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Tobacco smoke hung heavy in the night air. The glow from his pre-dawn cigarette illuminated unkempt hands stained from time in the wilderness, callused by rough use they told of life on the mountain. A beard to match, undoubtedly months since it had encountered a razor still dark but whispers of grey were now telling of his fading youth. The red kerchief was double wrapped around his neck tied with a luck knot. This was his talisman. A true mountain man in every sense of the word; no impractical movements came from his body, no wasted words adorned his lips. Every action spoke of purpose and intent. His name is Derrick and he was my guide.

“Coffee’s up!” he shouted. There is nothing like the first sip of fire brewed camp coffee. My senses were awakening as we discussed the coming day’s plan. Packing a small spike camp with two or three days of provisions consumed most of our morning. Every pack box was carefully weighed; horses were wrangled and methodically saddled. It wasn’t long before we were heading down a well-worn trail.

We were heading to an area known to hold rams but with every day’s optimism also comes it disappointments. On the trail, as remote as it was, we came across two hunters who were packing a ram out. Although I knew there are always more sheep on the mountain, every hunter dreads seeing one leaving in a backpack while they are just arriving. Undeterred, Derrick said not to worry, “plenty more where that came from.” I had hunted sheep long enough to know the mountain changes every day. One less ram today makes way for one more ram to move in tomorrow. I remained optimistic and undeterred.

It wasn’t long before we arrived at a small bench on the valley floor with good grass and water close by. Protected from the gusts of mountain wind with a good supply of firewood at hand made this an ideal spot to unsaddle our horses for the night. Our camp took little time to set up; everything was arranged strategically and efficiently. Our horses tended to, we still had an hour until dinner would even be a thought. Climbing just above camp, we sat down and began to scan the alpine with our binoculars. It didn’t take long, five minutes to be exact, and we had located a likely suspect. Derrick brought out the spotting scope for a closer look; it was a ram!

With only a few hours of daylight left, we would have to make a move now or wait until the morning. I decided I wanted to make a play for the ram. Derrick conceded and said if I were his typical client, we would have waited until morning but that he thought we had a shot if we hurried. Dehydrated from sipping coffee most of the morning, I quickly drank a cup of water knowing it was not enough. I knew better than to go traipsing across the mountain not fully hydrated but we had an opportunity and I didn’t want to squander it.

So it began, our death march crossed trails so rugged we could not use the horses. Climbing over a waterfall, we crossed a small creek. Forcing our way through mountain willows was sucking every ounce of energy from me but every step was one closer to the ram. Sweat dripped from my face, as the slopes disappeared behind us one after another. I began to question the wisdom of going after the ram so late in the day; there was little time left and so much climbing yet to be done.

Chris Maxwell meeting his Stone sheep.
Finally, we arrived. Through the miles, beads of sweat dripped, lips swelled from dehydration, trembling with fatigue at every step, legs faltered; it all vanished with a single glance. This is the pinnacle for every mountain hunter, especially the sheep hunter, the moment you set eyes on your quarry and realize the shot is imminent. The instant I set eyes on the Stone ram I was mesmerized. A big bodied beast, as black as the shale he dwelled on; perhaps, the most handsome of all mountain sheep, his horns stood in deep contrast to his ebony cape.

Difficult to find in my binoculars, even though he postured at only 150 yards, I eventually located him. Derrick was already counting growth rings on his horns. Every inch was being thoroughly scrutinized through the spotting scope, every turn of his head revealing deep rings, telling of his years on the mountain. He was a legal ram, of that there was no doubt. When Derrick asked if I wanted to take him, there was no hesitation. A black cape, long twisting horns and the perfect set up for a shot, I would have been foolish to turn the opportunity down.

Crosshairs carefully examined the ram’s shoulder, eventually landing on their mark. In an instant, the evening was interrupted by the sharp crack of my rifle. It was a perfect shot; however, the ram did not succumb to his fatal wound and began to walk. I couldn’t relocate him and panic set in. I was sure the first shot was good but the ram had not reacted like the other rams I had taken before.

Forced to set my rifle down, I picked my binoculars back up and relocated him. The ram had only walked ten yards; the dark cape blended in perfectly with the black shale mountains. Nature has given these sheep a cloak that makes them one of the most difficult animals to locate in their environment. The ram was now bedded with his head gazing into the sky, almost as if he was relinquishing his soul back to the universe. It had been over in an instant, as he came to rest on the alpine slope. We would soon discover the shot had been a perfectly placed heart shot.

Chris with his hard-won Stone sheep.
Derrick congratulated me with excitement. I was numb. This was the first ram I had ever killed that I had not been outwardly ecstatic about. I was exhausted, dehydrated, drained. This was perhaps a blessing in disguise, when it came time for the shot, there was no energy left for nervous excitement. Derrick took the first few pictures and stopped. Setting the camera aside and looking a little confused he said, “Why don’t you smile, you just killed a Stone sheep!” It was true, there was no smile on my face, I was that tired. We took a few field photos but it was getting late and the pictures were not giving this incredible ram his due. The next morning found us back on the mountain to take some daylight photos and to begin the long pack out.

Packing this ram off the mountain it seemed surreal. It had been 1,021 days since I had booked the trip and it was over on the first day. As we got back to camp, excitement built. I could not believe the prize the mountain had forfeited. It was sinking in that I had just killed a Stone sheep! I have never been a lucky hunter but that day, I cashed in all my chips and was rewarded.

I would like to thank my guide Derrick, as well as Leif from Stone Mountain Safaris’ for helping make this dream a reality. ■

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