Written by Ted Schnack Jr.
Wild sheep. There is little that strikes deeper into the soul of a hunter than the thought of hunting wild Rams. Monarchs who rule fortresses of stone and ice in lofty cloud shrouded kingdoms in some of the most stunning, yet unforgiving terrain on earth. Mountain Rulers - blocky shouldered and crowned with brutal rock helmets built for brain rattling battle; yet gifted with awe inspiring ballet nimbleness in sheer country legendary for chewing up and spitting out Hunters who fooled themselves into thinking they were ready to scale the treacherous heights to take the Kings crown.
Yet many hunters die of old age without ever getting the chance to match wits, guts and their will against a big Ram. I was shocked. I had drawn a Colorado Bighorn tag, near Cripple Creek. Pure gold. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever laid eyes on. There are no “do over’s” or “better luck next year” in Sheep hunting. I wanted to relish all of it and knew it would likely be a once in a lifetime experience. Little did I know then it would be a hunt that would change my life forever.
Sheep Hunters that have the fever are always trying to find a lucky or bank-breaking cure to keep the virus to a low boil. Those infected eager to buddy up to the chosen ones with a precious tag and hunt vicariously to keep the night sweats down. Question a guy about his pet Elk spot is like asking to sleep with his wife, buckle down for a long lie or a sour dose of stink eye. Ask about sheep hunting spots or looking for tag along partners and list gets long with people eager to help.
Ken a longtime hunting buddy had actually taken a good Ram in the area I had drawn. Ken was always eager to hunt and thrilled to be thinking about chasing Rams again. I remember him telling me, "After I got my Ram down, the blizzard started... by the time I staggered out, I was totally blown out. It was all I could do to keep going and putting one foot in front of the other." I have done lots of wilderness backpacking and hardcore hunting with Ken and would put him up against anyone.
There would be no guides; it would be Ken and I.
I had scouted with Ken several times for his hunt and soon found out sheep live in scary haunts above where the eagles soar. Thousand foot cliffs, precarious boulders, and life threatening storms quick to anger at altitudes that will scorch lungs and strangle hearts.
The detective work began. I learned a lot. I heard rumors of "Ghost Rams" in my area, old and smart, reclusive rams rarely seen. They avoid people at all costs disappearing when hunting season rolls around haunting deep black holes and dark timber.
Map studying is a great way to really get to know an area before the serious boot leather comes out. Being a bit of a map freak and looking at the layout of my hunting area, I know what those stacked elevation lines mean when they are so close they look like a chocolate smudge on the paper. The map spelled out nightmarish places like the "Bottomless Pit," "Windy Point," "The Crater" and "The Devil’s Playground." Not places for the faint of heart. Eager to scout my area, I went in early May. There was too much snow for sheep to be back up high, but it was a thrill to be in the in the country I would be hunting. I looked out across the rugged mountains and wondered what adventures would unfold.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife sent out an invitation to attend a "Sheep and Goat seminar." The seminar is attended by the lucky few who held a tag. When I arrived there was a real buzz in the air. It was like hanging out in a room of Powerball winners. Speaker after speaker started their presentations with, "You’re the luckiest guys in Colorado." I ran into another guy with a Ram tag who told me he was quitting his job after his boss told him he couldn’t take off the time he thought he would need explaining, “I can always get another job…I might not ever have another Sheep tag.” Logic like this is a sure symptom of the festering infection of Sheep fever.
The seminar confirmed what I already suspected and knew from a lifetime of hunting. It comes back to what all serious successful hardcore big game hunting is; scout, glass, never give up and be in the best shape of your life One thing agreed by all is sheep live in the rough stuff and there was no such thing as an easy Ram worthy of a precious tag.
After several ramless scouting trips, finally, a band of 28 rams high in a flower filled summer basin. According to sheep counts this would be about half the rams in the unit. Mostly the gang consisted of half grown rams and some full of promise teenagers. Three other rams stood out. Those rams bigger and blockier hung in a small group of their own. Two were about 7/8 curls, but the one I liked the most was an old battle scared bruiser sporting a heavy 3/4 curl with a blunt broom. Some dashing Princes and a local tough guy I would be happy with for sure but not the Full Curl King I had dreamed of. The thought of a Ghost Ram was always haunting my daydreams.
The season I had drawn was a second season, and there would be four Ram hunters who would have their shot first. The word was, after any pressure, the sheep would head to the timber dropping into deep scary hell holes knowing sane men wouldn’t dare follow. My growing obsession with sheep was becoming littered with insane thoughts of Spartan Cliffside bivouacs, rappelling, technical climbing gear, food and water stashes and doing anything for a Big Ram.
Patience’s truly a virtue in sheep hunting. Endless hours and days glassing windswept rocks looking for the Holy Grail. Ken and I were on opposite sides of a huge rocky ridge glassing at sunset. When we met for our hike out Ken was wide eyed, saying for a few short minutes he had seen a band of five rams walk across a saddle and out of sight. Just getting a glimpse he said they looked to be a few stud rams in the bunch. It was time to back out, regroup and put these rams to bed and come up with a plan for the next day.
My area is unique, as you can drive to a 14,000 -foot plus summit. A clear chilly dawn had Ken and I dropping over the top and into in the steep sweeping basin he had last seen the rams in. Nothing! As we dropped further and further giving up precious elevation, it looked like the rams had disappeared. I was getting the sinking feeling they were long gone. There was one small hidden drop-off we couldn’t see around. There they were the band of five.
