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THE LITTLE BATTLE OF THE BIGHORN

Oct. 11, 1965
Oct. 11, 1965

Table of Contents
Oct. 11, 1965

Bulldogs
49ers
Bighorn Sheep
  • Few if any hunters ever have been butted to death by a bighorn sheep. Despite this seemingly encouraging fact, the bighorn is generally considered the most challenging trophy in North America. This is less because of what it is than of where it goes—up cliff, down canyon, sometimes almost in air. Even on a well-organized trip the bighorn is hard to get. Given a drunken guide, a mountain full of snappish rattlesnakes and some fairly tender feet—well, such an adventure can become pretty hairy, as this diary of a week in Idaho's Primitive Area painfully reveals.

Golf
Baseball
Horse Shows
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

THE LITTLE BATTLE OF THE BIGHORN

Few if any hunters ever have been butted to death by a bighorn sheep. Despite this seemingly encouraging fact, the bighorn is generally considered the most challenging trophy in North America. This is less because of what it is than of where it goes—up cliff, down canyon, sometimes almost in air. Even on a well-organized trip the bighorn is hard to get. Given a drunken guide, a mountain full of snappish rattlesnakes and some fairly tender feet—well, such an adventure can become pretty hairy, as this diary of a week in Idaho's Primitive Area painfully reveals.

THURSDAY. The moment I met our outfitter in Boise last night I knew that this was not going to be an ordinary hunt. At least, there is nothing ordinary about Curley. When he finally showed up at my hotel he was 24 hours late and 100 proof. In flowing ringlets, skintight Levi's and high heels he looked like a Beatle trying out for Bonanza.

This is an article from the Oct. 11, 1965 issue Original Layout

The other hunters—five men from Phoenix—were even more dismayed. Curley, it seems, had neglected to tell them that there would be six in their party instead of five, or that the extra hunter was female. They sat at the hotel bar looking shell-shocked as Curley gave instructions for our departure this morning, chug-a-lugged a double, charged it to my hotel bill and left. They looked even worse when we staggered out of rubber rafts this afternoon, after seven terrifying hours on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The Arizonans had a good reason for their glassy-eyed expressions this time, too.

Even those intrepid adventurers Lewis and Clark were intimidated by the fury of the Salmon. They took one look at that much white water and wrote the river off as impassable. The Indians had had more experience and were more specific: they named it the River of No Return. That was before some idiot—doubtless a sheep hunter—thought of floating down the Middle Fork in an oversized inner tube. Unfortunately for us, that is the only way into this part of the Idaho Primitive Area.

The men are friendlier now, after our mutual brush with a watery eternity. We are all huddled at the edge of the river in a place called Box Canyon. It is aptly named. The canyon walls rise vertically from the water, and shore is nothing more than a rock pile. Camp is 3,500 feet straight up which, to my relief, is 3,500 feet farther than we can get tonight. Most of our provisions are already up there, so dinner consisted of canned beans, bread and coffee.

My sleeping bag, I discovered after scouring through several strange bedrolls, is also on top of the mountain. I have made a nest of life vests in the bottom of the raft, but it is going to be a long, cold night. Curley has helped some by sending his Labrador, Rogue, over to keep me warm.

FRIDAY. Started the climb up at 7:10, and the mountain sheep can have it. We all carried backpacks, and today I was glad my sleeping bag had gone ahead. The only way to conquer a mountain like this is not to look back (too dizzying) and not to look ahead (too depressing). I made it into camp with the fast troops in 3½ hours. The rest of the party followed in various stages of collapse.

Camp is a mess. If any preparations for our arrival were made they were purely accidental. Curley's "professional guides" are five teen-agers, and my guess is that any one of us knows more about sheep hunting than they do.

The larder is strewn haphazardly about and is smaller than my weekly supermarket load. Most of the cans look suspiciously like chili beans and Spam. Considering the $100 a day Curley is charging each of us for this hunt, he will not lose money on the cuisine.

Worse news, there is no water. All our water will have to be hauled up that impossible mountain from the river. A five-gallon vat weighs 40 pounds, so I suspect the water shortage is permanent. Thank heaven for Chanel.

Spent the rest of the day scouting the peaks above camp with Bill and Dan. The mountains average about 9,000 feet, and the scenery is spectacular. Centuries of erosion have garishly decorated the canyon walls and piled tons of crumbling rock into precarious shale towers. Far below, the river cuts through great, gray walls of granite. In places clouds sit like pillows on mattresses of dried, brown meadows. There is no sign of life anywhere.

