by Chris Schiller
It all started with the inability to check my own mail because of a busy summer schedule on our farm located in extreme north-east Colorado. My father handed me a white Division of Wildlife envelope. He had an odd smirk on his face while I rummaged through the pre opened envelope looking for my much needed refund check to help pay a staggering corn spraying bill, only to find a blue tag with S66 Rifle Ram looking back at me. My heart stopped, as I winced with hesitation. My mind began to spin with all the preparations this hunt would take. I simply did not have the time to hunt sheep but; then again, I now had no choice but to go hunting.
I have been a hunter from the first day I could hold up a bow and arrow, and I have been a professional sculptor since the age of 18. Early on I learned to hunt, finding the challenge in tracking magnificent wild game through Colorado and Wyoming, learning to appreciate what they can teach us about life. I also found that I could convey this love of wildlife through my bronze sculptures of big game, raptors, and waterfowl. But to create a sculpture, I need to understand my subject — how they move, what they eat, where they sleep, and what they are. So this year I was especially excited, and intimidated to draw not one but two of Colorado’s most coveted big game hunting tags — a second season rifle mountain goat and a rifle bighorn sheep ram. Both tags were for the same shared hunting unit in the central Rockies.
The ram season started September 10 and closed October 14, (I took the entire season off) so I knew I was in for the challenge of my lifetime. To get in shape I doubled my training program three months before leaving, emphasizing on cardio, legs, and losing excess weight. I also shot over 250 rounds through my new .300 Win Savage rifle equipped with a tactical Leupold scope to ensure that I could make a clean, ethical shot up to 600 yards if I had to. I prepared for all possible hunting situations, from wilderness spike camping (establishing a base camp and small secondary camps) to winter survival gear. I also gave extra thought to worst case scenarios, including having an emergency GPS survival beacon by my side at all times, allowing me the false sense of security I needed to be in such a lunar country.
This hunting unit is surrounded by some of Colorado’s most spectacular 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks, and there is little to no vehicle access through the U.S. Forest Service land and wilderness backcountry. The historical absence of trophy sheep make this the least sought after of Colorado’s 52 ram hunting units, so it is the easiest to get tags for. I purposely applied for both tags in this unit because I wanted to hunt sheep some time in my life, and I felt confident in my mental abilities and physical condition to be able to hunt anywhere. I wanted the personal challenge of going into a new area that I had never been in, to learn the land, to understand my quarry in their environment by myself and maybe to come out with a great story to tell.
Hunt for a Ram
I took only one quick scouting trip over the summer due to working 18 hours a day in preparation for the hunt. I left home 7 days before the season opened and set up a base camp near Twin Lakes. I was hoping to find a group of bachelor rams beforehand and to stay with them and then make the harvest on opening day. That would give me time to scout and harvest a mature goat in the same fashion. Of course my plans didn’t turn out that way. I spent days on end hiking to find sheep, watching pairs of boots getting torn to shreds from hiking cross country on razor-sharp rocks and seeing endless pairs of gloves being ripped to pieces from holding on to everything while crawling through mountainous terrain. I remembered a conversation with one of my art clients talking about his guided hunt the previous month, and how hard it was, but on the ninth day he got his stone ram. My ninth day slipped by without anything close to success. I was lucky to even see sheep every third day of intensive hunting. I started to question my judgment in not hiring an experienced guide, a helicopter; maybe I should have gone to church once over the last 12 years. I was getting desperate.
After three weeks in the field (and two weeks into the hunting season), I hadn’t seen one legal ram. To amuse myself, I started to name all the 112 ewes and non-legal rams that I’d found in the unit. Sometimes it was hard to distinguish a young ram from a ewe unless I was two yards away from their bellies as they skipped and dodged over my head, as they did on more than one occasion because some of my favorite glassing points were one way sheep ridge lines. After gaining a full understanding and respect for the terrain, observing all wildlife including lions and bears, despite blinding lightning bolts, fog, sleet, bruising hail, snow and the winds that were determined to make me fly off knife edge ride lines, I decided it was time to harvest a mountain goat before the season closed. I had no real preference for a billy or nanny at this point with the weight of a ram tag in my pocket.
