On Foot In New Zealand’s Southern Alps
A single thought occurred while looking down at the Rakaia River headwaters – I was fit enough to do this at age 54. To understand the monumental nature of this feat, you need to know about my family of origin.
My father’s love of the outdoors was eclipsed by a passion for consumption topped by smoking five packs of cigarettes a day. He died at 63. And in the 24 months preceding this hunt, my mother and brother died from disease linked to bad lifestyle choices.
I was devastated for being the last man standing in the clan and was frightened as to what my genetic predisposition had in store. The aftermath of such loss got the best of me for several months, and I needed a way to revitalize.
I called New Zealand outfitter and good friend Mike Wilks of South Pacific Safaris. Two years before, he invited me on a tahr hunt with him on foot, but the aforementioned family issues kept putting off the expedition. We finally picked out a date and rigorous training began as we would hunt an alpine tract requiring top fitness.
Preparation became a therapeutic exercise, both mentally and physically, in proving that I was not headed on the same path as my parents and brother. A full medical physical a month before the hunt concurred I was on the right course.
I like to take a few days to recover from the long trip to the Southern Hemisphere and to acclimate from July heat into winter weather when I’m used to summer. After conducting a few days of business in Auckland, I flew to the South Island where Mike picked me up in Christchurch, and we began a three-hour drive south to an area near Mount Hood. The four-wheel-drive vehicle seemed to be reaching its limit when we came to a tin-shack. It was base camp, surrounded by magnificent snow-capped peaks – and it was cold.
Savoring what was left of daylight, we unpacked then glassed up the mountain and spotted a good bull grazing. As darkness was coming fast, we stoked the wood stove, ate venison stew with crusty bread and liberally nipped on a bottle of Maker’s Mark brought from my home in Louisville, Kentucky. It was now time for a few hours sleep before our trek up the mountain.
The 3 a.m. alarm went off too soon as steam billowed from my nose and mouth into the freezing air. I was shivering and noticed Mike was gone. He slept in his truck in the minus-five-degree Celsius chill as it was better than enduring my rasping snore.
Before the climb, like a gunny sergeant Mike gave a “spirit boosting talk” as if we were about to hit the beachhead on Iwo Jima: “There is no such thing as quitting up there,” he lectured. “Quitting will get you hurt or killed. If you fall, keep grabbing for something until you stop. Never quit. If you quit, you die. If you get tired, you have to keep going. We do not want to spend the night up there because the odds of surviving are not good.”
The first hill was hard as my muscles tried to warm up in the pre-dawn cold. I thought the months of rigorous PT had proved useless. My lungs and legs hurt. But as we pushed, I began to feel stronger and eventually found my stride, guided by imagining some of the obnoxious hip-hop music played in spin class at the gym back home.
“Let’s take a break,” Mike said. He wasn’t being merciful. We were high enough to look down into areas where tahrs would graze at dawn.
Lying on my back in snow never touched by a human felt like a feather bed as stargazing became snoozing. Then Mike said, “Let’s set up the spotting scope.”
At first I saw nothing. “There’s a bull,” Mike said. “Down there in the tussock. Here have a look.” Again, I saw nothing. Then the tussock began to move and became the locks of a big bull with his harem of nannies.
Mike does not waste much time. He began packing and pointed to an outcropping of rocks a distance from our current position. “That’s where we could intercept them.” He said. “Let’s go.”
It would be an hour-long trek across loose rock, snow, ice and a lesson on how to slide gracefully toward the spot where you want to wind up. Mike reminded me about quitting.
“Dig in your heels before you step,” he said as he pointed to the bottom. “And if you fall and start sliding, kick your boot tips in the snow and ice to stop – that’s a long way to fall.” He took the lead as we traversed the side of the mountain using all fours at times.
