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Tahr Hunting in New Zealand

The author, guide Fraser Cooper and his hard won tahr.
The author (l), guide Fraser Cooper (r) and his hard won tahr.

“It’s your call,” offered Mitch, our New Zealand guide. The decision wasn’t easy.  Less than an hour into the tahr hunt, we stood looking at a beautiful bull tahr carrying 12-inch horns.

I’d already taken tahr on previous hunts to New Zealand’s South Island, but none was as big as the bull we stared at, less than 150 yards away. But it wasn’t my call to make, as my hunting partner, Andrew Chilkiewicz, was behind the gun first.

“It’s awful tempting,” smiled Andrew. The bull was going nowhere, as the tahr rut was in full swing on this early June day.

“If you think there’s a bigger one up the mountain, let’s check it out,” concluded Andrew. “If we have to come back for this bull, maybe he’ll stay in the bowl with the nannies. Besides, I want to see what all the talk of extreme tahr hunting is really about.”

Andrew, marketing manager for Trijicon, and I were hunting New Zealand’s Southern Alps with Kiwi Safaris. James “Mitch” Mitchell, the operation’s top guide, was point man; and ace guide, Fraser Cooper, was also along on the journey.

The Ascent

tiptoptahrnzmtnshuntforever022714The first tahr hunt I did 16 years prior was an experience I’ll never forget. It was a non-guided hunt with some local buddies, and that’s where I learned what true tahr hunting with Kiwis is all about. I soon realized the success of the hunt in their eyes was not necessarily the size of the animal pursued. Rather it was how hard we worked to get him. I knew when Andrew passed up the bull low in the valley that the hunt would quickly escalate to another level.

Rounding a corner in the creek bottom, vertical cliffs surrounded us and there was nowhere to go but up. Mitch and Fraser pulled out their spotting scopes and pointed them toward the sky, searching for tahr high atop the snow-capped peaks. Andrew and I glassed.

“There’s our bull,” muttered Mitch, eye glued to his spotting scope. From the angle at which he was looking, Andrew and I knew what it meant: a climb straight uphill.

Through my binoculars the bull looked good, but when I tucked the eyepiece of the Swarovski spotting scope into my right eye, he looked spectacular. “I’ll go after him if you don’t want him,” I blurted without thinking.

To reach that tahr would take the better part the day, if we could reach him at all. We’d have to climb nearly 5,000 feet, negotiate shale slopes, snow and ice, and, if we were lucky, the bull might still be in the area once we eventually reached him.

“I’m up for it,” Andrew followed. “Let’s give it a try.”

The bull was magnificent. His cream colored, long mane stood out in stark contrast against the cobalt sky behind him. Mitch and Fraser guessed his horns to be pushing 14 inches, which, for a true free-range tahr, is about as good as it gets.

Heading up a scree-strewn draw, the first 1,000 feet were the easiest. We were seeing tahr much of the way, but started seeing more the higher we tiptoptahrglassinghuntforever022714climbed. They were tucked everywhere in the mountains.

The higher we climbed, the more tahr we saw. Once we hit the 4,000-foot elevation mark, the scree turned to tundra-like ground, and though the footing was better, the angle of ascent grew considerably steeper.

“Not many guys would make it this far,” Mitch complimented Andrew and me as he glassed the surrounding mountains. “One of the reasons there are so many bulls up here is because they’re so under-hunted. There’s simply not many people who can reach them.”

Mitch’s words boosted our spirits, and suddenly the next 1,000 feet of mountain didn’t seem that bad.

Taking one last chug of water, I was interrupted by a tap on the knee. “Take a look at this bull,” Fraser offered, moving aside from his spotting scope. “Which one?” I asked. “That middle one will go close to 14 inches,” Fraser replied. “There’s a 13-inch bull right across the draw,” Mitch interjected.

Sitting in one place we had four shooter bulls in sight. The more I looked at the bull Fraser spotted, the more I wanted him. The thing was, the bull was 2,000 feet below us. “He won’t leave those nannies,” Fraser consoled. “Let’s go get Andrew’s bull then we’ll go get yours before dark.”

Tip-Top Tahr

Fraser made it sound so simple. But Andrew and I would have to reach deep inside ourselves to pull it off.

“That 13-incher is looking pretty good,” Andrew noted, looking to Mitch for confirmation. “What do you think, Mitch?”

“It’s your call, Andrew. He’s a great bull, but the one at the top of the mountain

will be about an inch bigger,” Mitch relayed.

Andrew was now faced with the decision all tahr hunters eventually have to make.  For the first time he understood what makes this trophy one of the most challenging in the entire realm of big game hunting. Very few people would know the difference between a 13 or a 14-inch tahr hanging on the wall, back home.  But in his heart, the hunter would know if he compromised.

The question was whether to pull the trigger on a 13-inch tahr and end the hunt right there, or climb another 1,000 feet for an extra inch of horn. The more Andrew pondered the situation, the more he realized it really wasn’t about the extra inch.

tiptoptahrchamoishuntforever022814“Let’s keep climbing!” Andrew exclaimed.