Meanwhile, a small but dedicated support team showed up at my base camp — Carl Bagwell (known as Bags), who was my high school art teacher and is a seasoned sheep hunter, and Jon Moore, an outdoor gear specialist and accomplished big bull elk hunter. My spirits were lifted after a night around the campfire with good friends and a feast of half of a marinated elk loin cooked to perfection with all the trimmings that Jon had brought up from a recent kill. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until I had eaten all the rest of the meat after my friends had finished. Added to the enjoyment of real food was the needed conversation and camaraderie with good friends. I told a story over the campfire about meeting a sightseeing couple who had parked their SUV next to my truck on Independence Pass. They said they thought this was God’s country, but I had to give them my opinion, “God’s country is where corn grows and I can drive my pick-up anywhere I wish. The devil lives in these mountains that you are looking at. Just try existing in them.”
My plan for the next day was simple — head up to a saddle that I had seen as a good place to catch mountain goats crossing. While Bags stayed at the base camp to look for sheep from all available vantage points on the roads due to his robust age of 79, Jon and I headed for the pass. I assured Jon that it would take only an hour or so to hike up to a glacier lake full of cutthroat trout that he could catch while recovering from the flu, and enjoy his three-day vacation? After six hours of hiking, we made it to my preset spike camp at 11,800 feet. I left camp after lunch, while Jon stayed behind to search for oxygen and glass for game from camp. I continued my search for a ram, knowing I would shoot a goat only if it found its way into my path. I had lost sight of the two billies I had been previously watching after first rifle season opened up. I had heard that most second season goat hunters could not even find a goat.
I spotted a nice nanny that afternoon; she was somewhat accessible without the assistance of rock climbing gear. I decided to make a fast two hour stalk down and up to the opposite hillside. As I pulled and crawled up a sparsely vegetated granite mountain I thought how foolish I was to not fill my water canteens up as I was belly crawling to stay out of sight of the goat through the stream some thousand feet below me. But the bright side of goat hunting is you only have another 1000 vertical feet left any way you look at it and you are always out of water so no point in complaining. I eased into final position as I stuffed some green shrub in my mouth hoping to get a drop of water out of it, chambered a round, placed some well used paper towels in my ears and ranged the goat at 285 yards up hill. I secured my rifle rest between two boulders and watched the goat feed completely broadside. Trying to grow this 7/3/4inch nanny into a world record billy was just impossible to do. I remembered the goal for this unit was to shoot as many goats as possible to help promote sheep habitat ( preferably nannys) reminding myself this was as close to a mature goat as I had been all goat season and who knew, she might turn into a billy when I get my hands on her? With a single trigger squeeze at 4:07 pm, I stumbled back to camp with the first load out just after 9 pm, despite a failing flash light, shins battered from countless falls down the dark mountain, and every muscle in my body screaming for food and rest. I was shocked to see Jon in the roomy two man tent with one eye as big as a golf ball, asking if I had any Benadryl on me because he was allergic to the nuts that were in his trail mix. (I did not have any). It took two more days and a few miller lights to pack out the rest of the meat and spike gear. When we got back, Bags reported no luck in spotting sheep. With the goat tag filled and my friends departing, it was time to get back to finding a bighorn sheep ram.
Looking for a Ghost
I had two weeks to complete my hunt before the season closed. Even though I was physically exhausted and mentally strained, I pushed as hard as I could every day, focusing on keeping a good mental attitude and enjoying every day, whether or not I found a ram. On an average day in the field I would drive maybe 45 miles to various locations in my pickup truck, then maybe another 17 miles on an ATV, and then hike 10 miles or so to high ground where I could use my optics to spot sheep. Despite the weight, my 20-60-86 mm Zeiss spotting scope and tripod never left my back.
I drank from stream or snow melt through a filtration system to keep hydrated and ate meals consisting of anything sugar-based or in a bag. I took advantage of edible foods that nature provided, snacking on rose hips, wild berries, or the occasional slow moving grass hopper on the snow crust only after exhausting my daily food rations. I simply could not carry enough food in the day to keep my energy levels up, (I was starving, and I lost 20 pounds). At night I would think about that day’s events and make sketches, do the designated check-in call to my family and friends to report I’m still alive, try to dry my clothes, and get a good night sleep, whether at a spike camp on some windy peak or back at my makeshift base camp.
Even though I was not finding a ram, I was finding a sense of purpose and lots of humility. I started to think that I might never find a ram, but I’ve never accepted failure as an option in life. So I simply adjusted my thinking, knowing that I would succeed if I continued to work hard each day. Besides, I knew I would never have this opportunity again. The other thing that became clear to me is giving priority to what is important in my life, as in family and good friends. Living alone away from civilization in sheep country for weeks allows one to appreciate nature and find peace on her terms, and it is that peace that always brings me back to who I am, be it on the farm or in the mountains. Nature is brutally honest all the time.
