I Finally Drew a Bighorn Sheep Tag. I Was Too Out of Shape to Punch It
A trophy ram was waiting just 600 yards away, but my body had failed me. Numb with exhaustion, I lost my chance at a hunt of a lifetime
This story, “The Lost Sheep,” originally ran in the September 1964 issue of Outdoor Life. While it is, in many ways, a classic big-game hunt of its era, this story also shows how hunting ethics have changed over the decades. The article originally ran with a companion piece advising hunters how to get into shape for hunts like this. It should have included a third column discussing the do’s and don’ts of long-range shots while hunting.
THE PICTURE was one that any hunter might spend a lifetime dreaming about and never see. In front of us sprawled a massive, windswept mountain, reaching majestically to the sky. Under its rim, two bulky rams grazed as contentedly as though we did not exist. Jim Moots, my guide, studied them through his glasses.
“Not record heads,” he said, “but there is one mighty good trophy any hunter would be proud to own.”
From where we stood on the grassy ridge of our own 9,500-foot mountain, the guide spent long minutes surveying the rough terrain between us and the sheep. They were across a deep, timbered ravine and at least 500 feet higher up.
“The simplest way to get to them,” he said, “is a beeline down this slope and up the mountain they are on. The stalk shouldn’t take us more than half an hour if we keep traveling.”
The gap between us and the animals suddenly assumed the proportions of the last half mile to the top of Mt. Everest.
“I guess I could do the going down all right,” I confessed, “but I’d never climb that rooftop over yonder, not in half a week.”
My guide swung his glasses along the crest of the Absaroka Range, which is the mighty east wall of Yellowstone Park. We had approached the range from the North
Fork of Crandall Creek, where our outfitter, Everett Wallace, of Cody, Wyoming, has his base camp.
“Our next best bet,” the guide decided, “is to work our way up this ridge to the top of the Absaroka, and then along the high side of the next mountain. That way, we’ll come on those sheep from the Park County side.”
I nodded agreement, almost casually, without the slightest idea that this would very nearly be the last hunting stalk I would ever make.
Who can possibly describe that country to one who has never seen it? It is so huge and high and hazardous that it dwarfs the imagination. Above the last straggling trees at the ragged edge of timberline, the land is cut by rock-ribbed canyons, angled ridges, and cliffs which drop off thousands of vertical feet into the timber. Out on top, brushing right up against the sky, there are plateaus almost like rolling pastureland. In the country’s vastness, a man on horseback is like a mite creeping through it.
That’s the way I felt as we inched along the grassy backbone and started our climb up the towering shoulder of the mountain. To keep out of sight of the rams, it was necessary to swing in a southerly direction and then follow the contour northward to a point where we might get into position for our stalk afoot.
“I remember a trail along here somewhere,” Jim drawled, “and that sure might help us get over the rough going up ahead.”
I guess I expected to ride into a bridle path, and when he said, “Here it is,” I looked down in amazement. It wasn’t a trail at all, but a narrow mark across the face of the mountain, a game trail at no place wider than the hoofs of our horses.
The closer we a pp roached to the north face, the more dangerous that goat path became. Here the ground was frozen hard, with patches of snow, and covered in spots by loose shale. I was glad to have Budweiser under me. He was a good mountain horse, and on this hunt I had ridden him enough to have complete faith in his judgment and surefootedness. Possibly this hazardous situation did not worry him quite as much as it did me, but I was relieved when Jim suggested that we dismount and proceed afoot.
His reason for this -was soon obvious. We had crossed the contour and were in sight of the sheep again. The wind was from them to us and apparently they had not yet seen us. They continued to graze peacefully, about 1,000 yards away, all the while angling slowly toward the crest of the divide. Taking advantage of the slight cover provided by the scattered, scrubby trees, we moved slowly and cautiously along the frozen trail.
Though our route across the mountain was not especially steep, my became increasingly difficult. From a previous hunt in the Colorado Rockies, I was aware that at around 10,000 feet any kind of exertion gives one unaccustomed to high altitudes a profound shock, bordering on panic, when he finds that even his heaviest breathing will not yield the necessary oxygen. This placed a heavy strain on my heart and lungs, but while this concerned me greatly, at the moment it was not as important as getting to those sheep.
Jim, in front of me, stopped behind a low tree and, with a motion of his hand, indicated that I should drop my reins and step up to him.
“If these horses go any farther,” he whispered, “those rams will see them. You and I might not stand out too prominently.”
