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A trophy ram in a near-impossible location
The hunt started on a weekend in the middle of August 2020. My wife and I loaded up three horses and started for the headwaters of the Green River in the Wyoming Wind River mountain range. The trailhead is an hour’s drive in on a bumpy road that injects itself into the Bridger-Teton national forest. I am familiar with the general area because when I was a kid, my family ran livestock on four summer allotments, two of which were wilderness units. I have had my fair share of 8-12-horse pack trains and horse blow-ups and experienced some of the unforgiveness the elements and terrain can have on someone caught unprepared.
Knowing I was in for an adventure, my wife Becky and I headed up the trail with two saddle horses and one pack horse to establish a base camp 12 miles in. It took most of one day to get to base camp and we decided to make a weekend out of it by spending the night at 10,000 ft. We hauled in about 25 days’ worth of preserved food, with base camp acting as a staging point for my spike camp. After our weekend in the mountains, my wife and I headed home, setting the stage for what was going to be a hunt of a lifetime.
Long Way Up
In anticipation of opening day, my friend Dave Edwards and I headed back up on foot on August 29th to start the 12-mile climb into base camp. We made it there 7-8 hours later with a few burning muscle cramps and our heavy packs in tow, knowing they were going to get heavier with food when we tried to summit the next day. The season didn’t open until the first of September, so we decided to glass around camp for one day and let our bodies recover. Using my Swarovski spotting scope, I found a small 1/2 curl ram several miles out under a cliff face feeding and bedding. Base camp didn't hold any mature rams and was more of a ewe and lamb area.
The next day rolled around and we got our gear packed up, ready to climb out of the rock basin. It was challenging trying to navigate through and around rocks the size of trucks! Once we got on top, the land was bleak and splattered with rock parallel; however, that’s when things took a turn. There was some cloud cover that moved in on us and it started to snow big, heavy flakes. I had not scouted the spike camp area, other than on Google Earth and maps. The weather had us blocked in and it was snowing profusely. We couldn’t see 100-150 yards. We needed to cross this vast rock valley to get to the other side, but we didn’t know how or where exactly to cross.
The rocks were getting covered in snow and it was becoming very treacherous navigating the jagged boulder field. We continued to hike and finally came to a small glacier that I thought was safe to travel across. I took a few steps onto it, fell straight on my face, and to the bottom I went with my pack and gun. We then came to a second glacier, and I knew better than to try and cross it. It led straight into a cold mountain lake and had a small 5-6’ cliff that a person would catch air off of before flying into the lake.
After about five hours of hiking and fighting bloody noses from the altitude, we realized we had gone way too far south. We needed to head east with a slight backtrack north to get to my intended spike camp area. After eight hours of hiking, we arrived at what I thought was my spike camp area but couldn’t really tell because the mountain had us socked in with snow and heavy fog. The next day, we crawled across the desolate, snow-covered rock and glassed off the cliffs into the basins. The first two basins didn’t produce anything other than a vertigo chill.
In the third basin, we found a big ram in a very nasty cliffed-up chute near the top of the mountain. We watched him for a while as he was moving and hoped he would bed. I named him, “Big Curl” since he had an open frame with a giant, basketball-sized curl. I had him at 950 yards and felt we could get closer, even though I had shot my gun confidently and accurately to 1,125 yards with a ballistic truing sequence.
We ended up moving to 623 yards and set up for a shot. The ram kept moving around and I finally decided to take him. With Dave as my spotter in the Swarovski spotting scope, I called for the shot and sent the round. I smoked the giant rock right in front of the ram, dead true but 12-16 inches low. Dave called the correction, and I sent a second round but it went three feet left. The ram climbed a cliff I didn’t know was possible to climb and gave me one more skyline shot, which I missed. Something obviously had happened to my gun when I fell in the rocks or on the glacier.
