Mountain Solitaire, By Alexander Pirouz-Schlutter

The comfort of my warm sleeping bag made it difficult to rise, but I had to take a leak. The temperature had dropped and there was a layer of frost coating the top of the bag. I crawled out under my bivy tarp and stepped into the night, struck by the magical mountain scene before me. The full moon was shining over an ocean of clouds. Mountain peaks emerging through the gleaming white clouds like hundreds of little islands. To the west lay the peaks of the desolate Fjordland and to the far north, I could see a few white glaciated peaks of the Southern Alps, glowing in the moonlight. It was the first time in 36hours that I could see the world surrounding me, further than 20m away, had been caught in a rainstorm and thick clouds. 

Two days earlier I had parked up my car at the end of a backroad, thrown a pack over with some camping gear and grub for a few days, and headed out for an adventure. The initial plan was to explore an area of the Department of Conservation land, that I had surveyed only briefly on maps. The spirit of exploration made the outlook of the hunt even more exciting. I was hoping to find a pre-rut stag or a chamois buck. 

After a few kilometres through a wide and open riverbed and a few river crossings, I reached the bottom of the mountain range. Over an open ridge, I wanted to reach a saddle, that I had made out on my map as a good camp spot. But before I could get to my destination I got swallowed in thick clouds and relentless rain set in. As the daylight also started to fade I set my bivouac tarp up for dry shelter. Waking up in the morning the weather hadn’t changed and so I used my GPS to shift camp to my original destination. 

After a few more hours of rest, I started my first hunting day full of excitement before sunrise. I left my camp behind and headed out with a light pack. It is always a special experience to witness the sunset from on top of a mountain, which brings with it a great sense of jubilation. Throughout the day I worked my way along a rugged ridge, which divided the two main valleys that ran in opposite directions. I glassed the open tops, drainages, slips and creeks in beautiful late summer weather. I was a little disappointed that all I had spotted were two hinds and a fawn, grazing in a slip deep down in the valley. Despite this, I was able to get oriented in my hunting area well, which had me excited for the next day. 

The next morning I decided to pack up my camp, which allowed me the freedom of mobility, and sleeping wherever I chose that evening. The feeling of having one’s life needs at hand, of travelling light, brings with it intense energy and exhilaration. Again glassing the country to my sides showed nothing but the three Red Deer that I had already observed the day before. I surveyed the country under my eyes and the maps and decided to drop into the head of the main valley via a side valley, to explore some new country. While when hunting with someone else, decision making is always a team effort and leads to a certain analysis, when you are by yourself it is rather instantaneous and intuitive. 

At first, I was able to drop down fast but when I entered the valley bottom moving forward became more strenuous than expected. I wasn’t familiar yet with New Zealand’s vegetation. From atop, the valley had looked open but I was fooled by waist-high tussock grass and Spaniard grass, which has razor-sharp leaves. It took me almost 2 hours to cover the 3km to the mainstream. The further kilometres up the stream were also burdensome and no game came into sight. As I glassed up the steep mountainsides in the evening, I finished the last of my food rations. Since the weather was fine, I made my bed under beautiful the starry sky. The total tranquillity and the gaze into the universe made the thoughts wander. 

I’ve had spent many months as a hunting guide in the mountains of northern Canada, but it was a new experience to venture completely on my own into the mountains to hunt. I love the intimate moments shared with good companions through a hunt but there is a special kind of experience and feelings that come with such a solo pursuit. When you become comfortable on your own you find an ancestral feeling, through a rather instinctive decision making and fully emerge into the hunt. I didn’t feel lonely but rather a great sense of freedom, being fully present and able to intensely connect with my environment.       

Since no game came into sight in the morning either, and I was out of food, I decided to make my way out to my car. According to my maps, it would be a 15km walkout following the stream into the open river bed that lead to the road. The stream cut a deep gorge into the young mountains. Through boulder fields, rockslides and thick bush the going was extremely slow and exhausting. By mid-afternoon, I had only brought about halve way behind me. Looking down the stream the vegetation grew thicker. I decided to change my route up a ridge and over the mountain. It would take a climb of 800m but at least it was open country. 

The legs were getting pretty tired so I had to take a few breaks on the steep hill. I dropped my pack off and while giving my legs a rest, glassed around. I didn’t have hope anymore to take an animal, which didn’t bot me much. I felt greatly fulfilled by the experience of the last few days even without a materialistic success. I always saw hunting as an active approach to nature, rather than just a focus on the kill. To get a little better angle into the canyon, I moved along the hill just a few meters, when I noticed a movement to my right. I raised my binos. Just a few hundred meters away in a bluff stood a chamois, having me pinned. My gun was out of reach with my pack of course. For a few moments we were eye to eye, then the flighty animal was gone around the bluff. 

At the sight of prey, the hunting instinct kicked in and set free new energy. With a spring in my step, I now climbed up the steep slope, hoping to cut off the chamois on the other side of the ridge. The backside was almost vertical and rugged so it was easy for the chamois to slip through unseen. I sat down and started picking apart both sides of the rough sided gorge below me. I made out a group of chamois that was browsing down the hill and so quickly went out of sight. To get closer, I made my way down a knife-edge spine. It was sketchy, but in the stalk, I was fully present — just focusing the next hold and not the possibility of a fatal fall. Higher up on the face straight across, I noticed a movement and made out a chamois on the getaway. At that distance, I couldn’t judge the animal through my binos, but at this time of the year, the chances for a single chamois to be a buck was high. It is to note that in New Zealand, there are no harvest restrictions since all game animals are non-native, and regarded as a pest. With my pack propped up, I quickly found a solid shooting position. The chamois stopped, and I put the crosshair slightly over the top of the back to adjust my 308 for a 350m shot. The projectile hit low on the shoulder. I missed a rushed second shot, rechambered, took a deep breath and held a little higher. The animal dropped instantly. 

It took some more down and back up climbing to get to my prey. I couldn’t have been more satisfied when stepping to a mature trophy buck. After a few pictures, the chamois was quickly butchered and all the meat was loaded into my pack. By law, it isn’t required to take any meat, however, it was a matter of my integrity and of the hunter’s guilt for killing an animal. I was raised hunting in Germany with my Grandfather as a mentor. Respect for the animal was the highest value for a traditional hunter in Germany. With all the meat and my gear, the load weighed easy around 80 pounds. 

At first, I tried to make the short distance down the gorge to the main valley. The bottom was extremely rugged and only a hundred meters short, I found myself cliffed out by a waterfall. 

Climbing back up the rugged stream was extremely strenuous with a heavy pack and through debilitating vegetation, but I was still determined to pack out all the meat. Here it was for the first time on my trip missing a hunting partner. Not particular to divide the load but rather since the comradery in such hard times was always very special to me. 

Further upstream I reached a section where I could cut back up the slope to get on the ridge that I had initially come from. The sunlight had pretty much faded. The legs were tired by now and with every couple earned meters of altitude I rested, kneeling into the steep slope. At last, reaching the top of the ridge, I chose the first 2 flat square meters to roll out my sleeping bag. I had now been walking and climbing, up and down through rugged terrain for almost 14 hours straight. On a rock, I cooked slices of tenderloin and heart with some steak spice. To taste success at the end of such a mountain pursuit makes it even more of a wholesome experience. I was rewarded in the morning again with a million-dollar view, but to reach my car it was still a 10km hike over a high ridge. I would later find out that the DOC repeatedly carried out culls in the area I was, explaining the low game numbers.

 

Posted by Nolan Osborne