He estimated that we had between 600 and 800 yards to stalk on foot to a shooting position for a sure kill. I chambered a 7 mm magnum cartridge from the magazine of my Model 700 BDL Remington, and started out after the guide. He was in a hurry and anxious to get within range before the rams saw us and left the country. So far they had continued to graze toward the peak and had their tails to us.
TRY AS I MIGHT, I could not keep up with Jim. The mountainside was as steep as the roof of an English church. I could look off into the tops of the trees more than 2,000 feet below. The trail was glazed with ice. Why I didn’t go off that mountain, I’ll never know. I wasn’t frightened at the height or the sheer drop under us. It wasn’t mental. It was physical. My lungs were on fire from the altitude and excitement, and added to this was the now surprisingly difficult chore of simply making my legs work. Hours and days of unaccustomed hard riding and of having my knees and shins cracked against tree trunks when we rode through the forest after dark, had taken their toll. On the bare face of the mountain, my legs simply failed me. Stepping over the smallest rock became a major project. Time and again I slipped and fell on the rough slope and dug in with my gloved fingers. I’d lie there, glad of the reprieve, and of the chance to get my laboring heart partly back into place.
Then I fell, and with a good, solid thud. I was sure I’d never get to my feet again. Jim, good guide that he is, was naturally anxious that we get into position as quickly as possible. He came back to where I was hunkered down on a rock and stared at me for a long minute. There was a slight furrow between his eyes.
“Do you reckon you’ll be able to make it?” he asked, without the slightest trace of anything but sympathy.
I could not speak right away. I sat there shaking my head until I could gasp, “How much farther?”
“We’ve still got more than a third of a mile,” he said. “We go into that steep gulch ahead, and then climb out the other side.” He studied me for a moment. “If you get in the gulch and break a leg or something, I won’t be able to get a horse to you.”
I nodded mutely, deep disappointment welling over the pain in my legs, lungs, and heart.
“Then I guess,” I said woefully, “that I have no choice but to give up on my ram.”
It could have been so different. I just had never realized that sheep hunting involves something much more than being lucky enough to draw a permit. I’d never had the experience to appreciate how important it is for a man to be in tip-top shape for high-altitude horseback hunting.
I am a lawyer. My home is in Bethesda, Maryland. For 23 years I have been engaged in representing corporate and association clients before federal agencies. For more than six years I have been senior partner of the prominent Washington, D. C., law firm of Gall, Lane, and Powell.
I have spent as much of my 51 years as possible outdoors, salt-water fishing in summer and hunting rabbits, grouse, and quail in season. I hunt deer, too, when the opportunity affords, in the eastern Alleghenies of Pennsylvania and Virginia. My only big-game experience was in Colorado, when I went after elk and bear without seeing either.
It was my friend Ray Walsh, a hunting companion and fellow lawyer, who suggested that he, I, and two of our hunting friends make a Wyoming trip for elk and at the same time try for sheep and moose permits. For a number of years he had put in his application for both of these prize game animals, but had never been drawn.
As it turned out, one of our prospective party did not make his license application in time, and another was turned down by his doctor after he had purchased the license. And even before we made our final plans, Ray was killed in a private plane crash.
I GUESS at first I did not really appreciate my luck in the drawing for bighorn sheep. Even then I was a bit concerned over the high altitudes of sheep country, but Ray Walsh, who was with me when the permit came, was reassuring.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Your horse does all the work anyway.”
I went so far as to phone outfitter Everett Wallace, with whom Ray had hunted several times, and ask him whether I should accept the permit. After he had picked himself up off the floor—about that much time elapsed before he replied—he said, “Sure, bring it along. We’ll get that ram somehow.”
Prior to going to Wyoming, I had a complete physical and was pronounced O.K. by my doctor. I went on a diet and lost 12 pounds (I’m six feet tall and weigh 195 pounds), and I did as much extra walking as possible when the early small-game season opened in the states around Washington. There was no way, of course, to duplicate the high altitude and rough mountain riding.
When I met Jim Moots at Wallace’s Few Acres Ranch at breakfast on the October day we rode out for camp, we shook hands and I knew that we were going to get along. Jim is my idea of a dyed-in-the-sagebrush Westerner, all the way from his lean legs to his slow, infectious grin. I was impressed by his air of quiet confidence, which I suppose always breeds confidence in a dude. For many years he has been one of the top guides in a country where all guides have to rate at least “good” to stay in the business. During the winter, Jim, also 51, works at various ranches around Cody, and helps his wife in her gift shop in town.
