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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Learning to Climb

Air Date: Week of

The ewe leads them to the edge, but will not show them how to climb down. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

By late summer, the lambs of Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep have grown, equipped with feet that can grip on sheer cliff faces, but as writer Mark Seth Lender observed in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, this may not be enough--a ewe can lead her lambs to the edge, but it is they who have to negotiate the way down, alone.


CURWOOD: Rocky Mountain big horn sheep are born with all the climbing gear they need: feet evolved to grab and hold on near-vertical rock, and an uncanny sense of balance. Writer Mark Seth Lender came across a herd of the sheep near Alberta’s Jasper National Park late last summer and discovered that for the lambs, having the equipment is not enough. They still have to learn how to use it.

Leap of Faith: Lambs Learn to Climb
Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep, Jasper National Park, Canada
© 2014 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

Bighorn lambs learn to climb and, like you, they can fall a thousand feet just once. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

LENDER: They are working it out. The lambs, by themselves. Where the mountain tapers smooth and hard off the ridgeline. The rest of the herd, already picking their way among the crags and cracks is heading down. But the lambs upon this unfamiliar terrain, hold back. The ewe by her stance and where she looks has led them here. To the edge. But will not show them how. Down they will learn on their own.

She stands aside, and waits.

They will not amble like the lambs of the ground. They are not full of play. They stand on the high point and look, long, toward the river and the sweet grass far… far… below. They look. And look: To left to right slowly turning their heads. They plan: each move, each angle polished into an extended curve. A calculus: For every waypoint, every stopping place, the risk of a dead end.

A Rocky Mountain bighorn ewe feeds. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Nor is the route straightforward.

Sometimes the only down is up: they scramble against the vertical, grappling with their cloven feet, the ledge where the gamble led too narrow for a bird.

Sometimes, what looks easy is impossible: the gradual slope, which ends in a sheer and impassible cliff.

Sometimes the granite cleaved along the head grain is the only path and the only safety a headlong run, the living rock inclined too steep for caution.

The hooves of rocky mountain big horn sheep are broad as a puck, gray as the living rock (as if the color gives them grip). They hold, like India rubber pads, where purchase seems untenable, a magician’s trick, inertia where there should be none. Up where the trees are far and few and the dead wood outnumbers the living...

A ram, already made his way down the cliff, drinks. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

The herd, already arrived, goes about its grazing.

The rams lick salt by the side of the road.

At the river others drink.

Not a one looks up to see who will be…one of them.

And the Rocky Mountain Big Horn babies look down and down and down, their ears, raised, the hairs standing straight out. Like you they can fall 1,000 feet, just once.

CURWOOD: Writer Mark Seth Lender. There are pictures at our website, LOE.org.
Special thanks to Fraserway RV and Judy Love Rondeau.

A bighorn lamb takes a leap of faith. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)



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