In the Throne Room of the Mountain King
By Gary Lewis
He climbed by the light of the moon, careful to make little noise in these last minutes before dawn. But in the darkness, he took a wrong turn and found himself against a wall. "I'd think, 'Find a little handhold and then find a place for my foot and then find another handhold and I'll keep going.' I was about a half-mile from where I should have gone up."
By sunrise, Darrel Ries clung to the face of a mountain on a narrow ledge carved from the granite by wind, rain and snow. He was out of handholds and there was no way down. "I had just a two-foot ledge I could sit on. I had enough room for my feet to be in front of me and my arm back in the hole behind me. I was holding on for dear life. I don't even like to be on a ladder."
8,571 hunters applied for one of Oregon's Rocky Mountain goat tags in 2008. One of the lucky eight was 53-year-old Darrel Ries, a chiropractor from Bend, Oregon. With three months to get ready, Paulina Peak, in central Oregon, became his training ground. The three-mile hike gains 2,000 feet, close to what he was likely to encounter in goat country.
In a straight line, Cusick Mountain is 11 miles south from Wallowa Lake. The trail from the lake is shorter, but it is steep with switchbacks where one stirrup hangs out over thin air. The longer trail follows the Imnaha River and has its own share of switchbacks, but the elevation change is spread out.
Darrel swung into the saddle on a September morning. With him were Russ Morris, of La Grande, and Ron (Bino) Bennett, from Portland, and the outfitter, whose job it was to deposit hunters and camp in a meadow, then return eight days later to pick them up.
Both Russ and Bino were veterans of past triathlons. Bino's mountain climber skills were to prove helpful.
The pack string followed the middle fork of the Imnaha River, up, up, up. Once above a pool, hundreds of miles from the ocean, Ries looked down to see two salmon in the clear water. The riders picked their way along cliff walls and crevasses that dropped hundreds of feet. At one switchback, Ries's rifle case slipped off the mule and tumbled to the rocks below.
Inside were two scoped rifles. Ries couldn't help but wonder if one or both of the scopes had been jarred in the fall. In the high country, the trail flattened out and they passed a large burn then skirted Marble Mountain to a meadow at the base of Cusick Mountain.
Ries had one day to scout. In the morning, he saw "an enormous goat." His body was massive, his hair yellow and longer than the other goats." The big billy's horns were visibly bigger, even a mile-and-a-half away.
As the three men watched, the King fed across the granite cliff and disappeared into a rock formation they dubbed 'the throne.'
"Every day we saw five to ten goats," Ries said. "We figured they came down the mountain to feed in the meadows after dark and returned to the cliffs at sunrise."
It took an hour-and-a-half to reach his stand in the dark. When the sun came up, he stripped off his backpack and coat, left them behind and climbed higher.
A group of goats moved up the side of the mountain. Ries thought the King was with them, but for 45 minutes, another goat kept Ries pinned down, unable to move. Ries shivered too much to make a shot. Soon, all the goats were out of sight. Ries followed their trail up and over the top.
Back at camp, Russ and Bino worried. Bino climbed the mountain, found Reis's backpack and assumed the worst. Russ and Bino began to search for a body in the canyons below. Ries found his 'rescuers' minutes before they called for help on the satellite phone.
Before dawn on day two, free-climbing with his rifle and 30-pound pack, Ries ran out of options on a narrow ledge. He couldn't go up or down. He reached Russ on the radio. It took Russ an hour to locate the chiropractor hanging on by his fingers.
Two hours later, Bino climbed around Ries and tied one end of a 200-foot rope to a twisted hemlock. "Ten feet above was a gnarled tree stuck in the rock. I didn't know if it would hold us or not." Bino gave Ries the harness and then tied his own out of rope. Then Bino showed Ries how to rappel down the cliff.
On the third day, on the backside of the mountain, the big billy was in range. Ries found a rest and missed, his bullet hit high over the animal's back. Later he realized he forgot to compensate for the angle, but he put his 338 Winchester Magnum back in the case and carried his 7mm Weatherby Magnum.
On the fourth day the team saw a group of goats on the mountain. One of the young goats tumbled 200 yards down the hillside. It lay still. For a few minutes, the nanny watched. Finally the group moved off. About an hour later, the kid got up, shook himself and joined the rest of the group.
On the fifth day, there were no goats to be seen from camp. Ries crept over the snow at the ridge top, looked into the next basin and saw seven goats. Startled, they took off at a run. Russ and Bino located the group with two billies at the top of the next ridge.
Neither of the two males was the King but Ries made a decision to shoot. 321 yards. He settled in behind the rifle, centered the crosshair. The bullet spanged rock, but the goat took five steps and stopped. Ries held low for the second shot.
The hunter found a narrow trail to his white-robed trophy. At the top of the world, he ran his fingers in the long hair and looked out across snow-capped peaks that stretched in every direction.
When Russ and Bino joined him, they removed the hide and divided meat into packs, cooled with snow from the canyon. That night, under the light of a full moon, they feasted on backstrap.
Somewhere on the mountain, flat rocks shifted beneath hardened hooves and shale creaked like broken glass. Between knife-edged black granite and darkened sky, the King was secure in his throne.