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Sitka Athlete Tom Foss | 12.16.2014

The Coldest Place on Earth

Sheep hunting with a bow presents a unique set of challenges. There is the vertical terrain, the keen eyes of the prey, and the proximity the weapon demands. As with most things, the magnitude of the challenge mirrors the magnitude of reward. Even so, at some time during the adventure you usually end up questioning your sanity.

This past year, we had the opportunity to venture out in late November, which offered the potential of taking a truly special ram. We knew it would be cold and difficult, but it was just our nature to embrace the forecast of heightened adversity.

Throughout the summer, my sons, Cam and Adam, and a dozen of our closest sheep hunting friends spent more than 130 man-days scouting, planning and preparing to chase bighorns in the snow-stacked skyscrapers of Alberta. Into the early fall, we canvassed a rugged 300-mile strip of the Rockies, from the Canada-US border all the way to the north of Hinton. I can’t even begin to estimate the number of miles we tallied scouting, though it was easily in the hundreds. We took thousands of photos and looked at hundreds of rams, all while training our legs, minds and hearts for one of our most demanding hunts yet.

By November, the biggest rams became more visible as they moved to their pre-rutting grounds. But this time of year brings it’s own share of challenges: furious blizzards, waist-deep snow and temperatures sagging to the -30°C mark. Then as a bowhunter, the greatest complication was the wind that gusted to 60 miles an hour, driving needles of ice with the persistence of a sandblaster. At times, it was impossible to walk or even stand on the mountain. Delivering an arrow would have been unthinkable.

We carried backcountry camps into a handful of remote locations, traveling as much as eight hours each way by snowshoe. Winter had set in and slowed everything down, turning four-hour summer hikes into eight-hour slogs. It was difficult going, even with snowshoes, and we ruled out some promising areas due to snow accumulation at elevation.

Conditions like these are the ultimate equipment test, and things began falling apart. My telescoping ice axe that had saved me from terrible falls and allowed me to get into places that would have been otherwise inaccessible failed. Thankfully Cam, Adam and Mike were there to share and help make a dangerous traverse possible. One particularly frigid day, my crampon blew apart when the connecting pieces shattered, leaving me with one steady foot. The roll of duct tape was divided and redeployed to hold together snowshoes, tripods and electronics. The only things that hung together were bonded by Sitka's sewing, camaraderie, or both.

Cam, Adam, one of my closest friends – bighorn sheep guru Mike Wood – and I had been pounding the mountains together for nearly three weeks straight, getting into plenty of sheep. Our spirits were high despite the grind of the cold. These are the three toughest mountain men I know, and I was so glad they were there to share the memories that were about to unfold. 

At the tail end of the 19 straight day stint, we spotted a ram high on the mountain, glowing in morning light. Even though we were a mile away, I knew in my heart he was the one. Four hours on snowshoes preceded a crampon-aided ascent, gaining us 3,300 feet of elevation and admission for four to the band’s wheelhouse. The largest ram – a heavy, low-sweeping old bruiser – was patrolling his ewes on the steep snowpack. We only had to wait for an opening. It was -31°C without windchill.

The four of us laid on the ram for three more hours under a vibrant blue-black sky seen only on the coldest Alberta days. The sun illuminated the ram’s horns, and the rhythmic puffs of steam that poured from his nostrils turned into a string of clouds composed of tiny, angular prisms.

It wasn’t until right at sunset that the ram finally became preoccupied with the task of pinning three ewes in a jumble of steep cliffs. Cam and I sprang into action and began closing the distance. My heart was pounding, but I was calmed by the familiar feeling of having my son at my side, ready to whisper the range like he’d done on so many stalks before.

As we slipped unnoticed into shooting range, the ram turned broadside, and I attempted to turn over the cams on my completely frozen bow. After a brief, stomach-churning hangup, the familiar soft ‘thunk’ anchored me into full draw. Everything was on pause, as if the temperature had plummeted to absolute zero. Even the molecules had stopped. Then the ram was sent into motion by the touch of the arrow. The other sheep stood confused, they moved on, and the mountain’s monarch fell.

We didn't feel the cold until well into the pack out, at which point it was almost unbearable. "It's got to be colder than the North Pole," one of us joked. We couldn't tell if we’d just forgotten about our frozen toes due to high spirits, or if feeling had fled with the early onset of frostbite and was just now coursing back with the hot blood of hard work. It didn't occur to us that the temperature could have dropped much below what it had already been.

What turned into a 19-hour day finally spat us out at the truck with a dream on our backs. We had added a very full chapter to the lives we are fortunate enough to live.

In the giddy haze of the next day, we began assembling the data point of what we had put ourselves through over the course of the season, remembering all the miles and preparation, the frigid nights out, and the peaks ascended. We were still insulated from the outside world, just reveling in the memories, until one piece of news pierced the fog. On the day prior, Calgary recorded the lowest temperature on the planet, and that joke about the North Pole became literal.

Many thanks to everyone who cheered me on, and to all the hunting comrades who took time to help, scout, pack gear and inspire. I wish everyone who helped had been there on the final day, though I rest easy knowing they were significantly warmer than we were.

We are lucky to do the things we do, in the places we do and with the people we do.