Five hundred and forty yards. That was all that stood between me and the animal I had worked so hard for over the last five days. We were maneuvering along a knife ridge on the very top of the mountain, closing the distance between us and the goat we had spotted hours earlier. I now stood looking at ten yards of loose scree atop a steep rock face; one slip would send me rocketing off the cliff to an unpleasant landing on the rocks below. Few things in the mountains have given me pause, but this did. On the one hand, I was looking at the bedded goat that was so close, but I was also thinking of my beautiful wife and kids at home.
I was confident I could make the shot from here, but the goat was facing away from us, and we could not tell for sure if it was the billy we had been after all week. We simply had to get closer for a better look. It was one of those moments: The wrong decision or a misstep could easily be life-changing — or life-ending.
Storm on the Ridge
After nineteen years of trying unsuccessfully to draw a mountain goat tag in any of the western states, I began looking for an opportunity in British Columbia, and the search led me to Tom Kotlarz of Silent Mountain Outfitters. Arriving in Radium, BC, in early September, I met up with my guide, Corey Allen, who turned out to be a twenty-four-year-old collegiate hockey player. I could only imagine the torture I was going to endure trying to keep up with this athlete who was half my age. We drove on to Silent Mountain’s main lodge, nestled in a beautiful setting along a rushing glacial river.
Over the first three days we hunted hard and hiked many miles, exploring two large drainages and climbing high mountains, fighting through rock fields and thick alders, threading our way along narrow ledges, and overcoming a bout with dehydration. Despite the fact that this region holds a healthy population of goats, we saw very few. On day four it poured rain all day, and we had no choice but to wait it out in the lodge.
The weather gave us a break the next morning, so Corey decided we should set up a spike camp on a ridgeline overlooking a high basin. We loaded up our pack frames with the necessities to survive for a couple of days and headed up the mountain. The hike started on a logging road, then transitioned to open pine timber, a pleasant walk and and not too steep. Before long, though, we were climbing a nearly vertical slope, struggling from scrub pine to scrub pine. Next came the shale scree, a test of strength and willpower, with each labored step forward resulting in a backward slide. After four hours, we finally made it to solid footing on a rock ledge not far from the top. Here we took a much-needed break.
I doctored my blistered feet and loaded up to make the final push to the top. As we crested the ridge, the view in every direction was stunning. To our backs were the Bugaboo Peaks and to our front was a high basin with numerous small lakes and streams. It looked like paradise for mountain game. We moved down the ridge and found a spot behind a rock wall that we thought would protect our tent from the wind. We dropped our heavy packs and moved over to the edge of the basin to sit and glass. Below the edge was a vertical cliff that formed the perimeter of the basin. We slowly worked our way along the ridge to glass and peek into hidden nooks and crannies for any goats that might be hidden from view. After a few miles, and to our dismay, no goats, we decided to head back and set up our tent. We were partway back when I spotted a huge grizzly working his way across the mountainside below us. We watched and admired him for a bit, making sure he was heading past us and away from our campsite.
With the tent set up and a Mountain House in our stomachs, we settled into our sleeping bags for the night. Our comfort was short-lived. First a strong wind came up, followed by rain and lightning, then snow. Soon the tent began to shudder in the high wind and the stakes pulled out of the ground. We were worried that even with us and all our gear inside as ballast, the whole tent might be swept off the cliff. The poles collapsed next, and we decided we had to make a move or risk losing everything and being injured in the process. We jumped out of our bags and headed out into the wind, rain, and lightning in our thermal underwear and bare feet. Due to the urgency, we left everything inside and grabbed the sides of the tent, gear and all. We knew if we allowed the wind to rip it from our hands we would lose everything over the cliff and be stuck on top of the mountain with no shelter, clothing, or other gear essential for survival. There would have been little or no way we could have survived a night on the mountain and no way we could make it down. We held on to that tent knowing our lives depended on it.