“Congratulations on getting a sheep permit,” he said. “I was lucky enough to draw one, too. We’ll team up on the critters.”
I had a chance to get better acquainted with my guide on our sixhour ride up Crandall Creek to the Wallace base camp, about a mile west of Tough Creek. I remember musing along the way that Jim wears glasses, as I do, and that it was rather disappointing to draw a guide with bum eyes. Even though I later learned Jim has fantastic vision, I wondered rather grimly how a couple of partly blind fellows would be able to team up on a ram.
NOW CROUCHED on a 10,000-foot frozen mountain, and near exhaustion, I had no other choice but to let down my end of this partnership. This was one of those “stark moments of truth.” I could have gone on and made an attempt to get close enough for a shot at that bigger ram, but I was so near physical collapse that one of my frequent spills might break an arm, leg, or my back. I could even fall off the mountain. There was an even chance that I might not come through the effort alive. In either case, Jim would then have the problem of getting what was left of me out of that country. If I did make it, there was great risk of permanent injury to my inside mechanism, which certainly had never been under such a strain as this.
“I’d better stop right here,” I decided. “You go after him.”
“I don’t shoot another man’s trophy,” Jim drawled.
“I didn’t mean that at all,” I hastily assured him. “If that ram is big enough for you, he’s yours, on your permit.”
The guide nodded slowly. I could see that it was a tough decision for him to make.
“Maybe I will,” he said, “if I can borrow your rifle. It has a much flatter trajectory, and I don’t know how close I can get.”
I agreed quickly. At least my gun could be in on the kill.
Keeping lower than I thought was possible, Jim worked his way along the face of the mountain, then went out of sight over the rim of the gulch. I sat perfectly still, and not just to keep from spooking the rams. It was a quarter of an hour before I could even begin to breathe normally again. I was much too exhausted to crawl to the horses for my camera and telephoto lens, for what might have been a prize picture of two rams being stalked by a hunter. I was, in fact, so exhausted that at first I did not dare risk a move to a safer spot on the mountain.
I watched Jim crawl into position within 300 yards of the sheep. The flat bark of the 7 mm. snapped back across the mountain and we both saw the bullet hit high. The animals made a little jump, but did not run. The guide shot again, this time also just high enough to miss, and both rams scampered out of sight over the skyline.
Only when the sheep were gone did I feel that I had recovered enough to crawl to the horses. Using the utmost caution, I managed to turn my horse around and deliberately work my way to a somewhat wider place in the trail to wait for Jim. When he reached me, I could see that he was as disappointed as I.
“Shot high, both times,” he swore softly. “I reckon I was holding as high as I would have with the .308. I’ll stick with my Winchester from now on. You look like you feel better. Want to try a little elk hunting on the way home? If we could get a bull between here and camp, it might help us save some small part of the day.”
“I’m still a bit wobbly,” I admitted. “But sure. Let’s try for an elk.”
I had no idea, of course, that disaster would continue to stalk us across the glazed face of the mountain. We were returning slowly along the narrow goat trail when Jim’s horse lost its rear footing and went down on its haunches. The guide quickly rolled out of the saddle on the high side of the mountain. Although my horse had not slipped, I considered this a proper moment for me to leave my own saddle. But I lacked Jim’s experience in such matters. When my clumsy feet hit the icecoated rocks, they immediately shot out from under me. I dug in my heels to keep from scooting down that 2,000-foot incline and fortunately stopped, right under Budweiser.
Jim, who had pulled his own horse back on its feet, held my bridle reins while I crawled carefully out from under the animal. I stood and held the reins while my guide led his horse about 200 feet to flatter ground and then came back for Budweiser and me.
I was walking behind my goat-footed horse when all four feet went out from under him. At the moment I did not even recall that my camera was in the saddle bag, under the horse. I was more concerned with the stark potentialities of the drama. Budweiser and Jim were struggling on an almost vertical slope and getting closer to the edge which would pitch them off for a headlong plunge into the valley far below.
That day Somebody was on our side, for sure. My horse managed to regain its feet just in time to avoid certain death. When Jim led Budweiser back to the trail, the animal appeared calm and in perfect shape except for a patch or two of skinned hide and a broken bridle rein where the guide had tried to hold up its head and help it to its feet.
“What,” I ventured, “would you have done if you had lost the horse, or me, or both of us over that mountain?”
