Like most others who have drawn once-in-a-lifetime type tags, the notification of my Mountain Goat drawing success struck me as a surprise after many years applying. This was it! –The final “difficult” species to draw in my Colorado Archery Big 8 quest. The dominant terrain feature within the unit is Mt. Antero, a peak reaching the heavens above 14,000 feet. All my research, training, scouting, and preparation for the hunt were certainly worthwhile, but none of it prepared me for the mental and physical challenges I would find on the lofty granite peaks if the Colorado high country. Mountain Goats are tough animals for good reason; they live in the most inhospitable places in North America. The places they call home are like a nightmare for us two-legged, non-wild creatures.
Hunting solo, my strategy was to remain light and mobile. The day prior to opening day I established a modest, creek-side base camp at about 11,000 feet accessible by a nasty 4-wheel drive road. Numerous old trails still exist across the rugged mountains from earlier years of gold and silver mining. These old roads and trails were extremely valuable to cover distance in the valleys en-route to the high peaks where goats roam. A couple hours of glassing the higher terrain didn’t produce any Mountain Goat sightings yet I crawled into my tent with confidence and high expectations.
At first light the next morning, I found a group of 9 goats (all nannies and kids) on a high grassy slope at about 12,300 feet. I knew that my best avenue of approach was to climb the opposite side of the mountain and descend along the spine of the ridge above the feeding animals. About an hour and a half later, I arrived at my predetermined point on the ridge. The wind was already quite strong and the temperature was only 20 degrees; my water bottles were frozen! As I peeked around the ragged boulder face of the ridge to look for the goats, I was disappointed to find that they were already on the move and side-hilling the loose shale slope below me. I watched them for several minutes as they disappeared in the adjacent drainage to the west. Without any other animals in view, and having already climbed a nasty hill to get there, I elected to pursue the herd; I would later severely regret the decision.
For over four hours I labored side-hill across the wicked-steep face of loose boulders and shale. Two hours earlier the goats disappeared over the top of the mountain on a path that was impossible for me to follow. The hillside became a living nightmare that I would later refer to as “Hell Mountain”. At this point all I wanted to do was get off that mountain. I could either go back the way I came (which I knew was terrible) or continue side-hill all the way around to the other side where the journey began. Either choice was awful; I chose the latter hoping to find a different goat to stalk or potentially better traveling conditions. Six hours later I was back at the morning’s start point, completely exhausted and bloody from countless slides and falls. I knew one thing for certain. Mountain Goats were safe from my arrows on that particular mountain forever; I was never stepping foot on Hell Mountain real estate again.
The next days of hunting were full of exhaustion, frustration, snow, and a few blown stalks. I spent over two hours one day in a stare-down with a big billy goat. He had me pegged at 40 yards. As a word of advice, never get into a staring completion with a goat–they will win every time with patience like no other animal. Several times I found myself virtually paralyzed against cliff walls, unable to climb or descend with crumbling granite under hand and foot and my bow strapped to my backpack. I began to question my own sanity and safety in those wild lofty peaks. Shooting arrows at these crazy steep angles and cross-hills was tough, producing a couple missed shots including a shot of less than 10 feet and straight down. (I may have had better success with a large knife instead of arrows!) I was prepared for steep angle shots, but nothing like what I encountered up there. Over the next two weeks I made several trips in and out of base camp to get a real night’s sleep and recharge my internal battery at home. I could almost feel the weight loss my body was experiencing. I suspect it was the altitude which suppressed any real appetite and the daily rigor of climbing and descending thousands of vertical feet each day was burning calories at an alarming rate. At home, the practical side of my mind tried to convince me to not return and just give up. Determination won the mental battle as I ventured out for one more attempt.
The familiar cliffs I had come to love for consistent goats and hate for their treachery were once again my destination. After the usual two thousand foot climb to the adjacent rim, I glassed three goats in the cliffs about halfway down from the top. I watched them for a few minutes to determine their actions. After satisfied they were stationary, around the bowl and into the cliffs I pursued. Two hours later I arrived above the three goats, still bedded for their typical midday rest. I had no shot so again I waited like so many times before. The sun is brutal at 13,000 feet and it cooked me accordingly. It is impossible to get comfortable in these conditions; I was getting accustomed to numb legs and feet, and the pain of awkward immobile body positions. Countless times I used a rangefinder to assess the shot. I knew the exact distance to the bigger nanny in the group and just needed her to stand. What I didn’t know was exactly how to aim it to compensate for the steep downhill slope, especially with my shooting confidence shattered by earlier missed shots. Two hours into the waiting game the larger nanny stood and predictably stretched in place. This was the moment I had waited for and my arrow was on its way without any delay. The arrow exploded into the granite under the goat—another miss. All three goats scrambled down and across the cliff walls. The physical and mental demands of the hunt were crushing me. I pondered the idea of quitting right there—just hike out and go home.
Completely disgusted with myself, I moved as quickly as possible in the direction of the fleeing goats hoping for another opportunity. As I stood on a high perch unable to descend or traverse any farther, the larger nanny appeared below me at about 30 yards. This time my shot was without contemplation, an almost instinctive shot I’ve delivered so many times before. This arrow found the mark and the goat was mortally wounded. Almost before I could think at all, my hunt was over. Watching the animal expire from my tiny precipice, something noisily whizzed past my left ear so close I felt the wind it generated. I instinctively lurched right, my immediate thought was that a bird had buzzed my head, but an impact below me delivered clarity; a softball-sized rock traveling at terminal velocity barely missed my skull. Dislodged a thousand feet above, the spinning projectile missed killing me by an inch.
When I reached the beautiful goat, the stillness of the mountain and the conclusion of the incredibly difficult hunt wet my eyes with emotion. Alone at 13,000 feet, I set about with the chore of dressing, skinning, and packing the animal up the cliffs and back down the other side to my camp. Pictures were difficult in the steep cliffs, my camera pointed almost at the sky. Earlier near-death experiences in the treacherous terrain convinced me to take two trips, the second the next morning. I was nearly too exhausted to be excited, but I was thrilled to leave the amazingly beautiful but dangerous escarpments of the Collegiate Peaks in Colorado.