F&S Classics: The Guide Was a Dude
On the first mountain goat hunt any of them had tried, the host had the permit, and the guests knew just where the goats were
The clatter of rocks snapped my attention to a ledge directly above me. A trapped and panic-stricken white ghost cast its head back and forth searching for an escape. Finally it flung itself against the sheer rock wall, and in a semicrouch literally scrambled on “hands and knees” across the face. An overhanging shelf forced it to pass a short distance from where John and Paul were waiting for me to return with some snowmelt water for lunchtime coffee.
I tried to flip the safety off the coffeepot, then dropped it and reached for the .06 slung across my back. By that time, it was obvious my efforts would be in vain. And although this had to be a nice goat, my vantage point didn’t reveal enough of the head to make any decisions. After watching it disappear, I hustled back to the others and found them quivering: “Man, he looked like a nice one! We both had the slack out. Where were you?”
“Where’d he go?” was my response. They waved toward an impossible expanse of overhanging stone and ice, and I relaxed. No chance!
Mostly out of curiosity, we clawed our way to the top of a scrub-timber slope that separated the rock face above us from a similar cliff below. There seemed absolutely no way that a wingless creature could have negotiated the route that goat had just covered at an all-out clip. If the other two hadn’t seen it, I’d have diagnosed my condition as a severe case of the oxygen-deficit dings, and returned to camp, 2,000 feet below, where the horses and any other sensible creatures in the area were at the upper limit of their capabilities.
“How come we didn’t spot him two miles away, and stalk him like they do in the magazines?” asked John.
“Yeah, and being as how you’re packing the permit, why weren’t you ready for action?” chimed in Paul.
To be honest, jump-shooting for any of these mountain animals was out of my range of experience, and certainly mountain goat would be the last species I would have thought could be effectively hunted that way. But this country seemed to defy spotting, and with sign everywhere, unless this sighting was a freak, jump-shooting would be the order of the day. And this would really confuse our game plan.
Our pot of coffee finally on the fire, we leaned back against a gnarled log and let the noontime sun cut the crisp September air, warming the bone marrow that had been so thoroughly chilled by a three-day Montana high country storm. I reviewed the unlikely series of events that had brought us together on this pleasant, lofty perch.
I had met these brothers the year before. I had been guiding another party hunting elk, when they literally blew into camp in front of a raging storm. John and Paul had been in the high country looking for bighorn, but the weather put an end to all that foolishness in a hurry. Turning their attention to elk, they downed the biggest old seven-point moss-horn bull I’ve ever seen taken out of the Absaroka, as we all filled out our hunters under ideal elk-hunting conditions.
Then last spring John called: “Paul and I want to go back into that high country this autumn, but our last year’s guide isn’t available. We saw goat on our one good day last fall, and if we can get a permit, we’ll make goat our prime quarry. If not, we’ll look for a ram. Would you take us out?”
I said I had no experience hunting goat and sheep, even though I had been among them in the Beartooth when I had worked for the Forest Service. I also admitted that I had little experience in the area they wanted to hunt.
“No sweat,” insisted John. “We got a real good feel for the country last year, and have marked down the locations where we saw game. You just get us back there and help out, and we’ll be well satisfied.”
So that’s the way it was arranged. The only hooker in the deal was that they talked me into applying for a goat, too, in order to increase the odds of getting a permit. And to make a long story short, of course I got my permit, and they got their money back.
Thank heaven for understanding hunters. They were game for a cooperative hunt. They didn’t have to prove they could shoot, since they had done that on elk and muleys last fall. They just wanted to be in on a goat hunt. And this would be much different from a hunt where the guide goes out and finds the game, as they were going to take me to the animals they had spotted the year before. Quite a switch!
Traditionally, one of the most difficult aspects of goat hunting is getting to goat country. From the very start, this hunt proved to be no exception. My hunters’ plane touched down just ahead of a black-faced autumn front racing out of the Pacific Northwest. Crossing Bozeman Pass, my outfit was pushing several inches of new snow. It was still spitting snow when we bedded down at home, and I slept fitfully, worrying about the ponies and the packing job the next morning. Wet backs and frozen ropes are my second choice.
When I woke, skies had partially cleared, and I went about my predawn chores by moonlight, assured that this had been a typical autumn squall, and that ten days of Indian summer lay ahead of us. But by the time we had mounted up and the pack mules had sighed their last soulful groans to convince me their modest loads were more than they could tolerate, the squeak of new snow against cold steel as the pack string moved out made me suspect that the cold weather was going to hold for awhile.