Jim’s reply was typical of his personality.
“I hadn’t stopped to figure that out,” he said, “and now I don’t need to.”
We moved more slowly after that, and as cautiously as the icebound slope would permit. After what seemed like an eternity, we reached a comparatively level ridge top, where we paused to rest and glass the country around us. Jim spotted a herd of a dozen elk in the distance, but all were cows and calves.
From that point we angled downhill in the general direction of camp, trying to pick the least hazardous course off the mountain, stopping now and then to glass the tremendously big open hillsides and scattered parks below us in the timber.
MY DESPONDENCE over the ram failure resulted in another lesson that day. Everett Wallace had told me that when I rode behind Jim, I should keep close to him, so that if he sighted game, there would be no lost time or motion in getting a shot. I was loafing along in woeful thought, much too far behind, when the guide spotted a bull grazing in a lovely glade. The animal was not more than 100 yards away. Jim motioned instead of calling, and when I kicked Budweiser, he jumped forward with a clatter of rocks. By the time I reached Jim, the bull was moving into the timber and I got only a glimpse of it through the trees.
“Very good rack,” the guide said, without any trace of the excitement I felt, “but not a record. He’ll be around tomorrow. We’ll try for him then.”
The next morning, however, snow was blowing through the timber and it was just as well that we decided to spend the day in camp. It gave me a chance to recuperate from the arduous day after sheep and to catch up on my notes. The snow and sleet continued to blow all that day. By noon the next day, it was cold and windy and clearing somewhat, so Sandy Sanders, the cook, fixed us a lunch, and Jim and I got into the saddle for the first time in 36 hours. Th feel of leather wasn’t as bad as I had expected. The guide looked at the sky.
“We’ll probably have a few snow squalls during the afternoon,” he said, ”but they won’t keep us from getting that bull.”
We left the pack trail at the creek and climbed through timber to an elevation of approximately 9,200 feet. We were riding along slowly, pausing frequently in the steep climb to breathe our mounts, when Jim reined in his horse.
“There’s a bunch of elk on that ridge,” he said. “It may have a bull in it.”
After a while, the guide succeeded in showing me the herd he had spotted. They were grazing on a mountainside some four ridges away, and how my hunting mentor saw them with his naked eye is quite beyond my comprehension. It was all I could do to find them through his 12X glasses. Jim studied the herd and made out what he termed “a good bull” in the group.
WE CAREFULLY picked our way toward the animals, angling from one tree clump to another to utilize as much of the scant cover as possible. We were out of sight of the herd when the guide reined in and swung out of his saddle.
“We’ve got a climb on foot, about 75 yards, to that bunch of trees,” he said. “Think you can make it?”
This day had thus far gone so easy that I was rather cocky about it.
“Of course,” I said.
I tried to swing out of the saddle as casually as he had done, but with only one difference. I forgot to look down, and fell flat on my back into an erosion gully. The clatter of rocks and my cussing probably would have spooked the elk had they been any closer.
The tree clump Jim had indicated was both farther away and higher above us than it had appeared from the saddle. I had to stop once on the way up the mountain and get my breath. When I crawled up beside the guide, I got into a kneeling position and found a good gun rest on a fallen tree. Jim had his glasses on the animals.
“That bull,” he said, “is real good, better than he looked from a distance. Think you can hit him from here ? “
“How far is it?” I asked.
“Four hundred yards.”
My Bausch & Lomb variable scope was set at 4X and the bull’s relatively small image at this power led me to believe that the elk was at least 500 or 550 yards away. I had never shot at anything, not even targets, at that range.
“If your mountain footwork was better,” Jim mused, very frankly, “we might get closer. But I guess we’d better try him from here.”
While all this was going on, and while I was trying to get both my wind and excitement under control, the bull moved out of sight behind a tree clump. Risking the chance that one of the cows at the rear of the herd might spot his movement, Jim slowly bent back a pine bough from the sight line of my scope.
The bull appeared again. He was grazing uphill and offered a broadside shot. Taking Jim’s estimate of the distance, I held on the withers. My rifle had been zeroed in at 283 yards, which meant that the 150-grain Core-Lokt bullet would remain within three inches of the line of sight for 330 yards. After that, it would drop rather rapidly.
I touched off my shot and both the bull and cows stopped grazing and looked with apparent curiosity in our direction. Jim had not seen or heard the first shot hit, and I was sure it had missed. Substituting my own Easterner’s estimate of the distance, I quickly got off another shot, this time holding a bit high over the bull. Jim, watching through the glasses, said more calmly than the situation warranted, “Too high.”
