Canyoneers Accidentally Corner a Bighorn Sheep in Tuckup

Noticed this story from Rich Rudrow on the Canyons Group and thought it both an interesting story and a good reminder of the “wild” in wildlife. Reminds me of a story I heard from some clients of mine who had a pretty hairy encounter with a large bull near the Escalante River trailhead. A mere 1/4-mile from the parking lot, these two hikers stepped into a side canyon to explore, only to be rushed back to the river by a snarling, foaming, enraged bull. They held the bull off with their trekking poles, but eventually resorted to all sorts of tricks of misdirection and cliff-scaling to escape. I think their story was published in Backpacker magazine? But I digress… Here’s a great story from Mr. Rudrow on bighorn sheep and the dangers of getting photographically bold:

Bighorn Sheep in Grand Canyon

A shot of the ram from a more comfortable distance

I often think about the risks we take while exploring slot canyons in Grand Canyon. Are the ropes long enough and do we have the right gear? Can we protect against hypothermia? Rockfall? How do we get out after rappelling through the target slot canyon? Most risks can be mitigated by training and planning. But I’ve never considered wildlife a serious risk, until last week.

After a pack raft exit from a target slot we were approaching Tuckup Canyon for the hike out. Pascal pointed out a lone big horn ram walking along on the Muav ledges 50′ above us. He was a splendid animal around 3 or 4 years old weighing 130 or 140 pounds. His rack had a 3/4 turn. I’ve seen bigger rams in GC, but this guy was quite a sight. As we were deflating our rafts, the ram turned the corner on the Muav bench above us and headed up Tuckup Canyon. Thirty minutes later we were packed and moving up canyon. Todd Martin and I were walking 300 or 400 yards ahead of Pascal Van Duin and Todd Seliga, who stopped to investigate something along the way. As we made our way up canyon I could see the fresh hoof prints from the ram.

Tuckup gets very narrow in places. The lower Muav section is stunningly beautiful and I never tire of hiking there. Thirty minutes into the hike we saw him. He was 100 yards ahead and we stopped for photos. The canyon was only 30′ wide and the ram started pacing back and fourth between the vertical canyon walls. For reasons that would become clear later, he had no desire to head further up canyon. After a few seconds of pacing back and fourth it became clear to Todd and I that he was really agitated. And then the ram made his play. From 100 yards out he accelerated to 20 miles an hour right at us. I wondered if the idiots at Pomplona had the same sinking feel that I had at that
moment. The thoughts of great photos quickly left our heads. Todd and I hugged the right vertical wall hoping that the 30′ gap would look more appealing to the ram than plowing us under on the way by. It was CRAZY!!! He zoomed by at a full run 20′ away. Todd and I managed to snap a few fleeting photos of the insanity, but they just didn’t do the incident justice.

I realized that he could have killed us without much effort. We didn’t stand a chance. After the shock wore off and we began walking again we encountered one of the many boulder problems in Tuckup requiring delicate climbing. It seems that the ram knew the obstacle was there and that he couldn’t get up. I know that big horn sheep get all the way up Tuckup but they know where a lot of Muav bench bypasses are located. I could only guess that the ram came off a bench to the canyon floor for water and we happened upon him at exactly the wrong time. He felt trapped.

A while later Todd Seliga and Pascal caught up to us and we replayed the story. They were incredulous and they didn’t even see the ram. He must have jumped back up on Muav bench before encountering them. We all had big laughs about the incident and continued on our way. I’ve seen hundreds of big horn in Grand Canyon over the years, some from very close up, but I’ll never look at a ram the same way again. When something that big and powerful feels trapped and desperate, somebody’s going to get hurt. It was by far the most dangerous moment in a week filled with first descent slots.

A few photos of the “battering” ram :)



About Nick

Nick Wilkes found ZAC in 1996, working first as an outfitter, then a guide, then as webmaster. An ardent adventure enthusiast, Nick's recent exploits involve laying down roots in Wisconsin, chasing his kids around the house, working as a Madison, WI photographer and growing his Wisconsin climbing business. Connect with Nick on Facebook, Google+, or directly via email.
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