Sheep On the Razor’s Edge

The only thing more dizzying than the thrill of taking three rams was the sheer drop-off on either side of the ridge.

(Photo: Shane Sabin/iStock)

 

In an hour I had ascended far enough to see that the ground at the head of the canyon was too precipitous to traverse. The only alternative was to find a way to the bottom and ascend the slope of the spur to the two peaks. This involved great risk of frightening the sheep, for if they should be feeding on the other side near the top, one or another would probably come back to inspect the opposite side, in which case I would surely be observed. Knowing that the next day they might be far away, I decided to take the chance.

In half an hour I had fought my way down, reaching a smooth, grassy slope that led steeply upward between the peaks. No sheep had reappeared above, so I began to ascend slowly and cautiously, knowing that at any moment a ram might suddenly appear on the summit and see me if I was moving. Step by step I advanced, keeping as low as convenient, stopping every few feet and lying flat, always intently watching the crest above.

My caution was increased as I came within rifle-shot of the top, and with rifle cocked, ready to fire at any ram that might appear, I finally reached a point within a few feet of the crest. There I rested a few moments to get my breath and steady my nerves. Then, creeping forward over the top, I slowly raised my head and looked over. Not a ram was visible. A succession of rocky walls, broken and rugged, jutting out in a curve from the spur, obstructed the view toward the mountain.

Retiring from the skyline, I went a short distance around the outside cone and, creeping forward, again looked over. I could then see the whole area below, but no rams were there. The slope fell to a creek, on the opposite side of which sheer cliffs rose up to the rocky debris covering the side of the mountain. I knew that the rams had ascended and were somewhere near the higher crest above.

But one resource was left, and that was to climb the rim of the spur to the highest peak of the mountain. From there it would not be difficult to clamber along the crest and possibly find the rams in a place favorable for stalking.

That ascent of 1,500 feet I shall never forget. The connecting roof-ridge was so narrow that for most of the distance it was not more than a foot or two wide. The view in the direction of the sheep was cut off by projecting crags. On either side sheer precipices or confused vertical masses of sculptured rock fell several hundred feet to the inclined surface below.

The knife-edge, however, had been carved by the elements—eroded just enough so that small, sharp projections of rock, like an irregular series of teeth, protruded and provided a foothold. Slinging my rifle over my back and holding on the sharp nodules of rock above, I toiled upward on this rough, ladder-like, precipitous path.

I had started at 4 p.m., and it was 6 p.m. when I reached the base of the pyramidal peak that rose 50 feet above the crest-line. The altitude was 7,800 feet, more than 5,000 feet above camp.

There I rested for a few moments. Not a sound reached my ears except the tinkling of the rills trickling down from the snow. A stupendous mountain panorama surrounded me. When my breath was regained, and the excitement, owing to the danger of the climb, was subdued, I started to creep along the narrow rocky crest which, 20 feet farther on, was so abruptly broken that I could not see beyond.

After going ten feet on my knees, I saw a pair of horns perfectly motionless, 150 yards ahead and slightly below. Nothing more, but I knew that a ram was below them. Stretching on my stomach, foot by foot I crawled ten feet to the edge of the break, where I was thoroughly concealed by a crag rising three feet above the surface and falling perpendicularly to the crest below.

Carefully moving my head to the side of the rock, I looked down. There were the 12 rams a hundred yards away, all lying down without any suspicion of the enemy who now had them at his mercy. All were facing in the same direction, looking down the slope up which they had ascended. Below, at the bottom of the valley, was the winding creek, gleaming through the dark green of the spruces.

In front of them were piled precipice upon precipice. They were at the edge of a brink which fell 50 feet behind them to a desolate basin of shattered rock, filled with boulders and surrounded with turreted cliffs and craggy buttresses.

Their mixed colors were those common to the sheep of the region, the dark ones predominating. Each maintained an alert watch both in front and along the crest opposite to me. They kept jerking their heads to fasten their piercing gaze in those directions only; no danger could come from behind without their hearing it. The peak was in my direction, where they evidently felt safe from approach. Only three of the rams had large horns, the rest varying in age from three to five years.

Lying on my stomach and resting my rifle along my arm on the side of the rock, I fired at the ram which appeared to have the largest horns. At the crack of the rifle all jumped up and for a moment stood in wild confusion. The bullet had apparently gone true, for the ram simply stiffened out without rising and died. Another of the rams with large horns suddenly dashed over the precipice, followed by the third and by two small rams. Somehow reaching the foot, they again came in sight and dashed across the broken rock under some cliffs by my right, where they were lost to sight.

Not hearing any more sounds of their running, I watched the cliff for about three minutes, until a ram with large horns suddenly appeared, running down the slope. When a hundred yards distant, he stopped, long enough to receive a bullet in his heart. Then I heard a clatter of hoofs on the cliff, and saw the second-largest ram standing on the skyline looking in the direction of the last ram I had killed. As I shot, he fell over the wall of the cliff and caught in a rift near the foot, where he remained doubled up and almost suspended.

The other three had descended to the band, which, having run for a few hundred yards, had scattered and stood looking, not even then having located the direction of the shots.

Sitting on the rock, I rested and smoked my pipe. Three hard-earned trophies were before me. Under such circumstances—among mountain-crests, in intensely vitalizing air, stimulated by the vigorous exercise of a dangerous climb and the sustained excitement of the stalk—there is no state of exaltation more sublime than the climax of a day’s successful hunt for the noble mountain ram.

 

Editor’s Note: A shortened excerpt from Sheldon’s The Wilderness of the Upper Yukon, published 1911.