The absence of game is disappointing, but the absence of game sign—new or old—is even more discouraging. We came across two of the natural licks Curley talked about in his letters. They turned out to be ancient game department salt drops. Curley had also written us about spotting a band of more than 200 sheep on this very mountain. They must be the only housebroken sheep in Idaho, because they have certainly left the countryside clean.

SATURDAY. My bedfellow, Rogue, was bitten by a rattlesnake today while going for water with two of the boys. The dog is about halfway down the mountain and apparently in bad shape. The boys radioed out from the river for serum. Traveling in this country without serum is like crossing the Sahara without water. The wind is so strong that our expected airdrop will not be possible this evening.

This mountain is loaded with snakes. Besides the rattler that got Rogue and another one the boys killed closer to the river, Bill and Dan each killed one on the saddle above camp, and Curley almost stepped on one. He was pounding it with a rock not six feet ahead of me when Bill let out a yell right behind me. Bill threw off his pack and started hopping on one foot. A rattler had struck him in the boot. The snake's fangs did not go through the leather, but Bill still looks sick to his stomach.

We all feel a little green. For two days Curley has been telling us not to worry about snakes because they will always warn us by rattling before striking. So far not one of the snakes has done so. We are also trying to figure out why there is no serum in camp, since this obviously is Rattlesnake Ridge.

The mountains southeast of here are just as rugged. Curley, Bud and I explored a few today that even the goats want no part of. I have gone up, down and over some tricky peaks from the Alaska Range to the Elburz, but these are wicked. We climbed walls that no sensible mountaineer would attempt without equipment, and once we crossed around an overhang on a ledge that was barely two inches wide. Slipping on this one did not mean a broken leg. It meant a free fall of about 2,000 feet.

Bud had a particularly rough day of it. He has not complained, but he seemed to be in pain and kept rubbing his knees. Curley did not make things any easier for him. Every time Bud slowed up or his hat rubbed against a bush, Curley stopped and scowled. Since we could have climbed these mountains with a brass band and disturbed nothing, his point was lost. Bud finally gave up and headed in. For all the game sign we saw, we should have done the same.

SUNDAY. No word today about the dog. The airdrop finally was made this morning. The wind was stronger than yesterday, and the pilot had a hard time getting in between the peaks. Besides serum, he also dropped some canned food—more Spam and beans.

Bob and Bud took off before noon for the ridge north of us. It looks within shouting distance but, like all the ridges around here, is separated from us by a 2,000-foot canyon. They took along one of the teen-agers, who held them up half the morning while he crawled around on his hands and knees looking for his contact lenses. The boy then insisted on taking his own rifle. It seems he has a sheep permit, too. At least he was willing to carry his own gear.

Spent the morning glassing the Bighorn Crags east of here. I have never seen country so devoid of life. Not even a bird flies by. There is virtually no food anywhere, and water is at a premium on all these mountains. We did spot two goats on a distant peak. They probably wandered there by mistake. To date we have sighted one elderly ewe, which was doubtless too feeble to seek greener pastures, two goats and seven snakes.

Surprised a four-foot rattler not 100 yards from camp. I am now concentrating so hard on snakes that I probably would not notice a sheep if one turned up in our stew. The Arizonans think the reason the snakes are not rattling is that they are shedding their skins. This also makes them strike at any sound. I feel as if I am playing reptilian roulette.

Curley is still talking about those 200 sheep (at least he thinks big). At noon he decided they must have moved south and that we should follow. Three hours and multiple contusions later, we have now collapsed in the bottom of the canyon behind Rattlesnake Ridge. The stock of my rifle is ruined, and most of the seat of my pants is up yonder somewhere. We are going to siwash here tonight and attack the south mountain in the morning. It is about 4,500 feet straight up and looks more formidable than the one we just came down.

Fortunately, the trip down was not a total loss, because a beautiful, bubbling brook runs through this otherwise miserable canyon. Water never tasted so good. Now for a bowl of bean soup, a codein pill and a soft rock.

MONDAY. Assaulted K-2 this morning. Started at 5:30 and took 5½ hours to reach the summit. No flags, so guess this is one Sir Edmund Hillary passed up. Crossed three tracks, period. These ran out almost before they began and looked very old.

While we were glassing on top we heard seven shots from across the canyon. Both Bob and Bud should have sheep with that much shooting.

Ran into two bad rockslides on the way down and thought the mountain was coming with us. Then we hit a burn of rotten timber and brush that was thicker than an Alaskan alder patch and unfit for a bear. Made it back to the canyon bleeding from all pores.