With two days left in the season, I came back to my truck in the dark as most every night before only to see I had three failing and un- field fixable tires. I also knew I had a black bear problem back at base camp, hoping the bear was not eating all my food and sleeping in my bed. I had attempted to cure the bear problem with a treat of half a jar of cayenne pepper and a bit of canned chicken grease. I was almost out of time and beyond frustrated. I was past my limit of exhaustion without one day of rest, questioning my sanity after being in this country for 38 days. With most my focus reminding me of a valuable lesson I had painfully come to appreciate with every step I took, in every placement of my rifle and on every rock perch I sat in: “Don’t be stupid”. Due to the treacherous rocky terrain, extreme change of weather and endless distances my main goal was to still be alive after the hunt. On one occasion I had come across two jeepers stuck on a one-way stream crossing. I was forced to help the high centered silver land rover that was completely ill equipped to be on a real 4×4 trail with the exception of a winch, that the operator did not know how to use. This was apparent when he almost took my right hand completely off at the wrist as I hooked the cable up to a tree to pull the jeep out of the stream, If I ever saw fear in a man’s eyes it was then, after I got done scolding him. It is essential to survival to pay attention to everything. “Don’t be stupid” was a lesson I constantly reminded myself of and I still remind myself of every day while in the comforts of civilization.
Bags had phoned me that night to report of his continued effort in finding me a ram despite his lack of physical presence. He had been busy networking through his connections with guides, biologists and wardens. Unfortunately his best tips were all the good hunting locations that I had been patrolling religiously. I thought that his wife might be able to put a bit of fresh energy into the topic of where the rams might be because I was out of my own intuitive thoughts due to physical exhaustion. Out of desperation, I named four different drainage options to relay to his wife. Bags’ wife Cherie keyed in on the very first option I named as I could hear her shouting excitedly in the background.
The Final Push
The next morning I managed to pump enough air into my tires to get to the nearest service station by 6:47 am, get my tires repaired, and then drive to the trailhead. Despite my annoyance of not being on a mountain top by dawn, I made it to the trail head that Cherie had responded to by 9:00 am. Contemplating the severity of the unfriendly valley my mind was unwilling to force my body up that nasty trail for a fifth time. I decided to ignore the words of a mystic, wanting to go some place that did not require walking more than 10 feet to glass for sheep. As I pushed past the trail head base on my Polaris twin 700 ATV, intuition caught me in the back of my head like a flat stone from a sling shot, giving me a simple (no) as I humbly conceded. I turned around, gritted my teeth and started the march up hill realizing I had been in the mountains way to long because I was not only feeling the woods speak I was now listening? As I came to the final two way split in the trail, I was astonished at the short time it took me to get there. I had found my new mountain legs, this same hike in the first week had taken me close to three hours and today’s result was just over one. This was a slight indication to me that I had turned into a goat, not only in my facial beard or scent but my legs and lungs as well. I looked at the two trail heads with nice but step paths made by all the glory hikers of the area, glanced to an unimaginable third option of no trail head but a steep granite and timber rock slide covered with snow and ice. I decided the easiest route would be best with a nice path to follow, but I followed my gut feeling and pulled myself up the granite covered ice sheeted non existing trail option despite my own personal complaints. After reaching the summit of my intended mountain by 1:48pm I began to graze on my never ending supply of snow and a single fun size chocolate bar. Fun for “whom” I had to wonder? I was starving as I read the packaging of my last energy source as I started glancing around for berries or insects to forage on.
I quickly regained my composure and got back to the task at hand of glassing. My first quick glass results came up with multiple fresh tracks in the snow two air miles away across the valley. Acquiring a new position to follow the tracks to the beginning or end I secured my spotting scope and set to the work of discovery with a new found sheep eye. I wondered if the tracks were fresh or old, how many animals and to what they might be? After careful study I determined they could only be fresh sheep tracks due to the location, group number and feeding pattern. My heart stopped, my jaw dropped, and a few foul words slipped out because the tracks lead to three rams! One being the biggest ram I had ever seen in my life. Instinctively I blocked out looking at the mass or length of this animal’s horns. Only to focus on the sheep, to gain an understanding of what their next moves might be, where they were going, if they are getting ready to bed and most important, how will I get close to them. Fortunately I had been in their exact same tracks weeks before while contemplating taking a shot at a young mountain goat. It was then I realized I was not a stranger to this foreign land. The group of rams was in their home and I was in my kitchen. It was now 2:00 pm and the sheep were still moving and slowly feeding, but I had no time to lose so I broke my pre-determined rules of never starting a chase after twelve noon and never go after moving sheep. I was out of time with tomorrow being the last day and the knowledge of if I can only make it up that next ridge I will catch them some place in shooting range. Debating the afternoon wind switch I thought I would be safe, so I started my timbered decent ever conscious to keep an eye out for any changing pattern the rams might take.
