Flashback Friday – Spanish Ibex Quest

MarApr1987CVREditor’s Note: On Friday we dust off a gem from the extensive SCI archives and bring it back to life. Today we tag along on a hunt for Gredos Ibex in Spain. This story first appeared in the March/April 1987 issue of Safari Magazine.

There are cave drawings in Spain and southern France that are proof the ibex has been hunted extensively since prehistoric times. However, with the arrival of modern civilization its habitat has shrunk and the animal has retreated into remote and difficult to penetrate mountains. Even in those areas it had neared extinction, threatened not only by legitimate hunters, but also by very hearty and obstinate poachers. We still have the species because King Alphonsus XIII of Spain established preserves and authorized gamekeepers to keep poaching at a minimum.

The ibex is well adapted to its mountainous habitat. Biologically it is someplace between mountain goats and sheep. It can climb up and down nearly vertical slopes and feed on sparse mountain vegetation. Its weakness is that, except during rutting seasons, the ibex is fairly sedentary and a creature of habit. By careful observation, its location often can be pinpointed to certain times and areas, which, in spite of difficult terrain, improves the hunter’s chance of success.

The best trophies in Spain come from the Beceite and Gredos areas. The Gredos Mountains are steeper and more difficult to climb, especially the south slope, but it has more open terrain. Beceite is more woodsy, which makes spotting the game more difficult. I chose to hunt the Gredos.

The author poses with his Spanish mountain trophy.
The author poses with his Spanish mountain trophy.

Every hunt requires preparations, but a mountain hunt requires rigorous physical conditioning, some degree of mental toughness and good shooting ability. In addition to normal hunting skills. Six months before the hunt I started swimming a mile at least four times a week. I chose to work out by swimming because I felt that I needed to exercise my arms, legs and torso. With minimal dieting I thus lost 11 pounds. For special leg exercise, I stopped using elevators in the hospital where I work, and climbed the equivalent of 20 stories almost daily. I also walked as many miles a day in my hunting boots as I could. The last two weeks before the hunt I added a five-mile-a-day walk, most of it up and down hills, to the swimming.

The ibex are hunted like other mountain game. After reaching remote areas one glasses the slopes to spot shootable males. Then comes the process of climbing and stalking, and this can present a real hardship to the hunter in the rarified mountain atmosphere. To get as near as 300 yards is considered good stalking. A long shot decides whether you bring home a trophy. If all the problems of shooting are solved and the animal is killed, there is often a mini-expedition to retrieve the ibex.

Jaime glasses for ibex on the southern slopes.
Jaime glasses for ibex on the southern slopes.

When we drove into what I call “real” mountains. Clouds were topping the steep, foreboding and very craggy peaks. The road laboriously inched its way up in hairpins added to hairpin turns. “This is better than my native Switzerland,” thought I.

The little Renault wheezed to a stop. “Kaput?” I asked in my impeccable Spanish. “No, this is the end of the car trip. Our horse is waiting here,” said Jaime.

I nicknamed the horse “Rocinante,” the name of the steed of Don Quixote. It was a docile, surefooted and bony creature and was led by a teenage, dark-haired wiry boy. The saddle was a collection of comfortable blankets. I climbed on a stone and got on top of the horse. We lashed some of our belongings on its back and started to descend towards the stream that was gurgling someplace in the valley below us, following a trail made by goats that are much more skillful at going down slopes than are horses.

In an hour we were 1,500 feet lower than where we had started – but only about a mile to the north. A tumultuous mountain stream was just a few hundred feet below us when we stopped to glass; there were no ibex.

Fernando, the game guard, pointed to a rock on the opposite shore of the stream. That’s where the ram had been two days ago. It’s a good area. Females are attracted to the male, and we saw six ibex on the other slopes. Some were males, but were too young.

gredosibexWe decided to leave Rocinante with the boy and climb higher, hoping to find the old male. There are only two situations when I wish I were younger, and this was one of them. Jaime and Fernando preceded me with ease while I huffed and puffed my way up 20 yards behind them, wishing we had old Rocinante with us. The young men were kind and waited for me.

The sun was slowly disappearing behind the needle-sharp rocks at the top of the mountain, its warm light coloring the peaks pink. When we stopped to glass again, my heart was pounding, a combined result of altitude, effort and excitement. Still nothing. We resumed our trek. The stream was now several hundred yards below us, but we could faintly hear its splashing waters.

We had rounded a large boulder when I saw Jaime and Fernando crouch suddenly. They were pointing across the stream to a little brownish spot atop a large granite stone on the opposite slope. “A very large ibex,” Jaime whispered. “Lie down on this rock.”

I put my goose down jacket on a protruding stone and got down on my belly and cranked my scope to nine power. A magnificent ibex was bathed by the last rays of the setting sun, looking towards us. Its body was broadside, but partially hidden by a clump of mountain sage. A smaller male was accompanying it and its sharper sight would make it notice us sooner and run away.

I knew I had very few seconds before it would spot us. I estimated the distance at 350 yards, switched the tang safety of the Mauser to the fire position and placed the crosshairs at the top of its back as I squeezed the trigger. A second or two later, there was the reassuring whack of the bullet reaching its target. The shot was still echoing through the valley when the ibex fell off the rock and disappeared from our sight.

Jaime was shaking my hand. “You got him. He is a super gold medal.”

Twenty minutes later we reached the stream and started climbing the nearly straight-up slope towards where the ibex had been. Jaime again was ahead of me. I saw disappointment on his face when he announced from about 50 yards above me, “Lots of blood, but no ibex.” We followed the trail, but it disappeared in an impenetrable maze of sharp rocks. We heard the game guard fire. He thought he had seen a glimpse of brown, but he hit a rock. The night was falling as a small local storm rolled in, clouds loaded with rain and lightning.

It had been well hit, but pursuing the wounded ibex would cause it to run farther. Jaime said we should leave it alone until the next day, hoping we would find it near where it had been shot. Anyway, it would be impossible to find anything in the darkness; the clouds were obscuring the moon.

I wasn’t excessively spry the next morning, and, my mood was that of a grizzly with a sore tooth. We were eating a late breakfast when Fernando came running in. “The dogs have found your ibex. Es fantastico – only 600 yards from where you shot it,” he said.

I paid it my last respects in the traditional hunter’s way by placing a sprig of fragrant mountain sage in its mouth and in my hatband. “Weidmannshail, my brave one,” I said, then turned to Jaime and gave him a long handshake. I wish I could have found words suitable for expressing my gratitude for this incredible hunt.

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