(Two mountain goats, bedded just up and right from center.)
This hunt was conceived back in the spring when I noticed that for the first time Montana was offering 15 ewe licenses for region 301, which encompasses the Spanish Peaks, a small but tall and steep range I’d never visited. Hoping that a new hunt in a potentially remote area would give my 2 bonus points good odds, I applied but was not drawn. Three weeks ago I got back from my big hunt into the Bob Marshall early, only to receive on the first day back a call telling me that I had been 16th on the list, and thus had first crack at a tag another hunter had turned back in. I accepted, of course.
Alpine species have developed an overwhelming and almost unjustifiable cachet due to the scarcity of permits, but also due to the all encompassing intensity of hunting them. As I hope the following video shows, aside from the first few miles of my hike in and out I was always in sheep terrain, and thus always on high alert, either hiking through snowy terrain or glassing, usually in the cold and wind. I got snowed on, rained on, hailed on, blown raw, a little sunburnt, and am missing a few bits of both palms thanks to chunky granite talus. Three great, packed full days in totally new-to-me territory, cut short by a retreat back over the 9600′ pass that separated me from the trailhead, and whose north face was already 2 feet deep in windpacked snow. Had I stayed through that last afternoon and night, during which it rained and then snowed continuously all the way down to 5000′, avalanche hazard surely would have had me hiking out the other side and facing a long hitchhike, rifle in tow. Everything was ideal, save for perhaps that early retreat, and the fact that I saw no sheep, nor trace of sheep.
With so little notice I was on the back foot, both with respect to research and time. I set the first full week in October as the first available big chunk of time, and started googling, emailing, and phone calling. The regional biologist and the internet were more helpful and explicit than I imagined possible, and I hiked in full of optimism that I’d see animals. Obviously I had underestimated the amount of snow a storm a few days prior had brought to the Spanish Peaks, as well as failed to ask enough specific questions about how the ewe and lamb herds would respond to snow, how much, and when. The day after I hiked out I spent the morning looking around their know winter range, but snow kept visibility poor, and the sheep still seemed to be in transit.
So now the backup plan is to go back towards the bitter end of the season, when snow and cold will have brought the sheep down. I’m disappointed that it will likely come to that. A sheep tag, even a ewe tag, is a rare enough opportunity, and I wanted this one to be my first successful sheep hunt, and to be on my terms; back in the wilderness, on terrain the sheep only share with goats, with a long and horrid packout to cap it off. Apparently I should have tried harder to fit a smaller, more predictable hunt window into our schedule, though that would have had just as many potential pitfalls. I know I can’t have great and precious moments without the coextensive risk of failure and bitterness, but tonight that doesn’t make me feel any better.
One are in which I am not disappointed was the rigor of my hunt and the way in which I choose to take it on. It’s been quite a few years since I felt as exposed as I did crossing the high pass and realizing just how weather-dependent any recrossing would be. Adding ~60 pounds of sheep meat and head to my 30 pounds of hunting gear would have made the hike out horrendous, but it would have been possible.
The BT2 remained my ideal shelter for a trip like this. It’s light enough, more than big enough, and can shrug off any fall weather, even that which is right on the cusp of alpine winter.
I used Seek Outside’s Exposure panel loading pack, whose big zipper is a great way to go when you’ll be pulling out tripod, spotting scope, and warm clothing many times per day. I like having all that stuff inside my pack, secure and well balanced, yet accessible.
The BD Hot Forge Hoody continued to impress, managing sweat well enough and packing more warmth than its thickness would initially suggest. I got plenty cold glassing, but not as bad or as quickly as I would have thought.
My optics package of Meopta Meopro 6.5×32 binoculars, Vortex Razor 11-33×50 spotting scope, Vortex Summit SS tripod, and Outdoorsmans tripod adaptor (for the bins) is unchanged for this year. It leaves me undergunned on magnification in alpine country, but the optical quality to $$ ratio is high. Retail this is a 1600 dollar arsenal, and in some significant respects barely above beginner in quality. And yet for someone like me, for whom assessing trophy caliber is entirely subservient to just finding critters, it is a very serviceable and light rig. The ball head is first up to be replaced, followed by the addition of some high powered (12 or 15x) bins.
I bought a pair of LaSportiva Trango Trk boots specifically for this hunt, and was very impressed. My evolving views on footwear for the mountains, and specifically mountain hunting, is a topic for a later date.
And finally, the Kimber Montana continued to be a great rifle to carry for many miles on end. It shoots well too, when the occasion arises.