For several years shooting in Yellowstone I had trouble finding the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Rams that others seemed to photograph often. I would find sheep on Mt Washburn, sometimes down the mountain at Dunraven Pass, around the Golden Gate, and on winter trips in the cliffs near the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek. A few other spots were hit and miss.
One day while driving the dirt road between Mammoth and the park gate at Gardiner (I think it’s called the Old Gardiner Road, but I call it the Pronghorn Road after previous photo encounters there) I saw movement a mile east, on the ridge that leads up to Mt. Everts. Mt. Everts borders the Gardiner River on the east side, opposite Mammoth Hot Springs, and rises several thousand feet, with mostly rugged looking bluffs along the river – nearly to Lava Falls. I was at the top of the the dirt road leading from Mammoth, which gives you a level view directly across the Gardiner Canyon to the slopes of Mt. Everts. There is a large bench that rises about 50 feet above the Gardiner River, right across the river from the parking area at the 45th parallel, called the McMinn Bench. On the bench a large group of bighorn ewes and lambs of the year were milling about.
With the help of binoculars I could just make out a number of small groups of rams moving up and down the ridges that lead to the top of the mountain – some were feeding and some were bedded down, chewing their cud. Along with my friend Bob Sutton, of Apple Valley, CA – we saw what appeared to be a possible, but steep, approach up the mountain that would lead close to the rams. We got back on the highway next to the entrance station and drove a half mile towards Mammoth to the small pullout. We crossed the bridge at Rescue Creek and climbed up to the flats, then began a long walk east across the meadow to the foot of the steep slope leading up the mountain.
Climbing the initial 300-400 vertical feet wasn’t too bad, but then the feeder ridge we were following began a very steep ascent … very steep. The kind of steep that you can only go 30-40 steps at a time between breaks. We had our tripod mounted 500mm lenses and cameras over our shoulders, a photo vest with film (hey, this was about 1996) and water. I was shooting the finest 35mm camera ever made, the Nikon F5, but it was a heavy beast and I was paying for that weight now. After about an hour we were closing in on the long rounded ridge coming down the mountain that we were aiming for. The grade of that ridge was less steep, and thirty minutes later we struggled up to it. Though it was September the grass was still thick and green, the result of afternoon thunderstorms we had seen nearly every day. When we reached the long ridge I had sweated through my shirt and vest, cooled down a couple of times, only to sweat through them again and again. The weather was crisp and clear, and breezy – the sun getting lower in the western sky.
Now we headed slowly up the long ridge, not able to see the rams, but knowing they were above us. Angling southeast and climbing, Bob about 100 feet away going up on the north side, hiking parallel to me, while I was hiking up the south side – giving us a broad view of both slopes. I can still remember the wind whipping up the mountain from the Gardiner River, maybe 1500 feet below. Parked in the small parking area just off the highway my vehicle was just a speck.
I knew from the wind direction there would be no surprising the rams – they had to smell us coming even if they didn’t see or hear us. After a few minutes we came to a small acre-sized level spot on the north side of the ridge, out of view of the road we had used to spot the rams. There in the small meadow were a dozen rams, all looking at us instantly. We sat on some nearby rocks shooting our initial images – just in case they ran. Over time we caught our breath and they got used to us being 40-50 yards away – and the whine of our cameras.
The biggest ram had a large, dark body and a full curl set of horns. He was my target. At that time I was shooting freelance for hunting magazines – so small rams, ewes, and lambs were just not on my subject list. I remembered reading once that you should never get above animals that climb to escape their enemies – so we stayed either at eye level or just below them on the mountain. Slowly we moved closer, 10 steps at a time, angling slightly past them so as to not make a direct (predatory) approach. They seemed unconcerned, though they were certainly alert.
Finally, I moved to a position directly west of them, the late afternoon sun casting its light directly on them from over my shoulder – a perfect shooting position. The big ram kept his head down a lot, feeding, moving slowly, glancing at the other rams in his bachelor herd – but never looking directly at us. Having climbed that far we were going to be as patient as we had to be. As they moved slowly uphill I stayed parallel to them, not allowing them to get above me too much, not wanting my background to be the rising mountain behind them.
Then it happened. The big full-curl ram changed direction and crossed behind us to the western side of the ridge, in full light. I ripped through that roll of Kodachrome 64 in 4.5 seconds – 8 frames per second. Then 2 seconds to rewind, 4 seconds to change film canisters, 2 seconds to auto-advance the next roll, then another blur of images.
I got the shot.