The bull had not yet moved. Trying to hold this time just under the withers, I got off a third and then a fourth shot.
“Both those bullets hit him,” Jim said .
But the elk still stood on all four feet and was walking uphill toward a tree clump. Its rear end was more in evidence than the remainder of the animal, but I was able to hold between his shoulders and get in one more blow before the animal turned downhill and disappeared into the timber.
“He’s a real sick bull,” the guide declared.
Back in the saddle again, we rode to the edge of the trees where we had last seen the elk. When Jim dismounted to look for blood, the bull jumped to its feet less than 50 yards from us and took off clumsily on three legs.
“If it’s O.K.,” the guide said, “I’ll run him down on foot and put him out of his misery.”
Of course it was the proper thing to do, and a few minutes after Jim disappeared, I heard him shoot twice.
We found six bullet holes in the dead bull. We figured that my first shot had hit him in the lower middle gut, and the third about six inches behind the shoulder. One had creased the bottom of his belly, at center, and my fifth had completely severed the shoulder bone. Jim had finished the animal off with two bullets in the neck.
My bull was a “royal” beauty. Its trophy rack had seven points on one side and six on the other. Jim estimated its weight at 750 pounds and its age at seven or eight years.
HE CAPED OUT the scalp and field-dressed the bull as I took pictures. With snow flying all around us, the guide cut out the “ivories” and made a nice little ceremony out of formally presenting them to me.
“At that distance,” he said, “it was real good shooting.”
Even though I was more inclined to credit the element of luck, I was very proud of my magnificent trophy. However, my position of the moment called for self-castigation rather than congratulations.
One reason for this was the sheep. Although I’d always had a high regard for the mountain sheep as a trophy, it was only after I arrived in Wyoming and learned how the old hands out that way treasure such a prize, that I really became excited and exhilarated at the prospect of getting within rifle shot of a good ram. It was hard to realize that I, a city boy from Washington, D. C., could have such good fortune.
On the heels of that exhilaration had come the lost-sheep episode, in which the sheep was lost, and the hunter and a horse almost lost. The real “lost sheep,” of course, was the hunter, unaware that he was physically unfit for the arduous and dangerous business of hunting rams.
Even though it turned out all right, I also felt a sense of self-criticism over my elk. This long-range shooting was necessary, in Jim’s opinion, because of my physical inadequacies. We’d shot the bull from over 400 yards, although available cover made a stalk to within 100 yards quite feasible. As a consequence, this fine animal had to suffer for the 30 to 45 minutes required to reach it and end its misery. In similar situations, the kill might have been delayed much longer, or the wounded animal could have escaped to die slowly, much later and miles away, solely because of the unfitness of the hunter.
STANDING OVER the elk, I was struck hard with the thought that in killing any big-game trophy, much more is involved than just taking a plane across the country. I wondered what I, or any other hunter who is literally snatched from a desk to the rigors of high-altitude hunting, could do to soften that transition (see “Fit To Kill,” page 46).
Certainly there are no 10,000-foot altitudes around Washington, but I might have improved my wind by running up and down stairs instead of taking the elevator. And I might have tempered my legs by tramping the nearest Maryland or Pennsylvania hills for many weekends before the hunt. I could have ridden horseback to toughen up my saddle parts, and waded a few more trout streams.
My physical condition at the outset of the hunt was perhaps somewhat better than many who do office work for a livelihood. But it had never dawned on me until the stark moment when I crouched high on that mountainside, unable to make the last few necessary steps for the trophy of a lifetime, that a sheep hunt like this could be so devastating to one’s body.
Now, when I look back on my hunt, I understand very clearly something the late Grancel Fitz once wrote in “Top Trophy of North America?” in OUTDOOR LIFE, February, 1964: “There is no doubt that the average hunt for any kind of ram will call for more physical exertion by the sportsman than he’ll use in pursuing any other species. Many men are just not conditioned for it.”
When I summed up my feelings to Jim, I hoped I was not speaking only for myself, but also for many, many other hunters who lack proper training and are unfamiliar with the conditions they are certain to encounter at high altitudes.
“If I ever make another trip like this,” I declared, “I’m going to come as tough as a Yankee hickory nut.”
Jim grinned his slow, infectious grin, and I knew he knew that I meant every word.