Miracle on the Mountain,By Nathan French

It all started at the early age of eleven. After immigrating to Canada from England, I was quickly introduced to the hunting lifestyle that beautiful British Columbia had to offer. Moving opposite a taxidermy shop, I quickly became intrigued by everything to do with hunting. My neighbor Ken’s shop is jam-packed with life-sized replicas of species from British Columbia and beyond. He has a museum devoted to all his successes from decades of hunting. I remember spending hours listening to hundreds of stories he had of past mountain adventures, and daydreaming while staring at all the mounts adorning his shop walls.

Ken is a seasoned and successful mountain hunter, and not that this is a numbers game, but his having personally killed 20 rams, 35 goats, and hundreds of other big game animals does speak volumes. I couldn’t be more blessed to have learned from such experience. I got hooked, and my first success came at age twelve by harvesting a large Shiras moose from a BC limited-entry draw. The years went on, and with every year that passed I continued to pursue my love for hunting; gaining as much experience as possible along the way.

Later, in my teen years, Ken suggested I look into apprenticing as a guide for an outfitter in the Yukon. Ken was a Yukon guide himself years ago, and was successful in guiding many monarch animals to clients from around the world. As it worked out, I was hired in the summer of 2010 to wrangle and learn as an apprentice guide. It was an experience like no other. That’s where my journey really took off, and every year since I’ve filled my months guiding and pursuing game around western and northern Canada.

Ken always mentioned why he quit guiding. His own personal hunting was his main priority, and with guiding season always in the way of his own sheep hunts, he gave it up to continue his own pursuits. A few years into it, I began to see this same reality and the opportunities I was missing. 2013 was the year to change the tide. Instead of taking a late-season sheep and moose guiding job, I went on a fly-in Stone sheep hunt and harvested my first ram on the second day! It was a feeling and experience that cannot be forgotten, and from there I made the personal commitment to always keep time open between guiding so I could hunt for myself.

In the spring of 2014, Ken and my friend Dawson and I were successful in drawing mountain goat tags for November. So, after my bustling guiding season covering New Zealand, Mexico, Vancouver Island, the Northwest Territories, BC, and Alberta wrapped up, I would finish out the year hunting late season goats. November 19th rolled around, and Ken and I decided to drive for a day hunt to look over the country and inspect weather conditions. By 3am we were on the road and driving in one of the worst snow storms I’ve ever witnessed. In the back of my head, I knew the mountains would likely be inaccessible and our hunt could be over before it even began.

Arriving at the Forest Service road that would take us back into the goat country, we were greeted by 24 inches of unplowed snow. Completely inaccessible! There was no way we would be able to continue. Before turning around and heading home, however, we stopped to chat with an equipment operator passing by. After a few questions, we heard the good news that he would be plowing the road as they would be logging in the back for the next few months. Our hunt was not finished yet! We drove back home, packed, and planned the next five days in the mountains to hunt the remainder of the season.

November 26th was another one of those lovely BC winter days. The clouds dumping snow, it took us hours to make it into our desired hunting location. We pulled into a layby and set up the camper and gear while trying not to get buried alive. The snow can get you into trouble real quick in this country, and before you step foot on the mountain, you had better be sure you have everything you’ll need for emergencies or overnight excursions.

Morning graced us with its presence. Climbing out of the camper, the truck was hard to find. With the snow still falling hard and the low fog settled in, we wouldn’t be hunting for a while, but instead digging ourselves out to stay ahead of the snow. It snowed 30 inches overnight and it wasn’t showing signs of letting up.

Afternoon finally broke, and it looked like the weather might do the same. We took advantage of some open weather and drove the road to a few glassing spots. In a short while, we spotted eleven different goats, and some with potential. It was too late in the day to make any type of stalk, so we put a group of goats to bed and called it a day for ourselves.

November can be a depressing month to hunt. With only around eight hours of daylight, it can really test your passion and drive to hunt. Who honestly wants to be frozen and uncomfortable for five days straight? It is truly mental toughness that I so strongly believe makes or breaks things on such a trip.

Morning finally woke us with clear blue skies. Up with intention, we jumped into the truck and began our glassing routine at the different spots along the road. Only hours into the day, we spotted three goats high on a bluff. Locking the Swarovski scope onto the goats, a great billy stood scanning from his pride rock. The goat was there; now the work began to get within distance.

