“I hate hunting. To like hunting is such a curse. You’d do better to like doing something different. I’m trying to think of something you could do where you don’t have to worry about it not working out. I guess video games, they usually work out pretty good.”
-Steven Rinella, Meat Eater 4:12
The curse inherent in being a hunter is that however skilled you might be, however solid your planning and research, success requires luck. The extent to which this is true can certainly be minimized, but it cannot be eliminated. I still don’t know quite how much luck was at work in our overall success hunting and hiking that valley, but I’m certain luck played a huge role in finding a big chamois buck 200 yards from the hut.
In other words, I woke up very happy.
We had a full day to pursue tahr, and if necessary half of the next. The chamois skull, at that moment cleaned, salted, and bagged, would require a trip into Christchurch to get an export permit from the regional DOC office, which would add substantially to the drive required to get up north. First, we’d investigate the canyon behind the hut, and if that didn’t pan out, go after the tahr I had seen yesterday on the big face across the lake.
Unlike the day before the wind was only mild, but a skiff of thin clouds hung high in the sky, keeping temperatures cool for a rugged climb up the streambed.
Between the slippery cobbles, tight confines, and freezing stream crossings, it only took a half mile for me to be deep in flashbacks to 2011 and some of the canyons we used to hopscotch across the Hayes Range during the Wilderness Classic.
Post-glacial erosion was happening fast and hard here, and the footing did not admit much inattention.
The amount of groundwater seeping out of the cliffs was impressive, and the south facing alcoves bred extensive hanging gardens, dripping with verdure and visibly dropping the air temperature nearby. It was terrain just like the chamois had been living in yesterday, but on a much larger scale. It seemed like only a matter of time before we uncovered more animals.
After a mile or so the canyon steepened and grew more twisty, and M and my parents let me push on ahead alone, content to not freeze their feet any more. That central section required constant stream crossings as each meander pushed up against sheer cliffs, and plenty of hand and foot climbing through big boulder fields. Outside Alaska you don’t get to hunt this sort of terrain very often, because the sheep and goats who inhabit it have been made less numerous by the past century of heavy hunting, and what tags are available are made rare due to the entirely justifiable reverence, even fetishization, given to alpine hunting. It’s a higher discipline for the same reason mountaineering is elevated in the public eye; both involve exploring terrain in which humans cannot live permanently, and the big spaces give the least-encumbered reign to our primary sense, sight.
After another hour of rough going, I made it above the twisty section. The valley was a perfect V and ran mostly straight up towards the glacier, whose upper aspect was now visible. The walls were steep, and on each side ran right down into the creek, with the water winning almost no mitigation in angle. I climbed a hundred feet up one side to a collection of larger, flatter boulders and set up in a comfy spot to snack and glass the huge face opposite. Behind the binoculars, it was easy to both revel in the perfect position and get down to the business of systematically picking the immense terrain apart.
The complexity of the valley walls came alive under my binos. Steep, twisted walls of grey and black rock, ancient and varied with no pattern, were broken into discontinuous systems of ledges and striped vertically by gullies full of scree and talus. The whole wall was steep, but in only a few places was it truly foreboding. It looked like an agile human could go just about anywhere, but it would take a lot of horrid, loud work to get up off the talus and a lot of puckered scrambling to weave through the rock. The green wasn’t as lush as that found in the hanging gardens lower down, but there was plenty of it. Again, animals seemed certain.
After an hour of glassing, I found them. Little brown/tan dots bedded on a ledge under the largest, steepest cliff around. A nanny tahr with kid, chewing grass.
They were not close, but close enough that even my 50mm spotter on 30x could give decent detail. It was immediately obvious that they had a good rig going. They were bedded on the lushest ledge visible for a mile or more in either direction, with an impenetrable cliff above, and massive vistas below and to both sides. As I watched the nanny chew, and examined the neighboring slopes, any stalk seemed problematic. That whole side of the drainage was ever so subtly concave, and especially lower down none of the gullies were deep enough to hide the climb up into the rocks, even if one could in the process avoid making a huge racket kicking down rocks.
