A long pack train trod steadily upward toward a spike camp near rugged mountains of white limestone. The pack horses had their bells open so I could keep track of them all in the heavy timber. Two hunters, Marvin & Leon (brothers) from California rode behind on their slower dude horses. Bringing up the rear, another guide, Ian, kept the whole string moving at a decent pace. It was September 1979, the air was crisp and my optimism for finding a couple of good rams in familiar territory was high.
One huge challenge for any sheep guide is how to lead a middle age, slightly overweight hunter from the valley floor up to where the sheep actually live (often 3000 vertical feet or more). They are rarely in “sheep shape” and often have little experience in the mountains. Every hunter has different physical abilities and expectations for the hunt. Guides must quickly evaluate a hunter and set a comfortable climbing pace. Not an easy thing for a 24 year old with visions of 40″ rams dancing in his head.
After several unproductive days of glassing for sheep near spike camp I decided it was time to hobble the horses and climb a few ridges. Sheep trails were everywhere in the crumbling limestone. Picking our way up to a likely vantage point where we could glass some new basins was a slow, methodical process. Around noon we crouched behind a large boulder out of the wind, took out our lunches and discussed the strategy for the remainder of the day. Marvin, the older brother, was having a difficult time adjusting to altitude. He ate no lunch, looked very pale, coughed a lot, and seemed pretty quie
As luck would have it there was a band of four rams just over the ridge from where we were having lunch! One definitely looked like a full curl and Marvin was eager to try for him. So the stalk was on, dropping several hundred feet and easing up behind a knoll downwind from the sheep. I crawled through the shale to get a better look through the spotting scope. Four beautiful Stone rams, all bedded down facing different directions. The leader had flaring horns that swept well above the nose. Two hundred yards away, good shooting position, piece of cake! As I slowly turned around to bring Marvin up for the shot, I heard an anguished scream from Leon and knew that something was very wrong.
Marvin died in his brothers arms on a windswept ridge that afternoon. He had experienced a massive heart attack and all attempts with CPR were in vain. Everyone was traumatized and I shall never forget the look on his brothers face. By now it was late afternoon and important decisions needed to be made. Ian was to stay with the body and drop down to the nearest trees for a warm fire if necessary. Leon and I retraced our steps down to the saddle horses and rode in pitch darkness all the way back to base camp. This was to be my very first lesson in night riding….keep your head down and allow the horses, who have better night vision, to pick their way through the timbered trails. Our late night arrival at Blue Sheep lodge gave the cook quite a fright. At first light I radioed the sad news to my grandfather in Watson Lake.
Wild sheep present the ultimate challenge for both hunters and guides. Like everything worthwhile in life, there are no guarantees. I still think about that fateful day guiding for sheep in my youth and I hope that Marvin’s final stalk led him to the “happy hunting ground”.