Natural high from Alpine cham-pain

Chris Redlich

When friends visit our home the trophies on the living room wall arouse interest and intrigue, particularly from non-hunters – “what’s that one, where did that come from?” – and casting my eye around the room one trophy in particular, small in size and dwarfed by many, recalls a hefty swag of memories which far outweigh the rest.

My adored little chamois trophy takes pride of place and is a reminder of one of the best experiences of my life in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. An adulthood dream fuelled by New Zealand hunting stories was about to come true as I stood with my guide by the foothills of a steep valley, contemplating our approach. There we were on the banks of a fast-flowing mountain stream preparing to wade a safe passage across and while I admit the thought of crossing that creek in early morning had me concerned, there was no alternative.

The guide’s task was to help me find a trophy animal but hauling my 90kg frame (without gear) across the river wasn’t part of his job description. The chill of the Alpine water did little to dampen my enthusiasm and with my feet and legs sodden and freezing, it was half an hour later I truly appreciated the value of a good pair of hunting boots. We pushed on, traversing marshy flats and feeder gullies but our destination at the head waters of that steep valley still seemed impossibly out of reach.

My priority target animal at that stage was tahr and before proceeding up the right-hand ridge we started glassing for signs. With a stiff breeze building from the south we began the ascent of the ridge and after just a few steps I knew my legs were going to be given a workout. Back home I live on black soil plains so my body had to adjust fast. Nevertheless I pushed on despite my thigh and calf muscles burning – I was here for an adventure and my mountain-dwelling trophy wasn’t going to present without a challenge.

I took a well-earned breather on a flat spot and turned back to where we’d just walked. The stream seemed so far away now and thankfully my feet were much drier, though glassing again from our new vantage point the tahrs were still nowhere to be seen. The lactic acid build-up in my legs was a constant reminder of the terrain but my guide climbed on regardless. I remained diligently in tow and, with each step advancing another half-metre above sea level, my heart and lungs were now feeling the effects of higher altitude. My general fitness, especially cardio, was now being given a rigorous workout.

We reached another glassing point on the ridge, my body rejoicing once more for the pause in proceedings. From this location the valley opened up like pages on a picture book revealing an amphitheatre of rock formations and gullies, resembling the pipes of a church organ. The faces consisted of scree slopes, chutes and gullies choked with vegetation, the view spectacular as this part of the valley hadn’t been visible from the stream below.

The beauty of my surroundings offset my aching body and I revelled in what lay before me. My guide pointed out possible places of tahr activity on the opposite faces and after a short while, as if on cue, our first sign of life presented, a tahr nanny followed closely by a bull stepping into view from behind some foliage. With the aid of a spotting scope we agreed he was of trophy size but at 600m, out of reach of the .270 Win. Although the southerly breeze wasn’t in our favour we were completely undetected so the plan was to climb higher up the ridge, descend to the valley floor, scale the opposite face and stalk the bull from above.

We hauled ourselves to the next elevation off a cluster of boulders and glassed down to the area where tahrs were last seen. By now the wind had become much stronger and the higher we ascended the fiercer it grew. Although not sighted again at that stage, my guide was still confident of tahrs being there later for the stalk.

We broke for lunch, sheltering from the wind behind a rock and continued glassing the opposite faces for movement. “Now there’s something I didn’t expect,” said my guide. A chamois buck was bunkering down in gale force winds on a boulder shelf across the valley at 900m, his face to the wind looking in our direction but we remained undetected by our new target. Typical of chamois behaviour, he was happy resting in the shaded part of the rocks instead of chasing the sun for warmth.

The spotting scope confirmed the buck had good horns and was worth pursuing, a plan then hatched to redirect our efforts to the chamois and, if enough time remained, stalk the tahr on the way out. Knowing a chamois’ eyesight is razor-sharp at long distance it was important we kept a low profile and although the buck was staring our way, the strong wind behind us proved an advantage as we later discovered. Excited by the prospect of taking a trophy chamois buck I followed my guide the to the valley floor.

Protected from the wind we crossed a pristine mountain creek and took a moment to soak up the view, feeling insignificant amid stunning surrounds. There was no time for contemplation though as we made the fastest and steepest ascent of the opposite face to a new vantage point north of the buck, every bit of sharp, spiky-leafed Spaniard and Matagouri bush being hastily grasped to help my ascent.

Still separated by a steep gorge we closed the gap to 400m and hid behind a large boulder, the buck now above us and angled slightly broadside as the wind battered us the further we climbed. From this spot we could see his eyes were shut as the wind pelted his face and we confirmed him to be a shooter so, using the rocky features in front of us, leap-frogged our way to about 200m.

A decision was made to proceed no further as the risk of surprising the eagle-eyed chamois was possible and while I wasn’t comfortable from my new shooting platform, I’d no alternative but to adjust. Balancing on the edge of a precarious rock face in 80-100 km/hr wind gusts made for a daunting scenario and after consultation with my guide, we dropped the 120-grain projectiles for the heavier 130-grain. Settling as best I could I placed the reticle 150mm off the chamois’ body (300mm to my point of impact) to allow for wind drift and squeezed the trigger. He took a direct hit to the chest and was anchored on the spot, my legs now shaking uncontrollably as adrenalin surged.

A resounding ‘good shot’ from the guide followed by a laugh at the sight of my trembling legs made light of what had probably been one of the most difficult shots I’d ever take. But the day was far from over and the celebrations short-lived as we’d a difficult task ahead to retrieve my trophy. Secretly fearing for my life, I trustingly followed my guide down the steep gorge separating us from the buck.

Again making use of any available foliage that would provide useful support, we climbed the opposite side to my chamois which lay motionless save for his hair fluttering in the wind. He looked beautiful as the emotion of the hunt began to sink in, horns measuring an even 9.5” with typical splay and perfect hooks. Growth rings identified him as being about 10 years old and we reckoned he was a bachelor kicked out the herd by younger bucks and left to roam in solitude.

After a lengthy photo session we caped him for the haul home. Now late in the day the decision to hunt tahr was abandoned as we faced the prospect of a storm hitting us on the mountain. It was far from ideal but I honestly didn’t care as the excitement of the day’s adventure couldn’t wipe the smile from my face, my new-found confidence the best stimulant and pain relief I could ask for. Another scramble up the face above the buck’s resting place was made before our eventual descent of the opposite ridge from our climb in. Pelting rain made rock surfaces greasy and one bad slip had me kissing the granite, earning a chipped elbow in the process.

I was relieved when we finally reached the foothills as my knees felt as if they might explode. The flats couldn’t come quick enough and that mountain stream was a welcome sight, my body feeling the effects of every step as we estimated our vertical hike to be around 20km. I’d just completed the most challenging hunt of my life which had pushed my mental and physical abilities to the limit. The hard-won chamois, taking pride of place on our wall, is a constant reminder of that adventure and my respect for the beautiful, rugged mountains of New Zealand and the game which roam them will never die.

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