Hunting late-season goats isn’t a place to make mistakes or take shortcuts—it’s some of the most dangerous hunting one can take on. With frozen ice, heavy snow, and thirty- to sixty-degree slopes, just one slip—one misstep—and you quickly find yourself in a death trap. Before ever going up after a goat, the planning is the most important step: scanning all the terrain, planning the route, but, more importantly, planning a safe exit. The question you must ask yourself is, “Where is the goat going to end up? How will I get there? Can I get there? What way will I come down?” EVERYTHING has to be planned for all possible scenarios.

After talking it over, Ken gave me the all clear. He knew this spot well. He had killed goats on this same cliff. The stalk began. When Dawson and I took two steps off the road, the realization of what this stalk would take became clear. Even wearing snowshoes, I still found myself waist-deep and moving ever-so-slowly. Do I stop before I even start? But I wasn’t quitting. This goat and I had a duel. Who would wear the crown and hold the title at the end of the day? I was absolutely hoping it would be me.

I quickly became humbled and aware of the conditions I was facing. Leading the way in chest-deep snow, swimming my way up the mountain, digging a path with my hands to take my next exhausted step; I’m not sure I have ever been so exhausted. Every step felt like an endurance challenge. Using every ounce of will and strength, I continued on. While crossing an open slide with the snowshoes off (as the pitch was too steep), the snow showed huge warning signs of instability. It would crack around me and shudder. Slabs would break and slough off. Having backcountry knowledge, and knowing that this was a serious and dangerous situation, I changed my attack and stayed clear of any more open slides or exposed areas. Clinging tight to the thick timber, I carried on, and the snow became more stable.

To fast-forward the story, it was four-and-a-half hours later when Dawson and I finally broke out of the timber, 125 yards below the cliff. Swimming for solid footing, I raised my binoculars to glass for signs of life. There in front of me, the billy stood, eyes beaming right at me.

Great.

Without hesitation, I raised the rifle to my shoulder—freehand—and with a jerk I pulled the trigger. Nothing. Oh right… Let me load the rifle first, and learn not to shoot like such an amateur.

With more composure, I leveled the rifle and squeezed off a round, hitting the billy perfectly broadside. He shrunk up and disappeared over the other side, out of view. Excited, I wanted to get up there right away. The day was getting on, and time was not something to be wasted. I found a new level of energy. My adrenaline was pumping, so I cautiously scaled the cliffs above me.

Summiting the cliff, I slowly scanned the area for an expired goat. Suddenly I jumped a nanny, and off she scurried. I paused and looked for any other goats following suit. You just never know with goats; they are one of the toughest animals in the mountains. They love to soak up good lead and continue on without any sign of injury.

I came to a heavily-timbered knoll where the goat had been standing when I shot. I slid onto my rear and slowly made my way down the slope. There! Movement behind a bush. There he was, ten yards to my left: my billy, head up, sitting like the world hadn’t fazed him. I reached for my gun on my shoulder, aimed straight through the brush, and squeezed. The goat shrugged and stood. I fired another round off, and this time he ran straight over the cliff. Kamikaze?

I sat there fist pumping, knowing I had just beaten the odds and harvested my first billy. Overwhelmed with exhaustion and what I had just put myself through, I sat and enjoyed the moment.

I scrambled back up the knoll to flat ground and met Dawson who had waited behind. After a few congratulations and sighs of relief, I reached into the bottom of my pack to dig out the walkie-talkie to radio down to Ken, who sat watching below.

“I got him Ken; I got him!”

Ken replied with words that to this day will remain in my mind. “Yeah, you got him—but the tree has him better!”

“WHAT?”

Little did I know, but when the goat kamikazed himself off the hundred-foot cliff, he only fell 6 feet before being hung upside down, then expired. His foot had wedged into a branch and he was left dangling. Great. My legs were shaking already from the sight of looking over the edge, and NOW I had to go back down the timbered knoll and try to free up the goat!

Leaving all I owned on the top, I slid back down to the edge and tied myself off to a tree. Looking over the edge, he was sure-enough upside down in a foot trap. With a couple kicks of the boot and a shake of the branch, I finally managed to set the goat free, falling down to the snowy slope below, where he rolled for a thousand feet before coming to a stop.

Taking our time and thinking about every step, Dawson and I made our way down to the goat. We came to a slide spot we assumed was the goat, so I sent Dawson down, to follow it and hopefully yell back the good news. In case it was the wrong slide, I stayed high, waiting in the event I had to continue the search. As it happened, the goat was still high, and I eventually found him. The area was not ideal, so with a couple grunts I began to drag him with me down the slope towards Dawson. The only advantage to goat hunting in the deep snow is that they can fall and tumble without the worry of breaking horns or incurring cuts to the face.