In order to reach the Absaroka Primitive Area without passing through Yellowstone Park (where firearms are not allowed), we would have to cross two timberline divides. As we hit the top of the first, the storm was kicking up again. Pelting snow stung the backs of our necks and drove the ponies’ tails between their legs. Glancing back at our sorry party, I felt a deep kinship with the Indian in the famous painting “End of the Trail.” Soon we dropped off into the Crevice drainage, and the snow set in again in earnest.
At the creek crossing, we stopped for lunch, and I brushed a good 15 pounds of snow off each of the packs. Now that the mules really had something to moan about, they were too humped up to care. I’d have commiserated with them, but I was saving all my sympathy for myself. I considered setting up camp and hunting the ridges in the Crevice country until the weather cleared, but the grass had all been fed off by a party before us, and there was a certain allure to the knowledge that a warm, snug base camp awaited us ten miles over the next divide.
The elk camp was socked in with about 8 inches of snow, but the sound of horse bells and the hiss of the gas lanterns that wreathed the big wall tent with a golden glow sounded more heavenly than a choir of angels. We unburdened the horses and turned them out to pasture, grabbed a bowl of stew, and rolled into the sack with little thought of the morrow.
The area where I wanted to set up our goat camp was 2,000 feet higher, near the upper limit of good horse feed. It is periodically fed off by domestic sheep, so I was seriously worried when I woke to find that 2 more inches of snow had accumulated. My little radio crackled out the information that the storm was expected to hold for several more days. Elk season was not open yet, and there were no goats to hunt near elk camp, so we decided to ride on up to the spike camp without the pack string.
Surprisingly, the high country carried less snow than elk camp, but we were fortunate to have made this scouting trip, as a serious summer storm had plugged the upper trails with deadfalls, and we spent much of the day chopping out the route and locating detours around the more impossible tangles. In some spots, the roots of windfalls had literally torn the trail off the side of the mountain.
We returned to elk camp tired, but with the confidence of a good trail and plenty of horse feed. The following morning we packed up our spike camp in improving weather, and by nightfall our new base of operations had been installed alongside a crystal creek at the base of a small hillside meadow. The swirling clouds parted briefly after I checked the picket ropes for the last time, revealing a stark moonbathed panorama of the endless cliffs and side canyons that rose directly from our campsite. Here the horses would have to wait. This was the end of the trail.
My alarm cut the chill morning air like a scalpel. Shivering inside my down bag, I knew the temperature had to be hovering around zero, but this also assured me that the weather had cleared. I inwardly congratulated myself on the foresight of having piled tinder and kindling between my head and the tent stove, so that all I had to do was reach out, shove the makings into the stove, tip the damper open with a long stick, and toss in a match. Within minutes, the tent was toasty-warm, and hotcakes were sizzling on the griddle.
We anchored the horses for the day, to prevent a wreck in our absence, and attacked the mountain across the creek from camp. By the time we had struggled through the gigantic spruce deadfalls along the stream, the sun had risen and was wilting Old Man Winter’s first efforts. On the south-facing slopes we were climbing, the snow melted on the surface of the rocks, only to trickle down and form monstrous icicles in the sub-freezing temperatures beneath overhangs. Then, as we climbed higher and the air temperature rose, these icicles started to fall, breaking on the walls of the cliffs in tinkling melody.
We were on a sort of oxygen-deficit “high,” our senses dulled by the unaccustomed warmth of the sun and mesmerized by nature’s wind-bells, when suddenly we were face-to-face with that panic-stricken billy. He made good his escape, and we dragged ourselves out of the dream world and started seriously discussing the business at hand over our pot of coffee.
We sprawled out in the sun on a shelf in the rock wall, three-fourths of the way up one of the endless buttresses that separated the valley floor from the alpine plateaus. Locating ourselves on Paul’s USGS topog map, we noted that our spot lay directly under some old pencil smudges that spelled “Goat!”
One of the beauties of goat hunting is that these animals occupy the same country year-round. They move no farther than from the wind-swept plateaus to the upper edges of the timber on a given mountain, never drifting too far from the green-hued, moist moss- and lichen-encrusted cliffs that, because of their steepness and exposure to the blast of the winter winds, are never snow covered. These unlikely havens are the dinner plate of the goats in the most extreme weather, and provide the clue to prime goat range.
