The High Saddle

A dall drama in three acts.

[by Terry Weiland]


Alaska’s Chugach Mountains are notorious: treacherous talus, jagged cliffs, jumbled boulders, and icy rivers from glaciers that glower over steep valleys. It’s Dall sheep heaven, if for no other reason than about the only way to hunt in there is on foot, with a pack on your back. The Dall sheep are right at home. You are not.

We flew in, my guide and I, in a tiny plane that bounced and lurched down a gravel bar, knocking the alders with its wing tips. Our camp was a tent, a Coleman stove, two cots, and a buried cache of moose meat. It seemed Spartan when we landed. Six days later, two mountains and one long river valley away, out of food and 10 pounds lighter, it seemed like the Ritz.

Being younger and conscientious to a fault, I followed a training program of running, backpacking, and calisthenics that went a long way, but there is gym fit, and then there is mountain fit. Dale was mountain fit, as I knew from two years earlier when we hunted brown bears. Now, in the Chugach, he had the job of not only finding a Dall ram but also coaxing me up mountains and cliffs, across glaciers with bottomless crevasses, and walking, no hands, along high knife edges.

Alaska’s Chugach Range is a jumble of cliffs, rock slides, high glaciers, and rivers threading through steep valleys. It’s backpack country because no horse can negotiate the terrain. Dale Swartzlender, a professional sheep guide, had learned to walk the high, rocky tightropes and skip lightly over bottomless crevasses while being ever watchful for sheep. You awaken among boulders the size of cars, in a Norse saga, wandering in search of a destiny that is never foretold, complete with snow and ice, even in August.

“I don’t do ropes, and I don’t do pitons,” I told him. “Don’t worry,” he responded. And he was right: Most places, they wouldn’t have helped. What I could have used, however—more than once—was an ice axe. A pair of crampons wouldn’t have hurt, either. But we live and learn.

The next morning we left the base camp and, carrying our home on our backs, crossed the river and began an ascent that took us up and over a mountain, down to a ridge overlooking a glacier and another long river valley. In fact, there were several glaciers, as well as hanging glaciers nestled among the peaks. But there were also high basins and talus slopes that might, or might not, have some sheep sprinkled in them.

For the next six days, we explored the valley, ventured onto the ice, and traversed the hanging glaciers. We glassed the distant green, looking for white specks, and even found a few. The specks, alas, were specks without horns. We packed up, moved camp, and carried on. Living on freeze-dried food and glacier water, with instant coffee our only luxury, we hardened up quickly. Freeze-dried food, however, is a form of slow starvation. They don’t tell you that, but it is. We began fixating on food. Instead of full-curl Dall rams, the visions that danced in our heads were cheeseburgers and T-bones.

We awoke on morning seven to find our breakfast supply had dwindled to one package of instant oatmeal, split between us, and the prospect of a forced march up the long, long valley, across the glacial river, then climbing back up over the mountain that lay between us and our palatial—as it now seemed— base camp. We set out around eight. Twelve hours later, we stood atop the peak and began the descent, finally reaching camp, soaked from fording the river, shivering in the darkness, just before midnight. Dale dug out a huge can of chili and set it to bubbling on the Coleman stove. We inhaled it and dropped off, luxuriating in the thought that, come what may, we were taking tomorrow off. We were going to eat, and nap, and eat some more, and nap some more, and wear soft moccasins instead of mountain boots. For one glorious day, we were going to be gentlemen of leisure.


The skillet was heating and I was debating whether to have moose steak or canned stew for breakfast.

Dale had the spotting scope set up and was studying the slopes far down the valley. These seldom held any sheep, because of the camp and the comings and goings of small planes, but eternal vigilance is the price of a full-curl Dall, and Dale was the incarnation of Ortega’s vigilant man.

“Anything?” I asked absently. (Ritz crackers or oatmeal cookies? Decisions, decisions.)

“Look at this,” he said, moving away from the eyepiece. In the scope was a sprinkling of white dots, several miles away and halfway up a mountain. “Rams,” Dale said. “One of them’s a dandy.”

We didn’t bother to change except to pull on our soggy boots. Bare minimum in the packs. A canteen of water each. Breakfast was forgotten, and we took no food. One way or another, we thought, we won’t be out long.

The trek down the river, screened by eightfoot alders, was a trot in the park. Every so often, Dale crept into the open to see where we were and whether the sheep had moved. They were peacefully browsing, eight of them, all young rams except for one old boy who looked like a scout master out with his troop. The hitch was, they were about halfway up a 6,000-foot mountain with no cover except a few shrubs on the lower slopes.

Like all mountains, however, it had vertical folds carved by eons of run-offs, and they provided some cover so long as we stayed down. We managed, after an hour, to inch to within about 400 wide-open yards of them. Now all we had to figure out was how to close another hundred yards to where I was comfortable taking a shot.

A low hum up the valley slowly intruded on our thoughts, growing louder, and then suddenly very loud. A small plane was coming down the valley behind us. A red and white Piper Cub, but not our outfitter’s. Someone else. He banked and circled around.