Never and easy goat

Cassidy C

It was an icy morning sunrise. Frigid air was swirling through the airplane cabin as we left the float plane dock. The De Havilland Beaver might be reliable, but air-tight? Not so much.

The heater, approximately five decades old, tried to keep up. The pungent fumes of oil and aviation gas stuck to the wisps of air in a losing battle to keep the inside of the old airplane warm. The thundering of the engine on take-off was deafening. Propeller blades sliced through the freezing November sky, as we surged toward British Columbia’s Coast Mountains, looming on the horizon.

As the first jagged, impassable – and completely snow-encased – peaks came into plain view, I felt something close to absolute panic rising in me. Late season mountain goat hunting is always a gamble. It is a game suited only to those looking for an insane challenge, and it is guaranteed to be plagued by horrible weather and very difficult access conditions. But, from the plane, this was already looking even more extreme than usual.

Trygve and his wife Nina sat shoulder to shoulder in the backseat of the Beaver. Glancing back, all I could see were teeth, their smiles were so enormous. They had travelled from Norway and were pumped for a “hardcore” hunting adventure.

Meanwhile, I had more trepidation. This was the last hunt of a mountain guiding season that had begun in mid-July. I was feeling burnout from more than 100 days of gruelling backpack hunting for sheep and goats. To make the current situation even more difficult, a terrible storm had rolled in while Tryg and Nina were enroute to Canada. It had hammered the area we were planning on hunting.

As the airplane rattled and roared its way into the heart of the Coast range, the true enormity of the recent snowfall was quickly made apparent. The pilot glanced over at me doubtfully, asking, without saying a single word, if I was going to go through with this.

I stared, with grim determination, through the frosty windscreen at the intended landing lake. The water looked ominous and black against the snow-blanketed slopes. There was no going back. Trygve and Nina had specifically requested an epic, hard hunt. They wanted an experience that pushed their limits– and they were going to get every single dollar’s worth of that!

The engine noise of the Beaver faded in the distance as we hauled our gear off the lakeshore. Luckily, we were just below the snowline, but I was not feeling reassured as I gazed up at the formidable peaks surrounding us. They towered thousands of feet, with their deadly cliffs and crevasses concealed by two feet of new snow. A sinking feeling in my gut told me that there was a good possibility we were too late for this area. The goats had likely moved out with the dump of snow.

We set up a camp and spent the rest of the day glassing every inch of visible slopes. While I had held out some hope that my theory was wrong, the fresh snow did not lie. We didn’t spot a single animal, or even a track.

My original plan had been to hunt from the lake. It was high elevation and just the week before, it would have been prime goat habitat. I was trying not to rain on the Norwegian parade, but I knew the back-up plan was going to be tough. Off the opposite end of the lake there were south-facing slopes that looked like they could be goat wintering grounds. The problem was they were far away. Very far. Since I had never hunted that particular area, I had no idea what to expect.

The next day we scouted around and found an old, extremely overgrown trail going in the direction I thought we should try. Without other options, we broke camp and headed off on it, carrying six days of provisions and all of our camp gear.

It took all morning just to battle our way to other end of the lake with heavy backpacks. Trygve and Nina were all smiles, seemingly enjoying the gruelling four-mile trek. I was somewhat less impressed by the situation. Had I known the conditions we would find, I would have had the pilot to drop us off at the far end of the lake. The Norwegians, however, seemed to be having the time of their lives!

The old trail continued toward the south slopes but got worse and worse as we progressed. It was completely choked with alders, horrible to navigate as we ducked and dove through tangled branches with our big packs. As we finally turned into the south facing valley, the trail began to rapidly drop in elevation. The descent made the hike easier but, in the back of my mind, I was already pictured having to haul our camp – and potentially two goats – back up through these miles of hellish brush. My sense of knowing and dread returned.

After nine solid hours of hiking, we finally glimpsed parts of mountains that looked “goaty.” We dropped our packs and set up a spike camp. Sure enough the first “goaty” spot had a goat on it! We wolfed down some freeze-dried dinner and made a move to get a closer look.

The goat turned out to be a young, immature billy. He was an easy pass. Still, I crawled into my sleeping bag that night exhausted but feeling a little at ease that my big gamble might work out. We were seeing goats – well, one anyway.

The next day we packed up camp again and trekked even further down the old path. The more elevation we lost, the more goats we saw. It seemed we had hit a jackpot! We saw over twenty goats that second day. Still, the Coast Mountains guard their treasures ferociously and the sheer cliffs, ancient twisted deadfall, and thorn-crusted underbrush blocked us from making a move on any of the good billies we had spotted.