John and Paul had spotted several groups of goats from the opposite side of the valley on their one good day last year, and had carefully marked their location on the map. With any other biggame species, considering migratory habits and the extensive ranges involved, I would have considered this information as just another lead, but with goats I had felt the area deserved serious consideration. And we had just proved this theory correct. Our only problem now was to adjust to the type of hunting we had encountered.
The timbered shelf we had been following made a sharp bend around the point of the ridge where we had just jumped the goat, and steepened into a north-facing, snow-covered scree slope. Footing was mean, and we progressed slowly, working toward some promising pockets of scrub timber. As John and I picked our way ahead, Paul followed leisurely, glassing the more distant slopes. At one of our frequent “breath stops,” Paul ambled up and suggested we inspect a small cave in the center of a near-vertical rock wall, almost a mile away across a major side canyon.
I had assumed that goats would be very difficult to spot at a distance, what with the mountains encased in a sheath of fresh, glistening snow. And at such a range, even with Paul’s 10X glasses, I figured he had to be dreaming. After much gesticulating, pointing, and discussion, John and I settled on the spot Paul was talking about. It looked like the impression of a giant thumbnail geuged into the stone wall before it had cooled eons ago. And through the glasses there was a distinct white dot beneath the overhang, where snow shouldn’t have been. But I would sure have had to stretch my imagination to call it a goat.
Then we remembered the 40X spotting scope that had been banging against John’s leg all morning, and put it to work.
There, in all its glory, luxuriating in the reflected rays of the afternoon sun, we saw a magnificent animal. He was resting atop a mound of rubble in the exact center of the cave. The glint of jet-black horns, transmitted through a mile of space, set three hearts pounding in unison.
At this stage of the game, the rule book states that you sit down and plan a stalk, calculated to afford you a shot in the last flicker of daylight, after which you bivouac all night with your trophy on the face of the mountain, and return in triumph to your worried comrades the following morning. The three of us went through the same thought process in unison. It took us all of thirty seconds to survey the 1,000 vertical feet of slab rock above and below our prize, and come up with a unanimous decision: “No way!” If that old billy wanted itself immortalized on the wall of some well-appointed den, it would have to change its home range.
However, this sighting quickened our pulses and circulated the oxygen and adrenalin that we needed to press on. Then it happened: A baseball-sized rock rolled under my heel and I fell on my back in a glissade down a slope that suddenly was composed of a million ball bearings. Immediately I became aware of the fact that this slope terminated in a cliff a hundred feet or so below me. A basic mountaineering principle flashed through my mind, and I rolled onto my stomach and started digging in with toes and fingers. This braked me to a stop as a shower of pebbles swept on by and over the cliff. The last of them were still rattling into the bottom of the canyon by the time the three of us had decided that it would be foolhardy to continue on our present route under the existing moisture conditions. There was no way up or down, so we had to backtrack.
Easing along our backtrail, we were approaching the point of the ridge where we had lunched. As we picked our way around the head of a steep side canyon, John caught my attention and pointed upward. There, straight from the most classic of wildlife scenarios, atop the highest pinnacle on our ridge, stood a mature goat. Apparently unimpressed by its mountaineering achievement, and equally unconcerned about how it was going to get back down, it surveyed its world.
As well as I could estimate distance straight up, I judged the range to be 350 yards. An offhand shot would have been the only choice. On the off chance of a score, if the animal folded up in place it would have been nothing but eagle feed; and should it have fallen in any direction from his perch, it would have been hamburger. So again we decided to pass, but were buoyed by the fact that there appeared to be lots of goats, and we still had plenty of hunting time left. My only regrets were that none of us had a telephoto lens, because that had to be one of the greatest wildlife poses ever presented to a hunter.
It was nearly dark when we struggled back into camp and were greeted by the indescribable cacaphony that only a band of lonesome (and hungry) mules can produce..
On the second day we ranged out on horseback, exploring some of the more accessible high country. Our experience the day before had convinced us that there were plenty of goats, and we readily agreed that the ponies, more than we, needed a day’s exercise. The country was spectacular, the ride exciting, but we saw no new sign.
Next morning my hunters were in a more serious mood. They were ready to do battle with an old billy, so again we attacked the mountain that loomed directly above camp. We were sure that the two previous autumn days had eliminated the snow problem on the scree slope, so we retraced our route of the first day, and by midmorning were resting at the point of the ridge where we had jumped our first goat.