I pulled out Dick’s rangefinder. I couldn’t get a read on the tahr, but the device could easily range the big cliff behind them. 450 yards, which is a long way. Given the slope I figured the ballistic distance was right at 300 yards, which almost seemed reasonable given the 260 yard hit on the goose the day before. I fiddled with my pack, pack contents, rocks, and tripod, but could not arrange a good stance which allowed me to be stable and get the tahr in the scope. Waiting the nanny out and shooting when she stood seemed like a good tactic, but wasn’t practical in that spot.
I packed up my gear, and after a last look to confirm the tahr were still bedded, headed a hundred yards downstream to a faint gully which led up towards the tahr on their side of the stream. If I could get into the rocks and weave through the ledges, I could close the distance and probably get a good shot ounce I was up at their level.
It did not take long to see that this tactic was just not going to work. I consider myself pretty good in scree and talus, but the slope was steep and yet unconsolidated, and I couldn’t but make a lot of noise. By the time I made it a decent distance above the creek, the tahr were on their feet, looking in my direction. I stopped. Stared, and stared some more. They didn’t seem in immanent danger of running off. I ranged the cliff behind them. 450 yards, again, but this time I had the slope in my favor.
I took a few steps right, towards the tahr and into bigger talus. A little more stable. Moved some rocks around, put my pack down, futzed with the contents. Being prone on a 45 degree slope and shooting uphill makes it tough to both get a good cheek weld on your rifle and have a clear sight picutre. After some futzing, I had it, good enough. I chambered a round, turned my brain off, let it direct a breath in and out, and fired at the standing tahr, holding a little bit up off the back for elevation, and a little right for windage.
The round impacted high, raising a puff of rock dust which glided off left in the breeze. The concussion echoed through the valley, a very small noise in the big place. The tahr didn’t seem especially agitated. Cursing myself, I worked the bolt, settled down, and shot again.
This one was closer, the rock dust or concussion enough to spook the nanny, who started and ran 10 feet to the left before stopping and continuing to scan the slope. She still didn’t seem to have a clear idea of what was happening or where it was coming from, just that something was amiss. I moved a few rocks to give myself a more settled position, and got back down on the rifle. Slowly, slowly, slowly, trigger.
Hit. The nanny bucked in the universal body language of a solid bullet impact, and took off to my right, in and out of sight amongst ledges, the kid in tow. No hope of a follow-up shot, but hopefully it won’t be needed. After a hundred yards of progress, she wobbles to a stop and sits out of sight.
The kid remained above and to the right in plain sight, plainly agitated. The obvious brutality of the scene barely nudged into my mind before being pushed back out. I kept my binos on them for close to a minute, and with nothing changing took time to dig ammo out of my pack and reload, before getting back on the binos. Another 30 seconds, and the nanny is back up.
Shit. No time for niceties, I dive back down on the rifle and send a round as she proceeded along the broken ledge traverse, again in and out of sight. I had to count my ammo later, and because of that I know I only missed twice as she limped along. Finally, with 15 seconds having been an hour, she stopped long enough to give me three breaths, and the last bullet of the trip flew true.
This time she dropped immediately, and hard, onto a sloping ledge, where she hung for a second before sliding, and falling and tumbling. I’ll never know, but I’m fairly sure my “oh no, oh fuck!” was not just said inside my mouth as the tahr picked up momentum and was soon tomahawking 20 feet in the air as she bounced off and over cliffs. My horror gives me one iota of space to think “well, she’s definitely dead now” between fervent hopes that the tahr will stop, soon, anytime, at some point, please. She hits the talus below the ledges like a 70 pound meat sack going 40 mph, which she is, and rolls and flops and knocks endless rocks loose all the way down to the stream before coming to a halt as a tan lump plainly visible. I guess the tahr went halfway down to the stream during her horrific tumble.
