Never Too Old
By Gary Christensen
CO, Rocky Mtn Bighorn Sheep
After decades of unsuccessful results trying to draw a tag in trophy areas, I decided that I wasn’t getting any younger and I better apply in units that had better odds. You can imagine my excitement when Huntin’ Fool called and informed me that I had drawn a bighorn sheep tag in Colorado’s unit S66. Little did I know the challenges I would experience getting ready for and actually completing this hunt.
When asked for an outfitter recommendation, Huntin’ Fool suggested Matt Schneider, the owner of Geneva Park Outfitters. I contacted Matt immediately and asked him several questions about the hunt. He informed me that unit 66 is one of the most difficult units to hunt because of the extreme elevation and rugged terrain with limited access. I asked about the success rate on his sheep hunts, and he told me 100% until last year when an old guy of 70 missed a ram at 500 yards and then got altitude sickness and had to be taken off the mountain. I hesitated for a few moments before I told him that I had just turned 70 and lived near sea level. At this point, I was wondering if this “old guy” would be able to do this hunt. With only four months to get into “sheep shape,” I trained as hard as I could.
The first day of hunting finally arrived, and my guide, Terry Sandmeir, and assistant guide, Jay Hosch, meticulously glassed the high mountain ridges above tree line, attempting to locate any rams worthy of a several hours’ climb to get a closer look. Five rams were located, and after they lay down, we began our stalk. Four hours later, we reached tree line and checked the rams again. They were feeding to the north, so we continued to climb higher on the opposite side of a big rockslide, trying to get above them. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, they changed direction and walked right into us. That was the last time we saw them as they took flight over the next ridge.
Each day, our routine was pretty much the same; we would get up at 4:15 a.m., have breakfast, and then by daylight, start glassing the ridges above timberline for sheep. We would then take a different trailhead and climb for several hours so that we could glass further up the various drainages, glassing the area until dark, and then come back down the mountain, arriving back to camp between 10:30 p.m. and midnight. We were seeing quite a few ewes and lambs but nothing worth going after until the fourth day when Terry spotted five rams, including one really dark brown one that had full curl horns. The wind was blowing directly uphill toward the sheep, so Terry planned a stalk that took us up a different canyon adjacent to where the sheep were. After a grueling climb, my old body was totally spent. All I had left was will power, but unfortunately, the rams had moved in a different direction than we had planned. We glassed until dark but could not find them.
Matt Schneider had been successful with his other hunters on their sheep hunt, so he was able to join Terry and me for the last two days of my hunt. Terry thought that our best bet was to try and locate the herd of five rams we had seen a couple days earlier. His plan included spending the night camped out on the mountain. We would hike in from a different trailhead and then cross over a pass that would put us near the top of a drainage where we could glass some different valleys and also look down on the drainage where we had previously seen the five bighorns. That night, we spotted a nice ram on the other side of another drainage but nothing else.
We spent the cold night on a hillside that was quite rocky and not very flat. Needless to say, none of us got much sleep. Morning finally arrived with a cold chill in the air and frost on the ground. We had a bowl of oatmeal and then Matt went to the top of the ridge where we had seen the ram the night before while Terry and I glassed the drainage where we had seen the five rams earlier in the week. With excitement, Terry said, “There they are.” This time, there were 10 bighorns, including the big brown full curl ram, feeding two miles down the drainage just above timberline.
We broke camp and headed down the drainage. With the temperature changing, the thermals were really unstable with the wind swirling, so we sat and watched the sheep until they bedded down in the trees. By early afternoon, the wind was finally in our favor, so we headed for a rocky outcropping where we would have a good ambush spot when the rams came back out to feed. Terry sent Matt to the top of the ridge to glass in case the sheep came out in the next canyon. Terry and I sat crouched in the rocks for several hours, but the sheep didn’t come out where they had been in the morning.
Thirty minutes before dark, Matt signaled us that the sheep had moved over the next ridge just out of sight. With no time to spare, we hastily started crossing an extensive rockslide. After only taking a few steps, a large rock rolled out from under my foot. With the weight of my pack, my ankle turned and I went down as immense pain shot through my ankle and leg. I got back up and started hobbling as fast as I could go toward Terry. Once I was by his side, Terry told me to shoot the dark one just left of the one with his butt toward us. I easily saw the lighter colored ram, but with the waning light, it took me a couple minutes to see the dark one. His legs were only partially showing, but I had a good view of his chest and head. I was too far down the hill for a clear shot, so I had to slowly push my backpack uphill and then crawl several feet so that I had a clear view. My heart was beating furiously between the lack of oxygen and knowing that this was the moment I had waited half a lifetime for. Trying to keep my composure, I aimed for the center of his chest, took a deep breath, exhaled, and squeezed the trigger. The sound of my rifle echoed across the valley, and the big ram bolted a few feet to my right. I centered my scope behind his shoulder and fired again. This time, he went down. I quickly fired a third round just for insurance. No way was I going to risk wounding and losing this sheep.
With a lot of pain in my ankle, I hobbled over to my ram. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on him. He was magnificent, far better than I had hoped for. He was a full curl, 12 1/2-year-old ram with 37" horns from a non-trophy area. I was informed that my ram was the best one taken from this unit in quite some time. With darkness rapidly approaching, we quickly took pictures and then started the skinning and deboning process.
Since we had spent the night on the mountain, we all had heavy packs, but mine was no comparison to Matt and Terry’s who now had the weight of horns, skin, and meat to deal with. I was worried about getting down the mountain with a severely sprained ankle. Fortunately, Terry had some “Vet tape,” and he was able to tightly wrap it around my ankle. It was a five to six-mile trip out of the mountains that night with approximately a 2,000 foot descent. We got back to camp shortly before 2 a.m., satisfied but totally exhausted. I fell asleep, thinking, I guess this old guy is not too old.
Preparing for a hunt like this is far from an easy task. It requires serious physical training and high-quality gear. I took my H-S Precision 300 Winchester Magnum rifle equipped with a Leupold VX-6 4x24 scope. I shoot Norma brass reloaded with 180 grain Barnes TTSXBT bullets. I also took my Leupold spotting scope, Leica 10x50 binoculars, and a state-of-the-art Sig Sauer rangefinder that combines the ballistics of your firearm with environmental conditions to calculate exact point of aim. When I was hiking hard and hunting, I used Oxygen Plus sports oxygen, which really helped me relax my breathing and acclimate to the extreme elevation.