The High Saddle

“Damn,” Dale muttered. The pilot came up behind us, then flew over the sheep, banked again, and circled back around. He buzzed us low and made straight for the rams as if he were on a strafing run. The rams, uneasy now, began moving. By the time the plane buzzed them a third time, they were in a line and filing up the slope, getting farther away with every step. The plane circled once more, waggled its

line and filing up the slope, getting farther away with every step. The plane circled once more, waggled its wings at us, and flew off. The damned son of a bitch.

Camping high on a mountain is finding a bed of lichen, almost level, almost dry, almost soft. Worry not: No power on earth can keep you from sleeping. Not after that climb. The Chugach is an element of extremes—vertical slopes, bottomless crevasses, icy water almost too cold to drink, high slopes too dry and bare to support life. Yet there is life, and it is worth hunting for

I tell that story sometimes, and the first words I hear are, “You know what I would have done?” Well, take my word for it, you wouldn’t have. These days, I generally keep that part to myself.

Dale was furious. I was, too, but I just couldn’t believe someone would do that. Dale knew of such occurrences but had no real explanation. Anti-hunters? An envious would-be sheep hunter? Who knows?

“It doesn’t matter why, it’s done now,” Dale said. He was watching the sheep, half a mile away and climbing with a steady rhythm. Near the top was a double peak with a saddle in between. The sheep trail led clearly to that saddle. We could tell because it was not obscured by so much as a blade of cover, and if we tried to follow them, we’d have no cover either. We watched as they reached the saddle, spread out, and began to settle down.

Dale was studying the sheep, the ground, and the situation like a general before a battle. “You know,” he said, “I think I see a way.” He was looking behind us, at a ridge that towered 3,000 feet. I must have looked disbelieving.

“He’s a dandy sheep,” he said.

ACT THREE: MAN VERSUS HIMSELF

Overcoming adversity. That’s the key, in hunting and in life. First the mountains, then hanging glaciers, then starvation and exhaustion, and now this. The ram had been right there. Right there! And now, it might as well be on another planet.

“One way I can see,” Dale said. “We pull back, out of sight of the saddle. Then we go up and over, and come along the peak from behind. We should get a shot. . . .”

Camp and breakfast—the breakfast we didn’t have—seemed far away. I pulled out my canteen.

“Better save that,” Dale said. “There’s no water up there.” And with that, we got our packs on and began to crawl on hands and knees, away from the sheep, back behind a fold in the steep slope. The mountain had not looked all that high before, but the situation was different now.

Four hours later, we were near the peak. We’d run out of water. At the rate we were sweating, it was a lost cause anyway. Five steps up, pause, five more, pause. As we neared the top, Dale called a halt and sat down. The peaks of the Chugach were spread out before us. Glaciers glistened in the sun. Far below, the river wound like the proverbial silver ribbon through the alders, and the green speck of our tent looked like a lost toy.

The boiling anger was gone. Now all we had was determination. Hunger had been replaced by burning thirst, but that was hardly an improvement. My first instinct, after the plane incident, had been to return to camp, eat, regroup, and start over. Dale vetoed that. No guarantee the sheep would stick around that long. Now’s the time. Right now. Food or no food, water or no water.

Now we were at the top, and over the lip, and picking our way through the jagged outcrops. Dale kept his hands in his pockets “so there’s no temptation to grab on” and I followed suit. This also keeps you vertical, and the edges of your boot soles biting the slope. Rocks came loose and bounced and rattled out of sight. We wouldn’t bounce, I reflected. Not more than once, anyway.

Finally, we crept back to the top and edged along until we were above the saddle. The sheep were still there, lying down. The big guy was in plain sight but facing us, with its horns protecting its body. There was no shot. We wedged ourselves into some high rocks and waited. Time was now working against us. By 11, it would be dark. If we were not off the mountain by then, we would be spending an icy waterless night up here. The sun began to dip toward the mountaintops, and our sweat-damp clothes became chilly.

There we stayed, for two long hours. And then, a gift from the Red Gods, another winged creature came to help where the first had tried to sabotage us. A golden eagle, with air rushing out from under its wings, swooped past my shoulder. That sound—dreaded since lambhood—caused the sheep to stir. The big boy stood up and turned its head. The crosshair settled on its chest, and I touched the trigger.

A couple of hours later, carrying the entire sheep as Alaska law dictates, we started down. The ram had fallen and slid down a scree, coming to rest a few yards from a 200-foot drop. We then had to dress him, cut him up, stow all the meat in our packs—I got to carry all our equipment as well as the head and cape, while Dale shouldered all the meat—and then haul ourself back up the scree to the saddle before starting down the other side.

An iron rule: Never set out down a mountain unless you can see a clear path to the bottom, and never ever do it at night. We reached the valley floor just as the light finally failed, drank and drank at the nearest tinkling stream, then plunged into the alders and upriver, praying not to miss our camp in the darkness.

Life was now a trance of placing one foot after another, following Dale’s murky shadow. One more step. Just one more step, then I’ll rest. No, just one more. And a final stroke of luck: We walked right onto the end of the tiny landing strip on the gravel bar and stumbled into camp at one in the morning.

THAT ALL OCCURRED ALMOST 30 YEARS AGO. A lot has happened since, and a lot has been forgotten, but not that. The next morning, I sat outside the tent with a cup of coffee and looked at it. It was 10 years old, my dandy ram, with horns that measured a fraction over 39, heavy bases, a close curl, and a slight flare at the tips. A handsome lad and no mistake, and no one could say I didn’t earn it—every beautiful inch.


Wieland has carried that memory for almost 30 years. It’s been a comfort through some rough spots. And he still has those boots, worn out though they may be. He just can’t bring himself to throw them out.