On Day 3, we spotted a big billy sniffing around a few nannies. He was midway up the mountain at the top of a ring of cliffs. From where we sat it looked “doable”.

After six murderous hours of trying – and failing – to get up to the cliff ring, we had to admit defeat for that day. It was imperative to get safely off the deadly cliffs before dark descended. All three of us were exhausted and shaken by the extreme difficulty of the terrain we were encountering.

The next morning, I was only a few sips into my precious morning coffee ration when I saw the group of goats from the previous day. They were below the cliff ring! It takes a lot for me to toss aside my morning coffee, particularly after 100 straight days of mountain guiding, but toss it I did!

“Let’s GO!” I shouted at Tryg and Nina, who were in the middle of breakfast. I could see the goats were already moving higher, headed to their safe perch above that impregnable line of cliffs. We hustled hard, but the herd was moving fast. I realized the only way we were going to have a chance was to come up right below them, under the cover of the ancient forest.

It was still early enough in the morning that we had the benefit of the downdraft. As the thick trees thinned near the base of the sheer rocks, we darted carefully from one huge rainforest tree to another, using their massive trunks for cover. Finally, some of the goats were directly above us. I was on edge, as I could see a few of them were already too high on the cliff. Even though we still had the shot, it would not have been ethical, as the goat would have either been impossible to recover or would likely fall 500 feet and smash to bits.

A waterfall cascaded through the middle of the sheer rock face. I watched a nanny deftly splash across it, the vertical, slippery rocks and high-pressure water having no effect on her. I couldn’t see the big billy anywhere.

Trygve and Nina are excellent, experienced hunters and without having to tell them, they set up in good a position to shoot. Suddenly, the big billy appeared by the waterfall, where the nanny had just crossed. I pounded my fist on Tryg’s shoulder.

“HIM! HIM!!” I hissed. I was not sure if he could hear me over the roar of the waterfall, but Trygve knew what I meant.

BOOOM!

The billy faltered and collapsed. Before I could even congratulate Tryg on his perfect shot, I watched, horrified, as the billy fell, wedging himself right in the most powerful stream of the waterfall!

It was a dangerous and very cold task to pluck him from the waterfall. With extreme caution and incredible teamwork, we finally dragged Trygve’s beautiful goat from the waterfall. We got completely soaked in the process, but it was worth it. I’m not sure I have ever guided a harder-earned trophy…until two days later, that is!

We spent the next morning properly dressing Tryg’s billy and drying our soaked clothes, a monumental task because of the miserable coastal humidity. Coffee – and goat tenderloin – on a smoky fire eased away the stress of the past days.

Then, in the afternoon, I spotted an absolute monster billy in the second tier of cliffs above our camp. We were tired, bruised and still wet. But one glance through the spotting scope at the billy we named “Stove Pipes,” and our enjoyable lazy day was cut short. Nina was determined to get her goat.

As usual, the climb was much harder than expected. The thick forest hid so many more obstacles than could be predicted when observed from below. We were finally close to where we had last seen the lone giant, but the cliffs were so steep it was terrifying to look back at the way we had come up. One slip could easily be fatal.

But with predatory singleness of focus, we continued the stalk. It finally became so steep it was impossible to keep going up. It was also apparent there was no way we could safely navigate this terrain in the dark. Dejectedly, we knew we had to stop.

Finding our way back down the cliffs was absolutely hair-raising. We used a 100-foot climbing rope and took turns lowering each other down. Fear had to be ignored in favour of intensity of focus: one foot here; one hand there; until finally we all got back to the forest floor.

The weather was threatening to turn very bad again soon. We had a very long, challenging hike ahead of us with the added weight of Tryg’s goat meat and the heavy late-season hide. It would be very difficult to go that far uphill through the overgrowth if it snowed. That night, around the campfire, we discussed that the smartest option would be for us to start for the lake the next day.

I woke up in the morning and started to break camp in preparation for the long day ahead. But I couldn’t help from stealing looks up at the cliffs where most of the action had been. Then I saw him.

Stove Pipes had moved into a spot that looked “doable.” Once again, we stopped everything and made a very fast move to try to intercept the goat before he ascended into unreachable terrain.

I wanted so badly for Nina to get her goat. Her positive attitude and hard work had never wavered. We found ourselves practically running up through the old growth timber to get to the open rocks where the billy had been spotted. Finally slowing, we crept to the edge of the trees to survey the whole clearing. It was obvious he was gone.