Slowly, we walked the gear-filled tent to a slightly more protected depression about fifty or so yards away. We put the tent down and Corey held onto it while I tried to pound in the corner stakes, but I barely got one stake in and moved to the next before the wind ripped out the one I just put in. Corey was beginning to shake violently from the cold. I quickly grabbed some big, flat rocks, then pounded in a stake and piled rocks on it before moving to the next stake. I finally got the four corners secured and told Corey to get inside and get in his bag and get warm. I continued to pile rocks on the stakes, and once I had some fifty pounds of rocks on each stake, I began piling more on the fly to seal the door. I left just enough room to worm in on my belly and reach outside to finish the rock fortification. Fortunately it held, and it got us through the night.
We awoke to fresh snow and heavy clouds so we glassed a bit where we could find a bit of visibility, but soon realized it was a futile effort. Defeated, we packed up and headed down to the lodge. Once there, we devoured some warm bowls of soup and drove out to do some leisurely glassing from the truck and rest our weary legs and sore feet. Once again we saw no goats, and headed back to the lodge.
Across the Face
The next day, the last of my allotted hunting days, dawned clear and beautiful and we decided to drive and glass the surrounding peaks, covering as much ground as possible until afternoon, and if we didn’t spot something by then we’d wave the surrender flag. Our first stop was to glass for a big goat that had been seen repeatedly on the ridge high above the 45-kilometer marker on the highway. We had stopped here every day, but so far the goat hadn’t shown himself on the mountain where he had made regular appearances all summer and fall. We moved on and glassed several different drainages and mountain faces but saw not a single goat. We headed back toward the lodge, and as we passed the 45-kilometer marker I told Corey to stop so we could have one last look.
I walked over to a dirt mound and flopped down to glass. I put my Swarovskis to my eyes, and there in my binocular was a goat. I couldn’t believe it. I told Corey and he quickly located the goat. We watched it for a bit as it fed up in a steep drainage right near the top of the ridgeline. It was now early afternoon and we began discussing our options. The goat had the yellow-tinged coat typical of a billy and had what appeared to be long horns.
We debated for a bit and finally Corey said, “OK. If it beds down by 2:00, we’ll go after it. If it keeps feeding, we’ll give up and head back to the lodge as it could just disappear over the top and be gone.”
At 2:00, right on cue, the goat bedded down. Corey and I looked at each other in amazement. He said it would take four hours, pushing hard, to reach the top of the ridge where the goat was. We took only the absolute necessities and headed up, knowing it was going to be a grueling climb. There had been a burn here over the summer, and the ensuing rains had turned the ash and bare ground into a black, slippery slime. We slogged up through the burn and finally reached the timber and better footing. We kept pushing hard and finally topped the ridge just three hours after leaving the truck. The goat was still bedded and facing away from us, perfect for our stalk, but denying us a better look at its horns.
We worked our way to a higher point and dropped over the back side of the ridge. We were now less than six hundred yards away but we still couldn’t get a good look at the goat’s head to make a positive identification that it was a billy. We had to close the distance, but when we came to a knife ridge we had to cross, we would be in view of the goat, which was now up and feeding. With no other options and time running out, we decided to risk it and close the gap.
Corey was a bit higher than me, moving across the mountain, when we came to the steep rock face covered in loose shale. One slip on this and you would be on a slide ending at a precipice that dropped at least a hundred feet to the rocks below. Corey scurried across above me, but I just stood there for a moment, taking great pause. I’m not scared of heights and have been on steep mountains all over the world, but this was one of those situations when I had to question whether the risk would be worth the reward. I would be putting my life in peril with the next few steps. As I hesitated, I started mentally picking apart the route across, and a path seemed to form in front of me. I took a few quick steps onto spots where I could see the base rock sticking through, or not far below, the loose scree. After a few quick and anxious steps, I was safely on the other side. We dropped out of sight of the goat and closed the distance.
We crept over the top and I set up for the shot while Corey glassed the goat. I told him I was steady and could make the shot on his call. I had the cross hairs of the .300 Ultra Mag steadied on the goat’s shoulder, just waiting for the word from Corey.