We were on a cliff directly above them, and they were close to 400 yards away, too far for a sure shot in the stiff breeze, high altitude and sharp angle. We watched the Ram’s mill about, and there were definitely a couple studs in the bunch. Sheep are hard to judge; they look bigger and smaller at different angles, but one stuck out. He was broomed, yet still full curl, heavy, and fitted with a boxer’s Roman nose. The kind of ram I had dreamed about. The Rams bedded down in the small saddle Ken had seen them cross the evening before. All the Rams were facing different directions with a keen eye for danger. Each laid, head tilted back to support the heavy head gear, just like Jack O" Conner had written about in stories I read and re-read as a boy. Now it was real and not just a day dream. I was looking at Big Rams, had my .270 in my hand and a tag in my pocket. It was almost surreal.
The Rams got up after a few minutes and moved down a rocky ridge hopping from boulder to boulder, finally bedding down on a scattering of truck sized boulders. I watched the big Ram’s head nod a few times in the warm morning sun finally giving in and laying his head down for a quick catnap.
It was decision time. Although the rams were now close to 1000 yards away, I would be exposed for about 75 yards before dropping behind a ridge to hide my stalk. The sheer 1000-foot cliffs would be impossible to skirt. Should I try and wait for the rams to move or try to make a stalk out of it? I decided to go for it. Ken and I worked out a series of hand signals and I was off. Walking away and not looking in the ram’s direction, I tried hard to look nonchalant and as least like a predator as possible. I was able to get out of sight and start doubling back before they got up. Then, quickly dropping several thousand feet, I was behind the rocky ridge and I knew on the other side now unseen was the Ram of my dreams.
I was getting close to where I thought the Rams might be as I made my way through car sized boulders. Another check from Ken and he was frantically pointing hard right. The rams were up and moving. I was crawling through the boulders, banging knees and elbows stealing tiny peeks over the ridge.
The Rams and they were close! My gun was up and through the scope there was no doubt who was leading the bunch. No missing that heavy full curl, it was the big ram. I tried to calm my shattered nerves and slow my racing heart in a few split seconds. The wind was swirling, and the breeze on the back of my neck a chilly reminder there was no time to wait; I had to take a shot now. Breathe….squeeze. At the crack of the rifle the Big Ram dropped hard. The rest of the rams looked like they were shot out of cannons running in scattered directions. He was mine! My once in a lifetime was happening right now, and I couldn’t have been happier.
He was an old warrior. Twelve growth rings with at least five inches broomed off would make him at least 13 years old. With broomed off inches of his youth long gone, growth rings almost worn smooth, chips from past fights, and the smell of pinesap and juniper, his horns were the history of his life. I kept wondering about 13 years in these mountains, how many close calls from mountain lions, hard winters, wicked lighting storms, droughts, rockslides, other hunters, bloody busted noses in fights, the other rams he hung out with and the lambs he fathered. This craggy old Gladiator had been around. His few remaining teeth worn completely to the gums, skinny haunches, brisket worn clear of hair from endless hours lying on the rocks and I said to myself, "Yep, it was his time."
It appeared the Devil himself was cooking up the weather. The weather on a 14,000 foot a mountain can change in heartbeat and it did. By the time we were done with pictures, caping, and boning, the sunny skies and cotton candy clouds of midday had turned a wicked black. Those once cheery clouds now low, dark, mean and muscular, looking for trouble. Those threats soon turned nasty, really nasty. We were first pummeled with a cold steely rain which then froze, leaving the rocks and cliffs with a translucent icy glaze. Beautiful to look at, but deadly. It was just an evil tease of what was to come.
The storm was gaining an awesome force. Sleet whipped at us in stinging bitter lashes, the wind, snow and sleet supercharged with brutal thunderclaps echoing off the cliffs, and lightening ripping the darkening skies. Forget about being cold, wet and miserable this was the kind of weather that could kill you. There was no cover to speak of and hunkering down to wait was not an option. It would be like waiting in the open of an artillery assault hoping the enemy ran out of shells. Nighttime was lurking and we had to keep moving up. Straight up and into the teeth of the storm.
Each step brought thinner and thinner air and wearier and wearier backs and legs. The storm had become hellish and surreal in its intensity. The thunder a deathly roar of electrical chaos, the rank sweet smell of voltage in the air. But feeling the weight of my full curl ram on my pack and the strength in my legs, there was no place else on earth I wished I was. If I was to die on this mountain I would die happy. I couldn’t think of another way I would like to hike into heaven than with my Ram on my pack and a smile on my face.
The ram had gone down an hour after sunrise. Finally, breaking through the top of the storm, it was well after dark and the Moon burned bright, casting a lunar glow across the cliffs and tumbled stone. Now above the storm the air was dead still, clean and cold. The storm had settled low slowly marching east, the occasional cloud veiled purple and tangerine flash of lighting and low throb of thunder marking its way. As the trail finally leveled to the west, far in the distance we could see a few twinkling lights of Cripple Creek. We had reached the summit.
Back at home, not a day goes by I don’t think about my sheep hunt. I know now sheep fever is a real thing, and I’ve got a full-blown case. The antidote is tough to come by when sheep hunts call for deeper pockets than mine or a long shot at drawing another tag. I haven’t figured out the cure yet, but someday, somehow, I will go sheep hunting again. Until then keep I’ll have to keep the fever to a warm itch living through other sheep hunters with dreams of their own.
But, for now, it’s back to daydreaming about Jack O" Conner and his tales of high adventure in places like the Northwest Territories, Alaska, the Yukon and the Wind River. Tales of square faced Cree Indian guides with ponytails and Pendleton shirts, stout mountain horses, hobnail boots, bacon, black coffee and fresh sheep ribs over an open flame. Those dreams taking me once again back to mysterious heavenly Kingdoms where wild sheep rule castles of rock and ice and Bighorn Kings wear crowns of spiraled stone.