Got back to camp after dark, and the news was all bad. The Labrador, Rogue, died the day he was bitten, before the serum arrived. The snakes were worse, a coyote was prowling about, the water was gone, we were down to our last Spam and the temperature was dropping fast. To top everything, those sheep we thought Bob and Bud had fired at turned out to be a single fool hen.

Curley had a tantrum. The rough day or the news about the dog may have set him off but, whatever the spark, Curley exploded. Bottle in hand, he stomped through camp screaming at us, kicking at the pot of beans and cursing the bad luck that was deliberately hounding him. Everything was wrong. The sheep had not cooperated. The boys had not cooperated. The weather had not cooperated. Presumably the food and water had not cooperated by failing to transport themselves up the mountainside. Suddenly he whipped out his revolver and began firing into the air. I ducked behind a log, as hunters and high-schoolers disappeared into the darkness. Shots echoed and reechoed across the canyon, and in the flickering campfire Curley looked like the last of the Bad Men.

When the action faded we crawled from our foxholes and held council. There was not much point in staying longer on this mountain. From what we could see of the other side of the river it looked like a more logical place to spend what time we had left. Moving camp on foot would take at least two days, but with a helicopter we could do it in a few hours. We decided, in spite of the cost ($125 an hour), to radio out this morning for a chopper.

TUESDAY. Unfortunately, we have given up hope of getting out today. It began storming at 8, and the ceiling is somewhere below us. The bad weather is almost a relief, because I could not have faced scaling another mountain today. Bud's knees have gotten worse. They are now swollen to twice their size, and he can barely walk. Rain is pouring in streams from the peaks above, and our campsite looks like a reservoir. The last of the coffee just sopped through its container, and what was left of the bread floated away an hour ago.

The storm seems to have stirred up all sorts of activity. There were two goats on our back ridge at noon, an hour later the boys spotted 12 sheep across the river (now we are sure we are on the wrong side) and the grandfather rattler of all times—10 buttons—turned up on my personal path into the wilderness. These are the moments when privacy hardly seems worth the price!

WEDNESDAY. Made the best of yesterday afternoon by watching the sheep on the other side of the river until dark. By the time we got back to camp Curley had finished off everybody's liquor. He was in quite a state about snakes and threatened all kinds of reprisals if we say one word about them when we get out. Eventually he fell asleep.

Curley was still snoring at 8:30 this morning, when we heard the first roar of the helicopter coming down the canyon. We grabbed as much gear as we could carry and charged to the knob above camp. The ceiling was still minus zero, and visibility was less. The chopper circled in the fog for almost an hour, at times sounding so close that we actually ducked. The noise finally awakened Curley, who ran up the ridge yelling, "Fire! Fire!" We were not sure whether the camp had gone up in flames or he wanted the copter shot down in same. Just then a break opened in the fog, the pilot spotted us, and the copter sideslipped onto the knob.

Lyle, the party's trophy hunter, was determined to find his trophy on that side of the river, so he and one of the hardier teen-agers stayed behind. The chopper made five trips to get the rest of us and our gear across. We could not see more than 25 feet in any direction, and once the rotors clipped the top off a pine tree. I made the hop with Bud, who continued on out because his knees have gotten still worse. He was also having trouble with an ulcer that was responding to Spam and beans.

With only one day of the hunt left for me, Curley decided we could cover more ground by hunting toward one another from opposite mountains. He dropped me about three miles south of the new camp and went on with the chopper.

About a century ago a band of outlaw Indians, who called themselves the Sheepeaters, are supposed to have hidden out here and hunted these peaks. They managed to keep one jump ahead of U.S. troops for years and in their spare time collected the scalps of a respectable assortment of soldiers, settlers and, presumably, sheep.

It is hard to believe that the front that fashioned this canyon thousands of years ago could create two sides of a river so different. Here, at the same altitude we hunted this past week (6,500 to 9,000 feet), the meadows are green, bright patches of wild flowers grow in the rocks and there are tall trees and an abundance of food and cover for game. This is obviously the side of the river we should have been on from the start. It is infuriating to realize that we had worked so hard and were so close the whole time. There is game sign everywhere here, and tracks and trails at every step.

Around 3:30 one of the pinkish rocks I had been watching turned into a sheep. As it rose lazily to its feet and moved across a distant meadow, I could see that it was a ewe. I was still watching her when one of the teen-agers whistled from the next ridge. I asked what had happened to Curley. He shrugged and said, "You know."

