The sound of rocks sliding out under your feet has this low rumble to it. It’s not loud or violent, but ominous. Walking across steep slopes of loose rock is a test of your nerves, especially when nothing feels solid. On an intellectual level, I KNOW that the entire mountain won’t slide away. That mountain has survived for millennia and certainly, my size 12 boots won’t be its downfall.
Nevertheless, the part of my brain making immediate decisions seems to be saying “whoa!” those rocks are going to let loose any second. As the rocks slide with each step, and I slide with them, I begin to wonder how I will ever get across. After stopping for a moment I remind myself… slowly and patiently. If I could pick two words that have caused me more frustration with hunting it might be those two. Slow and patient. It seems like every season there are situations that call for making a decision between being patient or aggressive; slow or fast. Should I hurry up and run towards the elk bugle? Or should I just sit in this saddle and wait for the elk to come to me. Shall I wait patiently as the elk feed in my direction? Or should I be aggressive and close the distance? I’ve probably chosen “wrong” more times than I can count.
But as I continue crossing that slope I remind myself to go slow and be patient. I’ll make it across in due time. There was no point in rushing now, I saw the goat lay down and die. I knew the “hunting” portion of the hunt was over. As people sometimes like to say, now the hard part begins. To be honest, I oftentimes think that the hardest part of hunting is the actual hunting. I can hike, I’m in shape, I can climb mountains, I can shoot my bow, I can sleep outside, I can tough out a rainstorm, I can eat freeze-dried foods, I can filter water, I can ration that filtered water. In fact, you could say that I’m good “at hunting.” But am I a good hunter? That’s a distinction without an answer for me. In fact, it’s a question that follows me every season…whether I kill an animal or not.
But today, as my friend and I made our way the last few hundred yards across the slope, and as I finally laid my hands on that thick white coat I thought I had answered the question. Yeah, I’m a good hunter. Hell, today I’m a great hunter! Upon releasing an arrow there are two moments of euphoria. The moment the arrow hits the animal and the moment you put your hands on said animal. The first is pure adrenaline and excitement. The second is a feeling of honor for the animal and relief that it’s dead. The first is about the thrill of the chase. The second is about the deep love and respect for the animal, its life and its place in nature. When I knew it was dead I just wanted to run up to it, but with patience and deliberate footsteps, I knew I would get there.
A few hours earlier I wasn’t so sure about getting close to this band of goats, and a few hours before that I wasn’t sure about even finding these goats. But my friend and I decided to drive just a little further based on some information that another goat hunter had given me. The other hunter certainly wasn’t lying. Why he told me about these I don’t know, maybe it was to keep me from hunting closer to him, or maybe he was being friendly (I think it was the latter.) However, I knew the drive up was…let’s say bumpy. My dad had driven it a few weeks prior and while it was certainly passable it wasn’t smooth sailing. Eventually, my friend and I made it to the top, but still no sign of the goats. We needed to eat lunch and wanted to get out of the wind so we drove another hundred yards down the road at which point I looked up and saw the unmistakable sight of mountain goats.
We’ve all hunted plenty of days in bad weather. Rain. Snow. Cold. All three on the same day. There have been lightning storms that would have been breathtaking to watch from a safe distance. I’ve hunted in weather so wet that it got into everything. I’ve tried starting fires on the side of the mountain because I was so cold. In fact just three weeks earlier, on a scouting weekend with my dad, we had to pack up and head home because of the rain. It may have had to do with slightly poor tent placement (I’ll call it a rookie mistake…made by two people with LOTS of nights spent in the mountains.) But it could have had to do with a poor tent. Either way, when our sleeping bags started taking on water, we knew it was time to cut our losses, throw everything in a trash bag, put our rain gear on and drive the ATVs back to the truck. All that to say, this day of hunting was like a gift. The skies were blue, the temperature was perfect and the wind was calm. In fact, the weather never changed all day, it was a perfect bluebird day. Sometimes the story is better when you have to “fight through the elements” or when “we got stuck in the snow.” But for this trip, I was happy to wear a short-sleeve shirt and sunscreen.