I was lazily studying a gigantic cricket that appeared to have hatched from a snowdrift, when suddenly a flurry of activity resharpened my senses. John was on his feet, moving and motioning for me to follow. In the scrub timber, only 40 yards from where we had been resting, he pointed out a distinct track. It was obvious that the goat had come up from the cliff below, seen us, and hightailed it out on its back trail.
“I didn’t get a good look at him,” John explained. “I just saw the flash of white as he turned.” John and Paul each made a big swing in opposite directions to the lip of the cliff below us, as I slowly followed on top of the tracks. But they dead-ended in the trackless rimrock, and none of us caught another glimpse of the animal. Once again, we were “jump-shooting.”
When we got back together, we held a council of war and decided that despite the goat population in the immediate area, we’d have to change localities in order to get a shot. Boxed in by cliffs as we were, we had no room to maneuver, and the goats had all the advantage.
We checked our scree slope and found it dry enough to cross. A half mile away, the steep gravel slope which served as our “trail” between the parallel cliffs leveled out into a broad, fairly level timbered bench. The terrain offered no alternatives, so the bench became our destination.
It was well past noon when we struggled onto the level ground. Though our leg muscles were cramping, and the uphill edges of our feet had calloused into permanent cups, we passed a silent vow that we wouldn’t relax until we had thoroughly investigated the new area. The bench was actually the nose of a ridge that extended out between two large side canyons. The tinkle of water spraying down the canyons from the plateau above, and the moan of a stiff breeze through the contorted limber pines, both served to cover our approach.
We drifted down the point of the ridge, sitting and glassing every hundred yards or so. I was scanning the walls across the canyon when Paul laid his hand on my shoulder. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a nice billy stroll out of the timber! A drift of noise or scent must have wakened him from his siesta, and the terrain, our direction of travel, and his native instinct to work upward when in trouble, all combined to bring him out on the edge of the cliff just below us. We were sitting still as mice, our outline broken by a tortured pine, and it was obvious he hadn’t spotted us as he continued his sneak along the rim.
Now he was out in the open and fully committed. He was pinned against the brink of the cliff 80 yards away, with an open field of fire for 200 yards in either direction. The brilliant white of his fur actually contrasted with the patches of old snow, indicating that he had just changed clothes and was now in full winter coat. Baggy pants, a heavy dewlap, and bristling beard confirmed that he was indeed a mature billy. And the needle-tipped horns were unexpectedly impressive for the ebony sheen they radiated.
“A fine trophy!” I thought, glancing at John.
A wink signalled his approval.
A curt nod from Paul set the stage, and I leveled my .30/06 at the shaggy chest.
A solid “whump” following the crack of my rifle said that the bullet had driven home, since there was nothing but miles of space beyond the goat. He stopped at the very edge of the cliff, but nothing else happened. A million thoughts raced through my mind: about how difficult goats are supposed to be to drop, about that yawning abyss behind him.
I shifted my aim to the neck, and a second shot crumpled him in place.
Now, my family lives in a crackerbox adorned with a surplus of skulls and hides, so I allowed, “If you guys want the trophy, I’ll be glad to settle for some good pictures.” Dropping their packs and unsheathing knives, John and Paul readily agreed and went to work pelting him out as I gave my camera a good workout.
We were impressed by the absolute purity of the hair, and the utter lack of odor from either hide or meat. This was the cleanest animal I had ever worked on. Of course, he was not yet into the rut, but it was still a far cry from the classic concept of goat.
The toughest part of the descent was that the boulders kept pulling loose from their matrix, each time threatening to pack us with them to the bottom of the canyon. Every step resulted in a hail of rock, so we climbed one at a time, and took shelter under overhangs whenever another of us was moving. But a half-hour later we reached the bottom, none the worse for wear beyond a few bruised knees and fingertips.
From that point on, the return to camp was just a matter of dropping another thousand feet over miserable deadfall tangles that had been caused by an unusually rank avalanche season the winter before.
We had a good camp, and made the most of it for the next several days. One evening we sat down to a meal of goat chops (delicious, incidentally; the only objection seemed to be that they tasted somewhat bland) and started counting off the days on our fingers. To our surprise, we were a day behind schedule, and realized we’d be looking down the back trail on the morrow.
Over swaying packs, as the string headed down country, we all agreed that we had attained the ultimate success in a back country trip: In losing track of time and schedules, we had reclaimed a little of the primitive contentment that early man must have known.