I plowed into the last valley before my ascent. Stopping to strip all unnecessary clothes off, and emptying my pack to only the essentials. I planned to move light and fast with my emergency gps and extra bullets on my hip, range finder and binoculars tucked into me. I started the climb as a well adapted animal giving no rest or mental awareness of fatigue as I drove each step up and up with no allowance for pain because of the falling sun. “Move…Move” was the only thought pounding through my body as I could taste an overload of acid in my mouth. This was my only chance; I had a lot of vertical ground to cover and willing to push my heart, lungs and legs past the limits of my six week conditioning drill. Having sufficiently made the summit I had a good plan to close the gap of only another thousand yards to get into position. As I pushed through the snow drifts and skipped from boulder to boulder in true sheep fashion. I continued to monitor the swirling wind hoping it would provide me just a touch of luck as I eased ever closer to the bowl of rams. Always cautious to keep my eyes up and out for where the rams might be if they continued to feed and move up the valley.
As if out of a scene from a bad horror movie, on a quick glass survey of the talus slides I picked up a ram looking right at me some 700 yards out. I slowly sank down into the snow and started to study him through my rifle scope to see if he was the big ram or if his two companions had also made my position and where they might be. Realizing it was a single ½ curl ram, telling me a story by his tracks in the snow that he had been watching me for a long time as I plundered over the bluff. After several minutes passed the young ram was content to stop staring at me and look down hill, then at me again, then back down hill, giving away the position of his companions that I could not yet see due to my position.
The young ram left me no alternative except to start crawling for the next 300 yards to mimic anything except a human being. I crawled through snow drifts and over the occasional windblown rock out-crops, taking care to keep my binoculars and range finder tucked into my jacket and zipped up tight to keep snow from clogging the lenses. I got to an appropriate vantage point and spotted two more rams bedded some 300 yards directly across from me. With full expectation to see a large ram sunning itself in the last of the day’s sun I could only see two small rams looking downhill. With 100 more yards of crawling to go, I would come to the edge of the cliff and be able to see the entire valley below. With the small ½ curl still watching me with curiosity and the other two rams oblivious to my presence; I continued my crawl using a small ridge for cover. As my weight pushed through snow crusted drifts the wind would catch the occasional powder flume and send it within 40 yards behind the last bedded ram. I prepared for the last five foot creep over the final ledge by removing the plastic bag and duct tape that covered my gun barrel, chambered a round, placed some tissue into my ears in anticipation for the bark of a muzzle break, and dug out my range finder from my Kevlar parka. With the grace of a turtle my rifle made the slow appearance over the cliff rim followed by my eyes only to see another small ram 352 yards out feeding slowly up hill.
I was relieved to have made it to this point, without the sheep picking up my scent from the shifting wind. I settled in and started glassing each rock to make sure it was really a rock. Within a few minutes two rocks turned out to be two more bedded rams hidden in the shadows, down below me at 277 yards away. Both were facing away, and all I could see was the back of their horns, but one was massively heavy. I wasn’t sure if this was the big ram I had seen from the other side of the valley, but this one captured my full attention, and it was hard to look for any more sheep with this big ram in view. I estimated the wind speed, elevation, and the shot placement on the large bedded ram I decided to wait for a standing shot. I continued to survey the immediate landscape for other hidden sheep. After 20 minutes of lying in the snow, I started to shake with cold because all my insulating layers were stashed at the bottom of the mountain. Intuition whispered that any moment the big ram would stand. I secured my final rock-steady rest, adjusted my scope for elevation, estimated for a heavy wind drift, and flipped my scope covers up. Within a few seconds the ram rocked to one side and pushed his heavy body up, stretching his back, standing somewhat broadside, giving me a clear view of a full curl heavy horn. Was this the ram I had seen previously? I saw no other big sheep, knew that this was a huge ram, and I had a good shot. This was it — take the shot before the gig was up.