Coming to a bluff, I yelled down to Dawson. He said it was OK to send the goat over, as it would ride on a blanket of snow down the rugged bluffs. Not loving the feeling of kicking my trophy over a ledge, I decided I trusted Dawson’s judgement, and with a slight nudge, the goat began his slide and disappeared over the ledge with a large amount of snow in tow. Finally, with a thump, I heard him come to a stop and Dawson yelled the all-clear. I began to side-hill above the bluffs to get to the treeline. The snow was deep enough to hold a guy well, but with the earlier conditions of unstable snow I remained wary, carefully placing each step with caution.

This hike was just about to give me a humbling experience. You can be smart, you can be cautious, and take extra care, but sometimes, even with every precaution, the mountain still bites you. I think about this incident and know I had just stepped into a spot that was the wrong place at the wrong time, and any experience couldn’t have stopped the next following events. Crampons work great most of the time, but they are terrible on flat rock.

I stepped onto a flat sheet of rock, and with every muscle in my body I struggled to keep myself standing. With zero warning, my feet were jerked out from under me, the snow breaking loose on the icy rock. I slipped into a chute and began to pick up speed. Remember all that snow I struggled to climb up in? Well, unfortunately, that snow didn’t exist anymore. I had slipped into a chute that was too steep to hold snow, and I proceeded to slide on my rear on sheer rock and ice.

You know they always say things slow down when you have a near-death experience? I don’t remember slow motion, but I do remember every single detail and my mind being able to process every little piece of information during the ensuing few seconds.

I remember sliding and thinking: Don’t put your feet down! While sliding down on my rear, braced by my forearms and elbows, my worry was that digging in my crampons would send me into a cartwheel motion and end any semblance of control that I may have had.

My speed increased, and the realization of my life flashing before my eyes became reality. I became airborne and launched off a ten foot cliff. Flying through the air, I braced myself again for the unknown of what was below me. Most likely a hard landing, and hard it was. I somehow managed to stay on my backside, and I must have hit my top speed at that point, sliding way out of control and still pointing straight down the huge ice chute. I launched off another drop, this one the same height as the last. Each landing was further crippling me, and I continued to slide with no signs of stopping. I remember vivid images in this whole ordeal. One was my left crampon that snagged on a rock, and with a sudden movement I remember my crampon shooting off my foot and launching into the air.

The next moment remains so vivid in my mind that I will remember it for the rest of my life. I approached a ledge, out of control and unable to slow anything. A rock sat propped at the edge, and the image was so real and clear it didn’t make sense to me. This rock was so square and so flat, it looked so out of place. Like a river had made it strangely smooth and uniform. How could it belong in such a rugged area? It was leaning to one side like a bike ramp, and with force and speed I hit it just like that.

“Crashing the gate doing 98,” I was sent soaring into the air and off to the right. The airtime felt way too long, and all my thoughts and worries were somehow able to pass through my mind in this few-second window.

With a crash, I penciled head-first into a snowbank. My teeth smashed down on my tongue, and any other source of pain quickly vanished, becoming wrapped up in the throbbing sensation in my mouth. I pushed myself out and looked up. The sheer reality hit me of what I had just come through. I saw Dawson up high and to the left, and the first words that came out of my mouth were, “I’m sorry.”

I don’t know why, but that’s all I could think to say. In retrospect, I suppose I could say this was the day I became a true Canadian—apologizing to someone else for hurting myself.

The cliff stood tall before me, and I couldn’t believe I had just been launched a good 30 yards from the edge. But with a quick reality check, I saw what I had escaped. To my right, a chute of rugged rock fell low and long below me. I looked up and realized that all that would have had to happen was me missing that rock, just a little to the left, and my time on this Earth would have quickly come to an end.

It hit me in the stomach like a punch. I sat down and tried to compose myself.

I closed my eyes and thanked the Lord for saving me. There was no doubt in my mind that an angel was with me. I looked up, thinking of that rock that seemed so out of place. But with the angle I was looking from, it was too hard to make out.

I struggled up to Dawson and my goat. On the way I stumbled across my crampon that had been ripped off moments earlier. It was perfectly intact and it was still tied up and locked in place like it would be around my ankle. The three-point harness strap was untouched, unbroken and wrapped like my ankle should have never come out of it. How?

I made it up to Dawson and shook his hand and thanked him. He had heard me shout and instantly knew I had slipped. He had felt helpless as he knew there was no way to stop and grab me or catch me. He recounted that I had kept silent, but he heard the movement rushing down over the bluffs. To see me face plant and push myself up had surprised him with relief! He thought I was gone.