At the first outcropping – with two more to go – we glassed and watched the bull ascend with his harem. Mike urged me to move on if we were going to meet up with them. Tackling the second leg of the extreme topography became a bit easier. We hid among jagged boulders in the second outcropping, got a good look at the bull and decided he was better than we first estimated – but their pace was picking up. With no time for rest, we moved quickly. The only thing between the tahr and us was another steep section of snow that turned out to be mostly ice.
Mike was the guinea pig and went onto the ice to get a fix on how bad it was. Like a mountain goat, he made it across and yelled dig in your heels before you step.
With no time for hesitation or fear, I proceeded – carefully – and was well on my way when I fell and began to slide. “Kick in hard with your boots,” Mike screamed. But the ice was too hard.
Somehow I managed to dig my fingers into a patch of icy snow and stopped. Holding myself in a stiff plank position – something I did regularly while training to strengthen my core muscles.
Mike got there PDQ and sat on me to break through the top layer of ice so we could get enough traction to help each other up and get the hell out of there. Afterwards we laughed, but if I had not been in peak condition and if Mike were not the seasoned professional he is – I’d be dead.
The task at hand was to climb up another outcropping, find the bull and kill him. When we arrived there was no sign of life, just a ripping wind making it hard to stand as the sky quickly darkened and snow whipped into our faces.
We glassed the next ridge, down the mountain – nothing. Then Mike tapped me on the shoulder and motioned me to be quiet. A hundred yards up the mountain a nanny looked at us as if she had never seen a human before. A half-grown bull emerged from the rocks, followed by more nannies.
Then the big bull peeked over ledge in full frontal view as the whole herd looked at us. “Tahrs are not used to seeing humans up this high,” Mike whispered.
Still trying to overcome a near calamitous fall just moments ago, I was short of breath as Mike helped me set up his Kimber 8400 in .300 Winchester Magnum on an icy rock. With the crosshair on the bull’s chest, I squeezed the trigger and simultaneously slipped on the ice – a miss.
The herd ran 200 yards higher up, seeking refuge in jagged overhanging rocks. I had no clear shot, so all that was left was to wait and see.
We moved to find a less slippery spot and get a better angle on the herd. The sun began to shine again as, one by one, the nannies started their way across the side of the mountain to the next outcropping. “That’s 300 yards. Are you ready?” Mike asked.
The bull sprinted out, slowing down as he caught up to the herd on a snow slide similar to the one where I nearly perished 45 minutes ago. His agility was far better than mine.
The shot hit, but the bull continued as I reloaded.
“Three hundred eighty-five yards,” Mike called out.
I squeezed the trigger, and the bull staggered as the second bullet hit. Then he disappeared over the ridge. We could see a lot of blood in the snow.
Making our way to the bull, we realized he was at the bottom of a steep ravine. Blood-soaked snow told us the bull was mortally wounded. As Mike began an attempt into the craggy depths of the ravine, a bowling ball-sized rock careened down and missed him by inches. With each step, loose rock fell from above. It was too steep and treacherous to recover the bull on foot. We looked at each other and said, “No way.”
With a good idea where the bull fell, and certain that he was dead, Mike was confident the rancher who runs the property would assist us in recovering the bull the next morning. Now our task at hand was a race against the clock to get off the mountain before dark. It was close to noon.
The weather broke for our tricky and strenuous zigzag downhill. The rough going was the icy river bottom. It was an obstacle course of frozen boulders and barely passable fallen trees. It was both a physical and mental challenge after all that had happened.
Rests were short-lived as we raced against the clock. But as the sun started hitting the mountaintops across the valley, Mike said: “We’ve broken its back.” The last path was up a very steep coniferous slope out of a frozen creek bottom. At the top of the incline was a fence line.
Could we be finished? Yes, we made it! The fence would lead us to the truck on some three miles of flat ground. It took five hours.
I looked up at the mountain. I thought about my father, my mother, and my brother – good people who died far too young. After we finally recovered the fallen bull, it was officially scored at 45 inches (SCI).– Alan I. Kirschenbaum