We spotted the goats around noon, which meant we had plenty of daylight to formulate a plan and I had the time to be patient and move slowly. With time and the weather on our side, our options seemed limitless, but animals like to move and I knew that those goats wouldn’t stay in the same spot ALL day. One piece of advice I received from previous goat hunters was to come in above them if possible; that goats are often looking down the mountain and it’s easier to stalk them from above. But as I stood there looking at their position I could see a very obvious route to come in from below and then hike up to their level. Such began the inner debate that seems to come up on every hunt I’ve been on… “Should I go this way or that way? What if I make the wrong decision?” I could have come in from above but that would have required a longer route and losing sight of them for a few hours. While it was certainly an option it just didn’t feel right. I knew that I could get below a large rock outcropping and then I’d have an easy path straight up to the bedded goats. I thought to myself that I might even be able to make good time and get up there quickly…
I started moving at a good pace and even though I was right at treeline the elevation wasn’t bothering me. I seemed to feel all of the nights spent running in the foothills west of Denver, and the times I’d load my pack up with 60 pounds just to climb up and down some hill or mountain. With every step I felt confident in my conditioning and my attitude…but suddenly that mantra of slow and patient hit back. Standing on a large rock and looking STRAIGHT down the mountain at me was a nanny with her kid. Oops! — or another choice expletive — Two goats that we had not seen from the road definitely saw me, and they continued to watch me, and watch me and watch me. It didn’t matter what camo pattern I was wearing at that moment because I was pegged. So I just stopped and waited. Then I waited some more. Then I waited a little longer. It gave me a chance, though to watch some goats up close. They are such interesting animals. They almost don’t seem to care that you’re in their habitat. Or maybe they just respect the idiot guy who tries to climb to their heights? As I was intently pondering the inner monologue of a mountain goat they seemed to become bored with me. And off they walked. Now I could move again.
My excitement was back and I was moving straight up to a big rock outcropping that I knew would provide me with the only cover on this side of the mountain. As I neared the rock outcropping I heard a noise. The difficulty of looking up while climbing straight up a mountain became more apparent as I craned my neck to see what made the noise. I saw that nanny and kid again, now standing just about 20 yards away, again watching me. This time they weren’t as interested in hanging around too long. The “personal bubble” of a mountain goat might be larger than an elk or deer but there’s still an opportunity to get inside of it.
The quick hike to the outcropping took a few hours longer than anticipated but I was still in a good position with plenty of time. Peering over the rocks I could see back to the road where my friend was and I could see the goats about 150 yards away. Slow and patient I kept telling myself, just sit and wait, they’re going to get up and feed right by. I decided to leave my backpack in the rocks, a decision that often ends up in regret, but I felt I had no choice. I could see one final rock about 4 feet tall that would allow me to get a little closer to where I thought the goats would walk. So I slowly crept up and tried to keep a small ridge in between myself and the goats. Then I waited again. I kept peeking over in hopes of preventing them from walking right up to me. I was getting antsy and honestly, I was beginning to have those thoughts of “you better make something happen here.” Or “be a little more aggressive.” I certainly thought to myself “what if they get up and walk the other direction?” But I told myself again to be patient and just wait. The weather was still perfect and I had plenty of hours of shooting light. So I forced myself to remain still. The minutes felt like hours ticking away and I moved back and forth around the one rock that was hiding me in hopes of catching a glimpse of the goats.
The intense focus that occurs during these types of encounters is one of the most rewarding aspects of hunting. I was standing just below 13,000’ on a steep mountain overlooking other large mountains, a small lake, changing aspen trees and the most vivid blue sky I’d ever seen. But I barely noticed. In fact, it was hours later before I ever looked down and got a true sense of how steep this mountain was. My focus was only on the goats. Which way are they walking? Are they all together? Are they coming towards me? Then all of a sudden they WERE walking. In fact, they were walking my direction. My slow and patient climb almost got me into a perfect position, I was on the same elevation as they were and I was right in their path. As they started coming closer they moved slightly up the hill, not too far for a shot but not close enough for an easy shot. At this point I had an arrow nocked but my thoughts started to drift slightly to the release in my hand.