With a couple sighs of relief, we saw we still had work to do. My body tightening up, my tailbone and ankle began to feel pain, and the job ahead was daunting. I pointed out to Dawson that the goat wasn’t going to skin itself and we had better make quick work of it and get off this mountain.

With the packs loaded heavy, we began our descent in the dark. We were unable to follow our tracks back down, as this search for the goat and the tumble had pushed us way off to the other side of the slope.

Remember my sermon about knowing the mountain before you went up? Well I guess I was preaching to myself at this point. No one could have planned for an event like this, but now I had to deal with this and take it as it came.

We carefully proceeded, scanning for safe routes. A few hours into the pack-out, we hit a ledge. It was a vertical cliff with no way down. I sat down and shut my headlamp off. I don’t remember how long I zoned out for, but a nudge from Dawson and a couple shouts of my name snapped me out without any lasting effects.

With the push of a button, I turned my headlamp back on and side-hilled my way to the left. I managed to find a way down far to the left, and it trickled us down into a large opening, several hundred yards from the truck. I could see the light of Ken’s headlamp and knew we were almost there. My legs exhausted, I couldn’t wait to hit solid ground and get that pack off my back. It felt like an eternity. The truck light wasn’t getting closer, and the snow was getting deeper.

Finally, the arrival and the welcome from Ken. I threw my pack to the ground, and relief filled my body. We relived the events that had just happened, and Ken, with no shock evident on his face, just nodded and said, “Goat mountains are scary stuff.” He shared a similar story where he slid down a slope not thinking he would stop, but managed to grasp onto branches before the edge of a bluff. Ken has never been one to show too much emotion. He’s like a father to me and I know this event shocked him, but his calm, collected countenance mellowed me.

Lying down that evening back in the camper, my body began to realize the pain it was in. The next morning I woke early, in anguish. My tailbone was tormenting me, and I could hardly stand or sit. My ankle was swollen, and I cringed and didn’t want to move. The weather had moved back in, so there wasn’t much we could do. We spent the day crammed into the camper waiting for the snow to let up.

November 30th came about; the last day of the season.

The plan was to drive home. My body was in bad shape but my spirit was cheerful. I pointed out that we may as well look for a goat for Ken. The deal between the two of us was that we needed to find a goat before 11:30 in the morning. These mountains are big, and no one wants to be coming down in the dark or staying the night up there. So I pushed him into just driving the roads, glassing for an easy goat. Is there such a thing?

He chuckled at my decision and told me I was crazy. Every bump and turn surged me into a whirlwind of pain. I could hardly sit, and had to rig up a homemade donut ring to try and bring what little comfort I could find. Within minutes we pulled over and glassed a low bluff that, in Ken’s past experience, congregates goats.

500 yards on a bluff above, stood eight goats. One HUGE billy. Directing Ken, I said, “You have to shoot this billy. It’ll roll down to the truck!” It was the perfect plan, we thought.

One precision shot, and the goat stood motionless. Again. Another, and another. The billy just stood there, soaking up the lead! It finally walked a little and stood right behind a tree, enabling yet another shot. Minutes passed, and he finally gave Ken another shot. Again, a fatal blow, and yet the billy decided to walk up and bed down on a 14-inch ledge. Ken again shot into its hind quarter to try make him jump and roll. NOTHING. And suddenly, with that, the goat expired. 500 yards away, on a narrow ledge. It had to happen this way.

Long story short, gritting my teeth, limping from a swollen ankle and a tailbone in other-worldly pain, we scrambled up to the narrow ledge over the next two hours. Ken insisted I stay at the truck, but how can you leave a hunting buddy to do all this work on his own? We got the job done and made our way back. Two big billies down, and one lasting memory that will stay with me forever.

A doctor’s appointment and x-ray revealed three days later I had suffered a broken tail bone and a dislocated left ankle. How I managed to hike on the mountain I’ll never know. The results on my ankle astonished me. The force it must have taken to cleanly remove my foot from the crampon without the strap and buckles being untied…

Sometimes adrenaline and a little fun can hide pain and injuries. To this day I still have lasting effects on those areas of my body. Those aches are my memories from that day and my reminders of how fortunate I was to walk away.

It will always be in the back of my head. A rock that appeared so out of place, so unnatural in its environment, yet so crucial at that exact time. One day I’ll have to revisit that slope and see if the rock remains, or if it truly was an act of God in that very moment. Either way, I will always know I was saved on that mountain, and it will always be my personal “miracle on the mountain.”

 


 

Posted by JOMH Editor