Too late, I did. Along with steaks, which we had ordered over Curley's mumbled protests, the helicopter had also brought in a fresh supply of liquor. The reason for the separate hunts was all too clear. By the time I had reached camp around 6, Curley had finished off half a fifth of vodka and half a fifth of bourbon. Astonishingly, he apparently chased these with Scotch.

I said, "What did the helicopter do, bring open bottles?"

He looked blank and said, "Guess Bob, Bill and Dan came back."

I told him about a bunch of sheep we had seen crossing the back ridge just as we approached camp. In the fading light we had not been able to tell their sex. Nonchalantly Curley told us they had been there the whole afternoon.

"All rams, too," he added. "Too bad you missed them." I counted to 10, but it was an effort to remain a lady.

At least the new camp is great. There is a stream not 15 yards away, berries and stunted peach trees grow nearby, trees provide a windbreak and we even have a genuine log lean-to. A hermit, who once lived on the river below, built it as his summer retreat.

The others came in shortly after I did, looking happier than they have all week. They had seen more than 50 elk and apparently ran into the same bunch of sheep we saw. They looked the sheep over for almost an hour before deciding their horns were illegal.

Bill spotted the half-empty liquor bottles first and said, "What did the helicopter do, bring open bottles?" Curley was already asleep by then.

THURSDAY. Nobody told me how that old hermit died, but it was probably getting back to winter quarters. Our dawn trip down to the river was Pearl White all the way. Twice we were on ledges that literally disintegrated under our feet. Half a dozen times we started slides that came close to taking us and the mountain with them. Just when we thought the worst was over the ground turned into a perpendicular wall as slick as a sleet-covered street in January. We were rock-rimmed. There was no way back up, and it looked like the only way down was by parachute.

Curley dug through his backpack and came up with an assortment of nylon and hemp rope that, like him, showed signs of wear. He knotted them together and anchored one end to an insecure-looking crag. To his credit, he did not ask us to test it by going first.

When finally Curley reached footing below I pulled the rope back up and lowered the packs and rifles. Then it was my turn. I said a prayer, took a deep breath and pressed my feet against the wall, as Curley had done, to brake my descent. Slowly I slid down the rope, closing my eyes each time I came to one of those ragged knots.

Lyle and the teen-ager Gerry were waiting for us at the river. They want us to drop them off in another hunting area on our way out. The run from here downriver is about three hours. From there it is another 60 miles by truck to the town of Salmon (pop. 2,648), where we will pick up Bud and a plane to take us back to civilization.

Still Thursday, 10:30 A.M. Hallelujah! I have a ram! I am sitting here, grinning like an idiot and pinching myself to make sure it is true.

We had not been on the river more than 30 minutes when Curley yelled, "Sheep!" Then he shouted, "Rams!" and everything happened at once. Suddenly I saw them on the rocks above shore—10 sheep, standing regal and still, like a tableau in granite. They were the color of stone.

Somehow I found my rifle under the tarp, got it out of its case, bolted a shell into the chamber and pointed it toward the shore. My scope was on four-power, and all I could see was a blur. The raft careened out of one rapid into another, throwing me to the bottom. My knee was in somebody's lap, and somebody else had a boot on my back. Just as I located one of the rams in the scope the raft hit shore and jolted to a stop on the rocks. One of the oars snapped back and hit me in the head. The sheep leaped into the air and galloped en masse up a cliff.

Half in, half out of the boat, I swung the scope on a ram, swung another ram and a half ahead of him and fired. It was a perfect skeet shot. Curley yelled, "You got him, baby!" The sheep went down, rolled over once and lay still.

Lyle was still shooting at the other rams, and Gerry was screaming for more ammunition. I shoved my rifle with its two remaining shells at him. He fired again and hit one of the rams far back. It ran part way up the cliff, slowed, then stopped, swaying on the edge. I yelled, "Don't shoot, he's down!" just as Gerry fired again. The bullet smashed into the rocks. The sheep pitched forward, turned full circle in the air and plunged to the rocks below. Lyle was halfway up the mountain by this time, after the remaining ram. It is amazing that anything was still moving after all the shooting, but his sheep obviously was. I grabbed my rifle from Gerry and started up. There were three more shots from above, and he yelled, "Bingo!"

I climbed to where my ram lay. He was beautiful—not a record, but his horns seemed absolutely symmetrical and perfectly formed. Even the sight of Curley climbing toward me did not spoil the elation of the moment.

TWO ILLUSTRATIONS