I was pretty bummed-out, as I thought I just blew a giant ram out of the zip code and ruined my chance of killing a once-in-a-lifetime ram. We spent the rest of the week glassing but didn’t see anything else, other than a monster, 180 class, 12 ½-year-old record book winter-killed ram. I marked the location so I could find him again if I was granted permission from the WYGF to remove it. I was pretty excited about the find since they can be rarer than finding a live one.
Dave advised me to regroup, get my backup elk rifle verified, and come redeem myself. We made the 20+ mile trek back to base camp and then the trailhead over a couple of days. I went home and started getting my backup gun ready.
The second hunt rolled around and I had my backup gun, a .300 Win Mag, shooting out to 600-700 yards pretty comfortably. I had a hard time finding anyone to go back into my spike camp, so I ended up making the second trip solo. I found a mountain-lion-killed deer on the trail, which had me a little concerned since it was within a mile of my base camp. (I noticed on the way out that the grizzlies devoured the carcass!) My night at base camp was pretty restless, as the wind and coyotes kept me awake.
I ventured back up to my spike camp and found Big Curl in the same area but he stayed out of range of my gun’s capability. I wasn’t able to close any distance, as the basin was cliffed-up, except for one steep access chute. The only problem was, the top of the chute had a 30-foot corniced glacier in it. I quickly realized that if I was going to get this ram, I needed a spotter and some rappelling rope; so I pulled off the mountain to return home and prepare again.
I made some phone calls and my longtime friend Kayle Case prepared to go back in with me. I bought some rope and got a loaner 1,000-yard custom-built gun for this third hunt. I ran a ballistic truing sequence on the gun and got comfortable with shooting it to 1,125 yards. Kayle and I headed back up on foot and made the two-day hike into spike camp.
On the second day, we got pounded with a blizzard. It was another big storm that covered the rocks and made it very dangerous to navigate the rugged terrain. The wind blew all night and I wasn’t sure our tents were going to survive. It was drifting snow under the tent flaps and through the mosquito netting. We survived the storm and the next morning, I found Big Curl after an hour of glassing. He was high on the mountain, hiding in a rock cliff and trying to weather the storm, I suppose.
We made a plan, and I moved in for roughly the same 623-yard shot. When I got there, I couldn’t see the ram and told myself I needed to close any distance I could. With flashbacks of a missed shot running through my mind, I moved to what was roughly a 550-yard shot and waited.
The ram didn’t move for several hours, which gave me plenty of time to calculate the scope dope and prepare for the shot. When he finally did get moving, I let him come under a large cliff area in fear he would roll down the rock chute and off a massive 400-foot cliff if shot in the wrong spot. I double-checked my dope, got in the scope, and couldn’t make the shot. I had to control my breathing and settle in for the 2.5 lb pull.
Having shot quite a bit of long-range, I fell into my shooting sequence of preparing myself to minimize interference. I held steady, exhaled, waited for my heart cycle, and eased into the trigger. The sound of the shot shattered the calm silence of the mountain air, and I watched the ram as he fell toward the cliff for balance and dropped. Big Curl was down! I couldn’t believe I killed a giant 170 class, 10 ½-year-old ram in one of the most difficult terrain units in Wyoming on a DIY wilderness hunt.
A lot of answered prayers and hard work went into this hunt! It took us two days to get back to base camp and another day to the trailhead. Kayle and I came in the following day with a string of horses and worked on getting base camp out. The storm had blown in the trail with trees and we had to cut our way in with axes since you couldn’t navigate off the rockslide trails. We were able to get base camp out and even took time to enjoy seeing the Kokanee (landlocked sockeye) salmon spawning in the tributaries, along with the rocky mountain pika.
I walked over 165 miles, rode horses 50 miles, and lost almost 20 lb in 24 days. The experience was a test of will and perseverance and was my hardest hunt to date. It proved to me that you have to fail in order to make corrections for success. I want to thank Dave Edwards, Kayle Case, Val Jones, Andy Boyak (Andy’s Long Range Shooters), and my wife Becky, along with all the people who supported me in this experience for a true hunt of a lifetime.
-Ben Thoman WY 2020