Finally the word came: “Nanny.”
My heart sank. I have never felt more defeated on a hunt. The goat spotted us and actually ran right past us at maybe thirty yards. We sat there in disbelief, and finally I just had to laugh.
Now we had no time to spare. We had some treacherous terrain to navigate on our way down, and darkness was setting in. We worked our way down the chute, which was steep but pretty good for a bit. As we continued, however, it began to get narrower and steeper. Soon we found ourselves surrounded by cliffs with a tough choice to make. To get down, we had to drop off a small, maybe ten-foot, drop. Not a big deal, but if we missed or lost our footing, we would go right on over a much larger cliff. The other option was to climb back up. We decided up was the best choice, even though we were both exhausted.
The desperation of the darkness setting in drove us on and up. The face we had to climb was nearly vertical but it was covered with soft moss and scrub pines that allowed us to get meager finger and toe holds. We clawed our way to the top and worked our way around and down the cliff. The going was steep all the way down and we reached the hated and frustrating alders just before dark. We bulldozed our way through the alders and finally reached the clearing leading to the truck just as it became completely dark.
I got a night’s sleep and headed back to Idaho the next morning without my goat.
Two weeks later, I answered my phone and heard Tom on the other end. He said “James, since you had to come up for your hunt a couple of days late, you didn’t have the full amount of time for your hunt. Goats are everywhere right now. Why don’t you come back up for the two days you missed?” I thought about it for less than a second and said I’d be there.
I got off work at five on Friday and drove all night, reaching the lodge at 5:30 a.m. After an hour of sleep and a quick breakfast, we headed out to find a goat. Corey and I drove up the drainage where we had hunted on my first day and instantly spotted goats. We made our way farther up the drainage and spotted yet another goat bedded on a cliff. A quick look through the spot- ting scope revealed it to be a good billy.
We grabbed our gear and headed up the same creek that we had hiked up a couple of weeks prior. Clearing the timber, we could see the goat still bedded on his ledge overlooking the glacier valley. Cover was now sparse, and we had to stoop and crawl up the steep face to close the distance to a shooting position. We crawled over to a tree that was growing horizontally out of the mountain side. I laid my rifle across it and ranged the still-bedded goat: 330 yards. It was definitely a makeable shot, but as I tried to hold steady on the goat, the wind was bouncing the tree around. It wouldn’t have been an ethical shot. We backed out and crawled up to a rock outcropping.
We were now at 300 yards and I was extremely confident I could make the shot. Corey took another look and again confirmed it was a billy. I concentrated on the cross hairs and squeezed the trigger. Making a rookie mistake, I forgot to compensate for the steep uphill angle and shot right over the goat’s back. The billy jumped to his feet, and I squeezed off a second shot. This one hit the goat hard through the shoulder. He turned around and I hit him again on the other front shoulder, finishing the job. He stumbled down off his perch and rolled behind some rocks and out of sight.
I kept the rifle trained on the area in case he reappeared, but he never did. We made our way up, and there lay a beautiful billy. Corey and I exchanged congratulatory handshakes and exclaimed over our turn of fate. On the first hunt we had hiked nearly ninety-five miles, fought dehydration, storms, and hardship over six days, and this time we had our goat down in 3 ½ hours.
We took pictures, dressed out the goat, and were back in the lodge by noon. I hung around the lodge the rest of the day, enjoying Tom’s and Corey’s company, got a good night’s sleep, and headed home happy that I hadn’t given up and thankful to Tom and Corey for not giving up, either. They finished their season with a 100 percent success rate on goats, including one lucky hunter who took a Boone and Crockett goat near the 45-kilometer marker. The good news for me was, after they shot that goat, an even bigger goat walked out. That means I might have to make another trip up to British Columbia for another goat hunt with Silent Mountain Outfitters.
The story originally appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Sports Afield. Reproduced with permission.
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