breath, dizziness, shaking knees and the feeling that my breakfast was going to join me on the side of the mountain. But with each climb, my confidence grew. I was getting more confidence in my ability to scale the mountain and more strength in my body. I tried all sorts of ways to distract my brain from thinking about how many different ways I could die if I lost my footing.
At long last, sheep season came again. I hit the mountains hard with my newfound confidence, but by late September, it was three weeks into the season, and we still hadn’t had any luck. That was partly due to poor weather conditions. But those didn’t deter us as we headed out early one morning in late September. It was 8 a.m., lightly snowing and bitterly cold when we started climbing the mountain. The old thoughts started ringing in my head. What if I slip? What am I doing out here? I kept reminding myself that if wanted a sheep, I’d have to work for it.
A Little Confidence
Luckily, the snow wasn’t as deep as we first suspected and I even started to feel confident that this wouldn’t be as difficult a hike as I thought. I slogged my way up the mountain. I counted out each step to distract myself from looking back at the treacherous slope I had just climbed. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I made that last step at the crest of the mountain. I was almost in sheep country—although as I viewed the other side, my earlier fears came to fruition. I realized that all the snow had blown over the mountain and now was positioned on the other side. I slowly started my descent, carefully placing my foot in every boot print TJ made in front of me, plowing a nice trail in the knee-deep snow. I started to question why I was out on this godforsaken mountain. No self-respecting sheep would be in the valley under these conditions, I thought.
Suddenly, TJ dropped to his knees and whispered that he’d spotted a sheep across the valley. My heart started racing at a million beats per minute and I began to shake with excitement. It was then that I remembered why I had spent all year working so hard. We had spotted a sheep. We slid our packs off and extracted the spotting scope from its special pocket. With shaking fingers, I managed to get the spotting scope mounted on the tripod and started glassing across the valley.
The first sheep wasn’t legal, and my hopes started to sag. We kept glassing and finally noticed a second sheep bedded on a ridge just above the first. With every fiber of my being, I wished this sheep was legal. I glassed, and then TJ looked through the scope and smiled. I looked again and realized why he was smiling. This sheep was indeed legal. Now, we needed to make a plan.
We were only halfway down the mountain, and to get within shooting distance, we still had to descend the mountain, go across the valley floor and head back up the ridge he was located on. One of the big issues we faced was that the slope offered no cover, and the ram was bedded facing us. There was no option other than to descend the slope and hope we didn’t spook him. We threw our packs back on our backs and plowed through the snow as fast as we could. We attempted to get to the trees at the base of the mountain before the sheep caught on to us and spooked.
We never even took time to look in the ram’s direction as we descended. Once in the safety of the trees, we glassed the ridge to see if the ram was still there. He was, and he was still bedded and contentedly chewing his cud. One more look through the spotting scope confirmed that he was indeed legal. In this part of Alberta, rams must have at least one horn that is 4/5 curl to be legal. I unstrapped the rifle from my pack, slid off the protective sock and checked the scope. Now all we had to do was figure out the best method to climb the ridge without being detected. There was an old horse trail that we hoped would lead us through the trees to just below where we’d last seen the two rams.
An Eternity of a Climb
We made our way up the slope through the trees for what seemed like an eternity, then we finally reached the end of the trail. It took us a few minutes to relocate the rams. When we did, they were exactly where we’d left them, but the larger ram was up feeding. TJ ranged him and we were still 390 yards from our target. There was a small outcropping about 150 yards in front of us. Our best bet was to try to crawl to it and hope that it would conceal our advance.
I slid my pack off, tucked my rifle under my arm, and took a deep breath as I started to crawl. We reached our goal, covered in snow and shivering. As we both peeked around the rock, we realized we had been busted. TJ said, “Quick! Get your rifle ready.” I extended the legs on the bipod and checked the scope and barrel to ensure they were snow-free. As TJ took one more look through one of his best compact binoculars to confirm the ram was legal, I ranged the sheep. He was exactly 225 yards, and he was staring directly at us. I settled in behind the rifle, slipped a round in the chamber and placed my crosshairs on the upper part of this handsome ram’s shoulder. Then I gently squeezed the trigger.
At the report of the shot, the ram just stood looking at us. TJ urged, “Reload, reload…you missed!” I shot TJ a dirty look and stated, “I did not!” Those words had no sooner come out of my mouth than we saw the ram attempting to run down the mountain with only his back legs propelling him and his horns bulldozing into the ground to hold him up. Gravity and momentum finally won out, and he toppled in a heap. I was overcome with emotion. I felt excitement, absolute joy and thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest.
Now the Work
After hugs and pats on the back, we got down to work. We still had a lot to do before we were home. After taking lots of pictures, boning out the sheep and loading everything in our packs, we finally raised our heads and realized that the weather had changed dramatically. It had gotten extremely windy, and it had started to snow heavily with the occasional shower of ice rain. With our heavy loads, we started the long trek back to the other side of the mountain. Given the euphoria of a successful hunt, it only took us 45 minutes to reach the halfway mark on the mountain. I was thinking that this return wasn’t going to be as grueling as I initially thought, but boy, was I wrong! The next two hours were spent struggling against 80-to 90-kilometer winds, winds, blowing snow and waist-deep snow. The trail back upheld treacherous drainage. I tried to stay two steps behind TJ so that I could place my foot exactly where his had been, but the blowing snow was covering his tracks before I could get there.
At long last, we saw the rock cairn through a gap in the blowing snow and knew we made it to the crest! Once around a corner, we were out of the wind. Downhill would be easier now. We ended up half boot skiing and half sliding down loose scree all the way to the base of the mountain.
Once at the base, we figured the worst was behind us and took a much-needed rest. Every muscle in our bodies was screaming from the weight of our packs and the amount of energy we had to exert to pull ourselves up the mountain. TJ sat down on a bit of a rock outcropping and managed to slide out of his heavy burden.
Suddenly, he started stammering and pointing in the direction directly behind me. I turned to see that a grizzly sow and her cub were not more than 50 yards away. Luckily, neither had seen us yet and the wind was in our favor. My rifle was strapped to the pack beneath the ram’s head. There was no hope of reaching it. So, we both started to wave our arms frantically and hollered. The big grizzly looked casually in our direction and then turned, and slowly sauntered away with her cub in tow. Had the wind not been in our favor and she had smelled our packs laden with fresh meat, I’m not certain what the outcome would have been. We counted our blessings, donned our packs, and with renewed energy, headed down the trail.
For every day I spend in the mountains, the fear is lessened and then replaced with the pure exhilaration and adrenalin rush of adventures in the mountains!