July 30, 2012
"Curt, I'm planning our mountain goat hunt, and I'm wondering if you're afraid of heights."
I wasn't sure how to answer Troy Wolfenden's question, so I asked, "Why?"
"Well, I have one trail that's a bit sketchy. I want to know if I should plan on us hunting up there. That's where the big goats live, but about half my clients refuse to negotiate that trail," advised Troy, owner of Beaverfoot Outfitting near Golden, British Columbia.
I told Troy to plan on hunting there. If that's where we can find a big billy, I'll worry about the heights when we get there.
I worked hard getting ready for my goat hunt. At the age of 57, I wanted to experience goat hunting before I got too old to manage such a physically demanding hunt. Maybe I was already too late, but I had to know if I could handle it.
Finally arriving at Beaverfoot Lodge, cameraman Matt Young and I got settled in and Troy went over the hunt plan to get us into "goat country." It was, as I expected, aggressive.
There was still enough daylight to glass a nearby mountain, and we immediately spotted goats feeding in a distant basin. We could see no kids, so we assumed they were billies and hatched a plan to hike up there in the morning.
It was a rude introduction to the hunt. The mountain was so steep in spots we pulled ourselves up by grabbing the trees that turned sharply out of the ground and reached tenaciously toward the sky. Wet snow made everything slippery and when we reached the summit four hours later, soaked in sweat, the cold air chilled us to the bone. And the goats had simply evaporated. We hiked back down.
And so it went. We would locate a billy then spend hours climbing only to find the goat had vanished or was in an inaccessible location. The weather had warmed up and the goats were now spending their time on the mountaintops, lying on the scattered patches of still-remaining snow.
On the third day we hiked five and a half hours, loaded down with 70 pound packs, up to the "sketchy" spot and set up a spike camp. It was another test of endurance but I did pretty well. Troy never had to wait for me, at least not outwardly, and I felt good about that. Matt did great as well.
Once we had camp set up, we hiked up to a small saddle on a knife ridge and Troy said, "Okay, here's the bad spot. It looks worse than it is, but if you take your time you'll be fine."
With some trepidation I strapped my bow to my back and broke out my carbon trekking poles. Troy went first, and I studied his route so I could replicate it. One obstacle was learning to trust the knife-like blades of rock that jutted out of the mountainside at right angles. Elsewhere, such rocks tend to crumble underfoot, but these were trustworthy. Still, it was extremely steep and bottomless. If you got started sliding it wouldn't be pretty. It took about 20 minutes to cover the 100 "sketchy" yards and once across, I dubbed it the "Death Trail."
We immediately saw two billies and tried to make a move on them but they simply walked away. We continued to slink around at the top of the world, glassing for hidden goats. We studied every light-colored rock and leftover snow patch looking for a stalkable billy but the warm weather had pushed the goats higher than we could climb.
Once the sun got low we headed back across the Death Trail to our spike camp and a freeze-dried supper. Sleep came easy that night.
The next morning it was back across the Death Trail and it didn't take us long to spot a good billy, which we tried to intercept, but he was on a mission and we couldn't keep up. Then we spotted a billy and a nanny cavorting below us. We slid down a scree slope to a patch of trees then angled back up to the goats. They had bedded on a bench we could get no closer to. The billy was at the outer limit of my shooting ability, but I felt I could make the shot. I was wrong. I missed — twice! As though bored with the encounter, the billy simply walked away. I was upset. The cameraman toiled for hours to keep up and did his job, but I failed in mine. That hurt.
We picked our way back across the Death Trail, broke camp and hiked five hours down the mountain. Despite the futility, it was a day I will never forget. In my mind, I had proven I could still "do it." As a 57 year-old man, I felt satisfaction in completing an extreme two-day mountain trek few normal (sane) men my age would even attempt.
The next day we rode horseback into a remote, rustic trapper's cabin and set up housekeeping. Because my muscles and lungs were becoming accustomed to the unique abuse the mountain delivers, I had a restful night. The horses nickered outside the cabin and the howl of a distant wolf was the last sound I heard before sleep claimed my day.
By sunup we'd already been on horseback for 30 minutes, riding up Elk Creek. At each opening in the valley floor we dismounted and glassed both sides of the canyon. Again, at the very peaks, we spotted several goats, bedded on remnant snowfields. There was no way to get to those goats so we rode on. Finally we found a billy in a stalkable location.
"I think if we climb up through this cut to the left then traverse through those three vertical lines of trees we can get on him," said Troy. "It should only take us about three and a half hours to get there."
I learned that if Troy said it would take a certain amount of time to get somewhere, he knew what he was talking about. So off we went after the bedded goat. My brain told me it would be impossible to get within bow range, but my heart said, "Go for it."
Three hours later I was confused. Certain the goat was just on the other side of the row of trees we stood in, Troy disagreed. "No, he's on the other side of the next one."
This is where guides guide and hunters should shut up. Troy's familiarity with the terrain was priceless and he was, of course, right. We pressed on, trying to be as quiet as three men can be on a 42-degree slope.
When we peeked over the edge, the goat was gone. He'd gotten up and was feeding away. It had taken us too long to get there. I'm still not sure what sort of emotion I was feeling. It was more like five or six emotions thrown into a blender. Funny thing was, the final concoction was topped with the whipped cream of satisfaction. It was strange. My body ached like never before. My heart pumped wildly. My lungs burned. But my eyes were being treated to the sight of one of the planet's most beautiful animals against a spectacular landscape. I didn't know how to feel, but I knew there was much to feel. And I was feeling it all.
We hiked back down to the horses without saying much. We all knew this was goat hunting. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. We thought we earned that goat, but it wasn't so.
We hunted two more days with similar success. One morning we watched two very large billies move over a ridge. Backlit by the sun, they looked like they were glowing from radioactivity. Once they crested the ridge we scrambled, sometimes on hands and knees, up a loose scree slope. When we relocated the goats they were on the other side of a canyon we could not cross. The largest billy, sporting long, flowing white fur, slowly walked up the ridge, found a bed and laid down. He then used his right front hoof to dust himself. The setting sun lit up that dust, creating an unforgettable scene even amnesia couldn't erase.
Ultimately, my final trophy was the aforementioned sense of accomplishment. I worked as hard on this hunt as any three hunts I've ever been on — combined. It was a brutal physical and mental test that I felt I passed. I'd wondered if I could do it and I did it. The only thing missing was one of those gorgeous, white creatures to take home.
Certainly, the real measure of success, especially with such an extreme hunt, is whether you would do it again, given the opportunity.
Fortunately, the human brain has the unique ability to purge itself of the difficult memories, leaving you with the positive ones. At least that's how my brain works and I really, really want to hunt mountain goats again — before I get too old.
Author's Notes: I used a Hoyt Carbon Element, CX Maxima Hunter KV arrows, Rocky Mountain Blitz broadheads, Spot-Hogg sight, Scott Release, Leupold optics and Cabela's clothing. I booked my hunt through Mark Buehrer at Bowhunting Safari Consultants. Troy Wolfenden worked hard to put me in front of a mountain goat, and he is one of the best guides I've hunted with. Contact him at 1-888-830-6060.