All Photos Credit: Coley Gentzel
It has taken me a while to wrap my mind around what drew me to mountain hunting and what continues to bring me back. I may not ever fully understand this love, but I believe I am getting closer to some level of comprehension. Like most others, I have gone through numerous phases in life. Pursuits picked up and dropped, places, things, and people that played significant roles for a time and then faded as time and space eventually sent us on diverging paths. New places, things, and people always moved into the spotlight to fill what voids were left. As callous and uncaring as that may sound, that was and is the reality of a life on the road. Through this progression, if my journey can be called that, two things have always remained — mountains and rivers.
In pondering why these “things” have held such traction in my life when so many others have not, it soon becomes clear that referring to these pillars of my life as “things” hardly captures the complexity of something like a mountain, let alone the potential for life-changing experiences that the great ranges of the world possess. And yet without the meaning we assign to them, without us engaging them, they are but bumps on a landscape, just another thing.
For most mountain enthusiasts, be they hunters, climbers, or in many cases some combination thereof, the pursuit of mountain-based experiences more closely resembles a passion than a hobby. A lifestyle choice if you will. I am often at a loss to interpret this deep connection for myself, let alone explain it to others. Some have tried and even done well. Leading up to his attempt to be the first to stand on top of Everest, someone asked George Mallory why he wanted to climb the peak, to which he replied: “Because it is there.”
Mallory’s words have become almost a symbol of both the absurdity and profundity of such endeavors. For me, the search for adventure in the mountains stems from the same unexplainable desire. How do you put yourself into words? What does a feeling look like on paper? Why is challenging yourself physically and mentally so important, and why don’t other pursuits generate the same level of satisfaction and the same sense of accomplishment? And so it is for me with mountains, rivers, and the wild creatures that call these places home.
Mountain, perhaps, is just a name for something that none of us can truly define, capture, or put into words. Sure we can describe components, features, and speak generally in terms that most can understand. Ridges, valleys, cliffs, summits, and slopes. Buttresses, massifs, faces, and gendarmes. However, much like their inhabitants, none are truly alike and each contains something new. You will never climb the same mountain twice for when you return, neither you nor the mountain will be the same. When I try to quantify or categorize the moments and the experiences I have had in the mountains, I am often struck dumb and left feeling inadequate. Perhaps the reason I have clung tightly to mountains and rivers and why they feel so closely linked is that, in many ways, they are one. One wouldn’t exist without the other. Without terrain to capture and propel the water, rivers — at least as we know them — wouldn’t exist. Without water to carve, erode, shape, and transform the Earth, mountains would have no form.
I still haven’t found an answer that feels quite right when someone asks me, “why do you hunt,” as if hunting is all there is to it. If I had to answer the question right now, I would surely stumble through some loosely constructed thoughts about providing for my family, spending time outside, the quality of free-range organic protein, etc. While altogether true, the real answer is much deeper, and hard to put my finger on. It is within me, and I believe it is within all of us. It is both a feeling and a need. It’s part of who we are and how we got to this place in time and history.
Separate from primeval instincts, another reason I think many of us are compelled to spend time in these wild places is that we are searching for something beautiful. An experience, a challenge, a reward, or quite simply to observe the natural beauty around us.
The harvest is profoundly important to me and is certainly how I justify taking the life of something beautiful, but what drives me, compels me, keeps me awake and night, and keeps me dreaming of the next adventure isn’t the groceries. There are certainly easier, cheaper, and safer ways to put protein on the table if that is all you are after. No, what my thoughts continually center around is the richness of the challenge that mountain hunting offers. The deep experiences and friendships shared, the lessons that only true suffering and hardship can teach, and the reward that can only be felt when you’ve poured yourself into something completely and succeeded. On the flip side of success, I have learned more about what it means to be human from my failures in the mountains than I could have in any other arena or classroom. Individually these things are, to me, beautiful. Combined, they are that and much more.
My mind came back to this topic — why mountains — this fall on a late-season goat hunt on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. If I am being honest, and I usually try to be, I was feeling a little sorry for myself leading into the hunt. A few months prior I put all of my mental and physical resources into a sheep hunt that, despite being one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, ended on what continues to feel like a failure. My best wasn’t good enough. Failure has never sat well with me though it is a familiar companion. I have tried to use these failures as fuel to learn, grow, improve, and try harder, but now and then I can’t help but pout.
Regrouping from a missed opportunity with an itch for adventure and fulfillment that was still unscratched, I shouldered a pack and headed into the mountains in the company of some very special people and we were fortunate to share some very memorable experiences. Wild creatures, friendship, physical and mental challenges, and nature on glorious display. In other words, we found something beautiful.
Beauty takes many forms and truly it is in the eye — and hopefully the heart — of the beholder. Sometimes it is the place, sometimes it is the people, sometimes it is finding “the thing” that you have convinced yourself is the end goal or object of your desire. More often than not though, what we are truly after is the completeness that the combination of these things has to offer if we pause long enough to let it all sink in.
Take the time to find the beauty around you, and inside you, and may we all find what we are looking for in the mountains… and in life.