Quickly rewind 7 months to the arrows I was shooting in my basement at 5 feet with a brand new tension activated release. I had decided that it was time to switch from a wrist strap release to something different. It forced me to focus on the progression of the shot, my draw, my anchor, my back tension and ultimately a surprise release. I loved shooting it throughout the year and I practiced with it exclusively. As hunting season approached I made the decision to hunt with it. I knew the potential existed that it would be a bad idea, but that was my decision. The wrist strap was in my pack but only as a backup. Using that release forced me to be more patient with my archery and slow down my shooting mechanics.
As the goats fed above me, I pulled back and settled into my anchor. At this moment I realized the steepness of the mountain I was standing on. I’ve shot deer out of tree stands before, but this was the complete opposite. I was aiming so sharply uphill that I had to force myself into the correct position. I let off the safety of the release for only a moment, then depressed it and let my bow back down. The shot didn’t feel right. I moved forward and ranged the goats again. I drew back a second time and settled my pin on the goat, again standing directly above me. After a few moments, I let the bow back down. Again the shot didn’t feel right and the angle I was aiming at made it even more difficult. As a sense of panic began to set in I told myself to remain calm and just be patient. The goats weren’t spooked, even though they knew I was there. At times one of them would stare directly at me as I stood as still as possible, trying to blend in with nothing around me.
The third time I drew back I knew what to expect. “Okay the angle is steep so remember to bend at the waist. Your anchor point is set. Keep your front shoulder strong and let the pin float.” This time I slowly eased off the safety and the shot went off. A second later I heard my arrow ricochet off a rock and fly up in the air. I could see one of the red vanes flutter back to the ground. The shot had missed low and hit a rock under the goat. There have been times when my confidence would have gone with that arrow and been battered on the rocks. But not this time. Goats aren’t deer or elk. Even after the missed shot, they didn’t leave the mountain, but they did move out of sight. I remained patient. I knew that my presence hadn’t completely spooked them, so I nocked another arrow, took a few breaths and told myself to be deliberate. As I slowly moved forward I was once again within range of the goats, in fact, this time I was inside 30 yards. The same goat I had missed was once again presenting a shot. This time the shot was closer and the angle wasn’t as steep. I drew my bow back for the 4th time. Went through my routine for the 4th time. Anchored my bow for the 4th time. This time I focused on the contrast of the red pin on the white of the goat. I let off my safety and continued my shot routine until the arrow was gone and through the goat. This time the goats didn’t hang around and in an instant, they had run over a small rise in the terrain. I couldn’t see them. At that moment my deliberate and slow pace turned into a dead sprint at 13,000 feet. Somehow I made it over the shale and loose rocks without tripping or tumbling down the mountain. After about 50 yards I could see six of the seven goats cresting the ridge and leaving the basin.
My thoughts went back to my friend down below. I wondered how much he’d seen, and I was hoping that he would realize it was time for him to hike up the mountain. I watched my goat laying on the side of this beautiful mountain on a perfect Colorado day. I crept closer, maybe 20 yards away and watched the goat make one last attempt to get up and follow the others. Then it died.
Somewhere along the way, I had left my pack by a large rock outcropping and I needed to get back to it. When you’re this far above treeline it’s hard to misplace things. I spun open the lid on my water bottle for my first drink in a few hours as I watched my friend make his way up the mountain. Jack and I had shared A LOT of adventures in the outdoors over our 19 years of friendship. But Jack isn’t a hunter so he had only been with me on a handful of hunting trips. And certainly, none that culminated in the death of an animal.
I knew that Jack was cognizant of the time and the setting sun. Goats aren’t big animals, but the terrain made our work difficult. We had to construct a small “shelf” out of flat rocks and tie off the goat while we worked to move it around and take it apart. As the last pieces of meat, hide, and horn made it into our backpacks I slowly stood up. The extra weight was certainly noticeable and the fact that it was “all downhill” wasn’t exactly a welcome thought. One thing I’ve always loved about hunting, compared to other outdoor endeavours, is that so much of it takes place in the dark. Whether it’s packing an animal out, rising before the sun or hiking back to camp well after the sun has set. It doesn’t matter how bright the headlight is, there’s always darkness ahead. We knew the distance to the ATVs was relatively short; but with weight, darkness, tired legs and a steep mountain, it felt longer. The first time I slipped and leaned into the mountain I made sure to remind myself that we weren’t in any hurry. In fact, as the day began so would it end. Slowly and with patient footsteps.