The antics and habits of some of the animals along the way on a hike can be entertaining and worthy of a stop and look.
Rocky Mountain Yellow-belly Marmots
Marmots are large ground squirrels, brown in color. They live in burrows in rock piles and are present on rocky slopes all the way up to mountain summits. They are 15 – 20” long not including their tails and they weigh about 7 lbs. They hibernate in winter. Most marmots are highly social and use loud whistles to communicate with one another, especially when alarmed.
Marmots on summits are really bold. One time I met another climber who warned me to keep an eye on our hiking sticks – a marmot had run off with one of his earlier! They like the salt residue from our sweat on the handles.
Marmots are thieves indeed, so don’t leave your pack or hiking sticks unattended.
Don’t Feed the Animals
If marmots eat food that isn’t a natural part of their diet (like nuts, potato chips, or other hiker snacks), they gain the wrong type of fat in their bodies. The consequence is that they might not be able to wake up from hibernation in the spring. Marmot hibernation is a true hibernation, where their body temperature lowers down close to freezing point and their heart beats only a few times per minute. They have a long way to come out of that state.
Pikas are tiny mammals, only 6-8 inches long. They are native to cold climates; typically living on rocky mountain slopes where there are numerous crevices in which to shelter. They feed on plant matter and lichens found among the rocks.
The White-tailed Ptarmigan, a type of grouse, lives near or above timberline. They nest in groves of twisted or stunted trees that usually grow near the tree line. During the winter, they retreat to slightly lower elevations, but they summer in alpine areas near snow fields. Sensitive to temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, White-tailed Ptarmigans cover themselves with snow to cool off on hot days. Their plumage varies from white during the winter to brown and gray in the summer.
Other birds sometimes found above timberline include species of falcons, eagles, larks, ravens and sparrows.
Bighorn sheep move in small herds. They spend their summers high up in the Rocky Mountains, but when winter comes, they retreat to lower elevations with more vegetation. The ewes’ horns are straight and short, but rams can have large horns that curve around their heads like Princess Leia’s hair. The horns are also the key to telling the age of a big horn sheep—the larger the horns, the older the animal. A pair of horns might weigh up to 30 lb. on a sheep that weighs up to 300 lb.
Although not as agile as mountain goats (see Rocky Mountain Goats), Bighorn Sheep are well-equipped for climbing the steep terrain that keeps their predators at bay. Their outer hooves are modified toenails shaped to snag any slight protrusion, while a soft inner pad provides a grip that conforms to each variable surface.
Mating competition involves two rams running toward one another at speeds around 40 miles an hour and clashing their curled horns, which produces a sound that can be heard a mile away. Most of the characteristic horn-clashing between rams occurs during the pre-rut period, although this behavior may occur to a limited extent throughout the year.
Mountain goats will climb all the way to high summits, but I have never seen these sheep above 12,000 feet.