The small herd of bighorn sheep tensed at first glance of us. Wide-eyed, the sheep inspected the row of stinky humans straining with bulky backpacks on a trail above them. We must have been quite a sight after four days out. Their furrowed brows did not mask the disdain on their faces.
Whaddya doing up here? This isn't your home, their expressions said.
And indeed it wasn't. We were a short distance from the top of 9,932-foot Big Horn Peak, the jewel of the Sky Rim Trail, on the crest of the Gallatin Mountains. My mission, as a Big Wild Adventures backpacking guide, was to safely escort a British group of four through the wilds of Yellowstone National Park for a week. Jane was a nurse and Paul was a scientist, both from London. They were traveling with their daughter, Emma, a traffic engineer, and her boyfriend, Robin, who set up speakers at music gigs.
For now the gang was happy. We had been quiet for long enough to sneak up on some wildlife. The crotchety bighorns examined us a bit more, then begrudgingly stepped off the trail and trotted down a talus slope. They moved like smoke—smooth and flowing, as if their hooves never touched the shattered stone.
We walked farther up the trail—a ribbon of dirt along a rock wall hundreds of feet above the valley, barely wide enough for single-file traffic. I stood at the front, making room for everyone to get a view of the sheep. We strained to make out their forms below.
Suddenly, I heard a stone overturn nearby. Another bighorn had wandered around the corner of the mountain and onto the path behind us. It was an older ewe, her fur matted, horns thick. She didn't run. Instead she locked her eyes on us, squared her body and grunted. She was the herd's sentinel. She grunted again and stamped her hoof.
Five people stood bunched in a line. It was the worst possible spot for a bighorn ambush. One misstep could lead to a serious tumble. Closest to the angry sheep was the scientist, Paul, who had a fear of heights. He'd never seen a bighorn before. Now he faced one pawing menacingly at the ground 75 feet away.
"Come on guys, let's get moving," I said. Paul put a shaky hand on the rock wall. We began shuffling along. Our movement startled the ewe, or perhaps she caught scent of her herd. In one jerky motion she swung around and ran down the scree field after her flock.
"Is everybody all right?" I asked.
"That was the proper way to see some wildlife," Jane managed to answer. We had finally seen large animals up close—too close.
We pushed on to the grassy summit of Big Horn Peak for lunch and feasted on the views. To the east stretched the muscular Absaroka Range: stout, angular, sure. Behind those mountains was a mass of uplifted earth, the plateau of the Beartooths. The rugged backbone of the Gallatins extended to the north, and in the distance were the Crazy Mountains. A westerly view revealed the Taylor Peaks of the Madison Range, sharp with scraped, colorful cliff faces. And to the south, gazing across all of Yellowstone, the Tetons appeared on the horizon.
The Brits poked half-heartedly at the hummus and crackers I laid out for them. But there's no cook like hunger, and they eventually loaded the grub into their bowls. Sitting on the rocky pinnacle of Big Horn Peak, they were a world away from London.
"What a view," Jane said, leaning against her pack.