We had done our best, but everyone knew the hunt was over. We still had a huge hike ahead of us. I started back down the mountain when suddenly behind me, I heard excited Norwegian chatter! I looked up and the billy had appeared at the top of the first cliff, feet planted, staring down at us. It was an easy shot but he was going to take a big fall.

“Should she?” Tryg asked excitedly as Nina took aim.

“No!” I exclaimed, looking in dismay at the 200-foot free fall the goat would take.

Then I saw that if he moved maybe 30 yards to his right he would land on some dense bushes that would break the fall and probably preserve the meat and horns.

“Wait until he gets there,” I pointed.

It was a slim chance the goat would go that direction. It seemed more likely he would spook and go straight up, into the sheer cliff, giving no chance. But luck struck again and he slowly walked right to the perfect spot.

BOOM!

Nina’s shot was so good the goat died on the spot. Literally. He didn’t move. We all stared up the cliff. He didn’t fall down. Oh no. This was a huge problem.

It was finally decided that Trygve and I would attempt to use ropes to recover the billy. Nina would wait to make sure we were okay and respond in the event of a bad emergency. She had the InReach to signal SOS if one of us fell.

As Tryg and I started onto the cliff I knew that one little mistake would cost us our lives. There was zero room for error. It was, by far, the most dangerous thing I have ever attempted while guiding. If Trygve had not been as competent and skilled a mountain person as he is, we would not have attempted it.

We precariously made our way, inch by slow inch, to the dead goat. Despite being one slip from certain death, when we reached him, we took a few seconds to enjoy Stove Pipe’s incredible beauty and heavy horns. The formidable, spectacular Coast Mountains that had been his kingdom towered around us.

And then it began to snow. Trying not to panic, Tryg and I skinned as fast as we could. (I hope their taxidermist can sew, is all I can say about that!) We knew we had to get off the cliff or it would soon be impossible. We stuffed Stove Pipes into the one backpack we had managed to drag up with us, and kicked it off the edge.

Then, trying not to rush or slip as the snowfall became a full-on blizzard, we inched our way down. The sheer cliff became slippery and treacherous with the skiff of fresh snow. My adrenaline was surging, but I was able to hyper focus on the next inch forward instead of focussing on certain death below. Finally, our boots touched the bottom.

But our ordeal was far from over! By the time we reached the camp with the goat, it was snowing so hard visibility was less than fifty yards. We all knew that there was no time to rest or celebrate. If it snowed like this all night, over three feet could accumulate, making it impossible to hike back up to the lake.

We ate a rushed dinner, loaded all our camp gear and both goats, and started hiking. We hiked all night, fighting with 100-pound packs, going uphill through the thick, overgrown trail. The snow kept falling and as we got higher, it got deeper. As the night wore on, the snow did not stop, and the temperature plummeted from 0 to a shocking -25° C.

Without a doubt, Trygve and Nina were the toughest clients I had ever hunted with. We had fought every single day against every single thing those harsh mountains had to throw at us and still persevered. We had all stayed positive, laughed in the face of difficulty and danger, and formed a great team in the process. Still, it took everything we had to get out of that valley and back to the lake.

We reached the lake at 4:30 a.m. The snow was almost two feet deep already. We were soaked, numb, and exhausted. We had not stopped all night. It was dangerously cold. As the daylight seeped through the still-falling snow, we could see the lake was completely frozen over. There would be no floatplane coming to get us.

There was a cabin near the lake, and we were forced to seek shelter in it. For four days, it remained deadly cold. We stayed warm inside, reliving the most epic hunt of all time. Meanwhile, the pilot tried to figure out how to get us out of there.

We could not legally use a helicopter as the law in British Columbia doesn’t not allow for the use of one for transporting hunting trophies. Finally, an elaborate rescue was planned. Two local guys braved the elements and managed to get a jet boat and an ATV a heck of a long way in dangerous conditions to meet us.

While we were extremely grateful for the improvised ride home, the boat trip was the final test. It remained unreasonably cold and none of us had any clothing suited for a five-hour ride in an open boat at -20° C.

While the two rescuers were wearing full survival suits, we shivered against the steel hull of the boat, the water spray instantly turning to ice as it hit us. At one point, we all had icicles freezing our jacket hoods to our chests forming bars in front of our faces. I had over an inch of ice built up on my shoulders. We were so cold, I’m not sure any of us clearly remember that final leg of our journey.

At last, civilization came into view. The ordeal was over. Trygve and Nina had come to the Canadian wilderness as adventure-seeking clients and left as lifetime friends. I hope we have many more mountain adventures together, but I know the story of old Stove Pipes is one that will never get old around a campfire.

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