It started out like any other day. Looking forward to more good weather, hopefully having another stalk or at least seeing more goats. But just like any day hunting, nothing ever goes as planned and sometimes things can go haywire quickly. It was to be that kind of day.
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We hiked up a snow chute on the other side of the canyon to an area we had always looked at, but never hunted. It was steep, and the back side was shear for thousands of feet - in other words, goat heaven. The tough climb was easier because of the shape we were in, Bobby would hunt with us till noon then start his long trek back to Camp 1 for more supplies of food and clothing. While sneaking around the giant boulder fields on top of this high peak, Bobby quickly came over and made the signal that he had spotted a goat - and it was close.
The three of us headed over to a ledge and carefully peeked out between some dwarfed spruce trees. There laid the largest billy I had ever seen, facing us in the middle of a snow bank 100 yards away. While the biting flies buzzed around our heads, we softly discussed the wind and a possible approach. Unless the billy moved from his resting position, it was useless to attempt a stalk. He was facing us in the open, 30 yards from cover which is out of my range. But because of the incessant bugs, he didn't last long in his comfortable snow bed and walked back around towards the cliffs. I made my move.
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Working downhill and out of site, I dropped elevation until I hit a hardened snow slide at its narrowest part - 15 feet wide. It was very steep and I knew that if I fell, it would be a long luege ride down into a rocky basin at the bottom. So to say I was careful is an understatement. To provide some assurance that I would not slip on the steep snow, I jammed the bottom limb of my trusty recurve bow into the snow, like a ski pole while I carefully lifted one foot and kicked the logging spikes into the slushy top few inches of the snow. With a sigh of relief at the opposite side, I moved quickly in the mountain heather to the top of the peak behind our big billy.
Once reaching the top, I carelessly popped up without first checking the whereabouts of the goat. He had moved and was now sitting on another snow patch in plain view of me and he nailed me instantly. I froze, hoping to fool him into thinking he was hallucinating. But this goat was too old and smart for that. A insect must have chomped down on his ear at that point because he jerked to itch it and I dropped to my belly and slid out of sight.
Knowing that the billy would not head my way I moved down slope again to cross yet another more flattened snow field. But when I reached it, the billy was standing just down from the hill I was just on. Damn! He picked his way along the rocks while I scurried back across. He seemed relatively calm yet cautious. It was at this time that I got a good look at him and figured he'd be around 11" with decent bases. As I climbed back across the peak, I spotted the outline of the goat's fur on the other side of a rock. He was just 15 yards away. Knowing that my metal spiked logging boots would click and grind on the rocks, I dropped to my butt and took off my boots. I was now in sock mode and loving it.
Walking in socks, like a cat across the rocks, I eased a cedar arrow out of my recurve and moved in for what would be a cinch shot. But as my heart raced and I approached the rock, there was nothing. After searching around, I found some tracks in the snow and put my boots back on to follow them. They led down into 'The Plains' but still I could not find the goat. I looked for nearly 40 minutes and nothing. Then I spotted him, way down at the bottom of the plains a half mile away. I thought about the area and analyzed the route - no problem. I literally ran down the slope out of view and quickly closed the distance to within 30 yards. I took off my binocs, nocked an arrow, and began my final approach. At 15 yards away from the feeding goat it was time. I lifted up pulled back, shot - and missed clear over his back. The goat ran down a gully and over a cliff edge. I followed to see where he was going but did not see anything but a lone goat trail which was the only safe route down from these shear cliffs to the gorge, 500' below. I followed the goat trail to the bottom hoping to spot the goat but he was gone. It was now several hours after I had left Johnnie and it was time to go back.
I climbed up the gorge until I was about 100 yards from the top. The goat trail forked and since I had not noticed any trails coming from the left, I took the right fork and continued climbing. The fork led to a rock shelf which had an acceptable grade - so I climbed onto the shelf and began working my way to the trees above. I soon realized that this was not the same route but it was still workable and the trees were just up ahead. I saw two good footholds which took a longer than normal stride to reach. No problem. This wrapped me out to a steep ledge and then I looked down...to the 500' gorge below the little ledge I was standing on. It was time to back off - I was in trouble. But there was a problem with backing off - there was nothing to back off to. My last couple steps were ok to climb up, but I could not see the footholds to reverse the direction, and one slip (giving my lack of adequate handholds) would drop me to the bottom of the gorge and my death. I froze.
This was my third goat hunt and each one had the obvious dangers involved, but I had never had to wonder if I would see my two young sons, Patrick and Matthew or the third child my wife was carrying. Thankfully, my early years of technical rock climbing gave me the confidence that I could continue on and upwards - as long as I did not panic and never looked down. I carefully secured my one handhold before placing each foot then lifted up a bit higher. My other hand still clutched my bow. It was reminiscent of my younger days, rock climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. To a rock climber with ropes, this cliff would rate about a 5.5. This time there was no belayer, no ropes and no excitement. As I reached the top of the cliff and the trees, I felt more comfortable. The trees required me pulling myself up into them and that meant needing both hands. I looked down at my bow in my right hand, a bow that my dad and I had made in his basement nearly 10 years ago for our African Safari honeymoon, a bow that had been in 3 continents and had been my sole hunting partner for over 40 big game kills. I then said to my bow - "you just stay put." I ever-so-gently laid the bow on an angled rock and carefully let go of it. It it moved, I would grab it and try another gentle placement. It stuck.
I watched the bow for a few moments until I was convinced that it was secure, then I grabbed a second tree branch above to pull myself up and out of this ridiculously stupid predicament. It worked, I was now safely on the precipice in the trees and thanking God for giving me the strength and good senses to keep my head. I then reached down to grab my bow...
...As it started sliding.
All I could do was watch, to lunge for it would be suicide. As if in slow motion, the bow grinded softly along the angle rock before disappearing over the edge. Two distance clanks were heard - then only the raging waters, 500 feet below. I knew my bow was gone for good.
I was physically and mentally exhausted - it had been hours since I had left Johnnie and Bobby above. As I climbed out the gorge, Johnnie was there to find out if I was ok. I told him the story. He gave me a look. I deserved the look - and then some.
He felt bad about the bow - and so did I. But it could have been much worse - in some ways, the goat gods smiled upon me that day and I can think of no better resting place for my old companion than in those spectacular mountains. The hunt would go on - I always bring a backup bow!