No time for introspection now. I stemmed up the talus gully to the base of rock, and moved up onto discontinuous 3rd class ledges, heading up and right towards the nanny. At this point the kid took his unintended and entirely appropriate revenge as he hastened down to figure out what the hell just happened to his mother. A volley of rocks came down right at me, with a few microwave-sizers flying right over my head. A few seconds later the kid appears 100 yards away, in a mountain goat pose on a boulder, one eye on his mother’s corpse, and one on this weird thing moving towards him. Following through on the decision I’ve already made, I take off my pack, get seated behind it, work the bolt, and send a bullet through the young tahrs lungs.
In an inscrutable panic of death, he runs back towards and up above me, almost hitting me with more rocks, before dying and sliding to a stop above and to my left.
The kid seems closer, so I go up and find him. The mix of steep talus over embedded dirt makes for truly treacherous going. Mostly I boulder large to large rock, hoping none cut loose. I find the kid, and haul him over to the largest rock I can find, which seems likely to stay stuck. I stack my rifle behind him, and tie my pack to another boulder with the hipbelt, then head over to the nanny. When I find her, bedraggled and (unsurprisingly) hornless in the talus, I put my hand on her head in a gesture of gratitude and almost fall over. We both slide 10 feet down before grinding to a tenuous stop. Skinning and butchering, or doing anything apart from just hold on, is out of the question, so I grab all four legs and give a less-than-gentle heave. Almost in slow motion the tahr rolls and slides every last foot down to the small flat bit next to the creek.
Cutting the head off the kid, and opening up the hide to get out the loins and back legs, is one of the more difficult things I’ve done, and took twice as long as seemed reasonable as I fought to not slip and cut my finger off with the razor-edged Havalon. Eventually all parts were in a sack, which along with my rifle was in my pack, and I was headed back down to level ground. This entailed much slipping and scree surfing, as well as a block which rolled over and tried pretty hard to crush my left foot, but went quickly. The valley floor was welcome.
Fun, with its mammoth imprecision, might be my least favorite word. Hunting is not push a button and yahoo fun, but it is deeply satisfying. Two years I began pursuing hunting in earnest with the assumption that the moral conflict inherent in the pursuit and kill were a necessary but not necessarily valued part of the whole affair. Now I think that unanswerable dilemma is integral. The question isn’t all that acute when an adult male drops cleanly, dead in an instant. It’s quite a bit thornier when the process takes 2 hits and 4 misses, and involves a bone-breaking tumble and the slaughter of a mother-son pair. In New Zealand that’s legal, and sound management, but I had plenty to think about as I placed the tahr up on a flat rock and retrieved some food from my pack. Eventually I looked at my watch. Turns out the whole labyrinthine stalk, shot, and retrieval had taken all of 20 minutes.
I wanted the tahr hide, even though I knew getting it ready for export would add enormously to the work during the rest of the trip. It took an hour to carefully skin out the tahr and extract the choice cuts of meat (in NZ there is no obligation to retrieve any specific amount of meat), and by the time I had done so I had made peace with myself. Hunting is, at the end, about death. Some times, probably fairly often, death is messy. My tahr hunt had not been perfect, but it had been good enough to pass my personal litmus test, and I loaded my pack and headed down the stream a very content person.
The steep descent with weight thrashed my legs and tested my patience as I took care to not hurt myself. Rocks rolled, and on one stream crossing a bit of inattentive foot placement saw me fall neck deep with my trekking pole floating on ahead. All that noise faded as I came out into the opening at the mouth of the stream and cruised the gravel bar past the chamois cliff from the day before. It was hardly 3 in the afternoon, I had pieces of two tahr in my pack, a crystal memory in my head, and my pregnant wife and my parents just around the corner.
All of whom were properly incredulous that everything had gone as well as it had. They pitched in and fleshed the tahr cape, while I cleaned the skulls and generally sat back on the grass, savoring the moment. Days this good simply do not happen very often, and rushing through without paying attention is a grave sin.
The hike out the next day was leisurely because it could be. The weather was good, the trip had been enjoyable to the point of stretching credibility, we had all day to get back to civilization, and 2.5 weeks in New Zealand still to come.