I settled the crosshairs in front of his hind flank due to a heavy cross wind, focused my breath, and squeezed through my target. The bullet report sound was a clean thud. I chambered another round and saw my ram bolting off his perch, stumbling over the talus slope, then folding and sliding down the hill, trailed by a red streak in the snow. I kept the scope trained on his shoulders for minutes, looking for signs of movement. I had come too far and worked too hard to have anything go wrong because of impatience. I slowly realized that it was over. I picked my head up, unloaded my rifle, and watched the five additional rams standing uphill not 70 yards away from the dead ram. I realized I got the leader of the band. It was then that buck fever was now given permission to take hold. A flood of emotions raced through me, from dry heaves to the shakes, even a bit of moisture in my eyes as complete shock set in that I had got a ram, and knowing that this moment would never come again. The disappointment in searching so hard for 39 days to end it with the pull of a trigger and loss of life from an animal I had grown to admire and respect.
The remaining rams spotted me hacking like a bear on all fours trying to recover from suppressed adrenaline, and they blew country. I made my approach with mixed emotions, down through a sea of boulders with gaping unseen crevasses covered by drifted snow, only to climb up again. I gave an offering of tobacco and a prayer of thanks as I placed my hand on the ram’s chest. I took photos and did some detailed sketches. Then started the acrobatic, wrestling task of capeing and butchering a ram on a steep talus, snow covered mountainside. With the quarters safely secured in a rock snow cash, I started a careful, heavy, descent through a leg snapping mine field in the dark. I safely reached my truck by 9:30 pm and started to make phone calls. The first calls were to my family, then to Bags and his wife Cherie. I jokingly told Cherie she now had to tell me where to find a good woman; I told them I would name this ram the Cherie Ram due to her help from afar.
The Last Day
The last day of the hunting season was spent hiking back up the valley, to retrieve meat and remaining gear. As the sun set I pulled in to meet wildlife officer Tom Martin, who was skeptically awaiting my arrival. I had phone him earlier about the big ram I had taken — a full curl+ horn length of 37+ inches, 14.5 inch bases, and heavy brooming. I hobbled out of the truck due to fatigue and we pulled the large cooler out of the back of my F350 extra cab, Tom opened the cooler lid and saw the head, and exclaimed “What did you do? This is a mutant!” With an official B&C score of 177 7/8, it is possibly the largest ram ever killed in that unit. With documentary photographs taken and an identification plug in place, I headed home the following day.
My 40 days in the field hunting changed me. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, and I had survived and succeeded. This was my first step into the world of sheep hunting and in learning to simply appreciate the meaning of wild sheep. It is the hunter who protects this wild land, manages the game, and ensures the protection of what we love in the balance of life and in this world. You can make your own luck, but you need to be prepared to take advantage of what comes your way. Two conversations during my hunt brought this point home to me. As I was hiking out on the final day, I came on two hikers who were ill-prepared for the backcountry. One had a shoe lace untied, and neither one had adequate clothing. I mentioned to the hiker that his shoe wasn’t tied, and he responded, “I don’t care.” So I asked them if they had made it to the top of that fourteen. “No – we’re from Tennessee,” which was given as an excuse. There was nothing more to say, and I just hoped they would get out of my way as I passed them on the trail. They didn’t know what they were up against, and they had no business being there. No wonder that there are so many fatalities in this mountainous country.
The other conversation was with a man in his 70s whom I had met weeks before at the base of Mt. Elbert. I asked him what he was doing, and he said, “I’m preparing to make my ascent to the top of the mountain.” I had to ask why, because to me if there is no prize at the end of the trek, it is a pointless journey. He said his goal was to hike a fourteener every year, and this gave him a purpose to wake up every day and to train and keep in shape. This was the best explanation I’ve heard, and I hope that when I’m that age I will train just as hard as he did to reach the top of that same mountain. However, I will have to bring a pair of binoculars along just in case I spot some wildlife on the way, and with a bit of luck, a rifle.
My endless days afield alone started to serve as therapy to place priority and understanding of the traumatic life I have been recently caught up in. I gained the understanding that all we can control is our attitude and actions but we all have the ability to spot deception in people when it surfaces. I had recently encountered people who believe it is enjoyable to purposefully destroy property and threaten your life. I had also become aware of our legal system that is unconcerned with upholding any form of real law by allowing criminals to flourish, giving reward to liars. I understand that we must all fear evil men in life but we must also fear the indifference of good men even more because it is the individuals of a community who allow the abusers to exist out of fear of things that are not of substance. Give priority to what is important in life as in family and good friends. Embrace respect and gain immediate distance from dysfunction. Life is our greatest teacher and it is up to us to see it. Living away from civilization in sheep country for weeks alone allows one to appreciate the lack of deception nature contains and it is that peace that always brings me back, be it on the flat lands or in the mountains, nature never lies.
Special Thanks to RMBS for putting sheep on the mountains.
To view some of Chris’s wildlife sculptures go to CWSchiller.com