Without a word, Mitch and Fraser loaded the packs and soon we were on our final accent. The last 500 feet were the toughest, partly because our bodies were spent, partly because the snow, ice and steep mountain made the going even rougher.

“He’s right up there,” Mitch whispered, having moved ahead of us by 30 yards. That was all the motivation we needed. Adrenaline took over and the last 30 yards felt like we were walking on flat ground.

Quickly, Andrew nestled his rifle into the shooting sticks and waited. “The bull is behind those nannies coming out of the brush,” Mitch instructed. “You can’t see him now but he’ll come right out into that patch of snow.”

Sure enough, just as Mitch predicted, the massive bull strode into the snow. Then Andrew broke the silence with a single shot, hitting the bull on the point of the shoulder. It collapsed instantly and slid out of sight. Amid the congratulatory handshakes, Mitch caught a glimpse of the bull several seconds after the shot. It was rapidly sliding down a snow-choked ravine. It crashed all the way to the bottom of the gorge, out of sight and going 30 miles per hour.

Getting down to Andrew’s tahr was more dangerous than the hike up. The snow was deep and the ice thick on the north-facing slope we had to descend. Crampons, ice picks and repelling gear would have helped, be we had none of that. Instead, we had to plan each footstep tediously, rely on our fingertips to hold us tight to shale cliffs and trust that the ground wouldn’t give way.

Two-and-a-half hours later, hands bruised and bloodied, nerves frayed, we reached Andrew’s tahr, nearly 2,000 feet below where he’d shot it on the tip-top of the mountain. Tattered and bruised, the horns remained intact, but the pelt looked a bit worse for wear.

“We’ll skin this thing out, you and Fraser go get your tahr, and we’ll meet ya at the bottom,” Mitch instructed. It hadn’t even dawned on me. I figured we’d be short on time, as we were nine hours into the hunt with not much daylight remaining.

“Let’s go. We can hop over and see if that bull you wanted is still there,” Fraser encouraged. Again, he made it sound easy, which was encouraging to me.

Grizzly Encounters

We had three ridges to cross and just over an hour to do it before darkness set in.  The best part, we had to lose very little elevation, meaning we could swiftly cover ground by side-hilling our way to where we’d last seen the bull.tiptoptahrstaghuntforever022814

Forty-five minutes later, Fraser and I were hunkered down alongside some sword grass, glassing for tahr. “There’s one bull, and another,” Fraser shared, barely breathing. I was still trying to catch my breath, drinking what little water I had left and figuring we’d be heading back up the mountain tomorrow.

“They’re just over 400 yards away, let’s try and get closer,” Fraser insisted. All of a sudden, covering the last 150 yards seemed trivial — that’s how motivating these animals are.

As I erected my three-legged Bog Pod shooting sticks, Fraser found the bull in his spotting scope. “Take a look, make sure he’s one you want,” smiled Fraser.

Staring at that bull took me back to my very first tahr hunt, where, in the final minutes of the last day, we saw a giant bull that I could have shot, but had no way of getting to in the jagged, ice-covered peaks where he lived.  Since then I’d dreamed of one day getting a massive-chested, big-maned bull, and there he was, in my scope.

“Take your time, we’re in no rush now,” whispered Fraser.

The herd had no idea we were perched just over 200 yards above them. All three bulls were still there, feeding, occasionally prodding one another, then chasing nannies.

Though the bull undoubtedly had incredible horns, it was his stunning coat that enamored me. Golden, almost blond, in color and long all the way behind the shoulders. This was as much a prize as his headgear. Watching his long coat shimmer with each step he took reminded me of the grizzly bears I used to hunt in Alaska, while living in a tiny Inupiat Eskimo village on the north slope of the Brooks Range. This setting was even similar to the Brooks Range. “He looks like a grizzly bear with horns,” I mumbled.

Getting in the gun, I put the point of the Trijicon AccuPoint behind the bull’s shoulder.  Pressuring the trigger, I was in no hurry, for I was still in awe of this massive beast that seemed so close in my 9x scope.

The report of the rifle jolted me, and when I heard the bullet impact and saw it plow through the long hair behind the bull’s shoulder, I knew he was ours. He ran downhill, but didn’t go far in the tall brush.

Later in the hunt I took a free-range red stag and the best chamois of my life. Those hunts were great fun. The chamois was a tough hunt, no question. But the tahr, that was something special.

Not only was it one of the toughest hunts of my entire life, second only to a mountain goat hunt, but working as a team we helped one another overcome physical and mental hurdles that would have been nearly impossible alone. The fact that our bulls both carried horns near the 14-inch mark and aged out at 7 1/2 years was icing on the cake.

The real reward comes every day when I look at that bull, mounted life-size in my home. His horns are something to behold and his stunning fur is every bit as striking as the first time I laid eyes on him. But what really comes back to mind is the pain, endurance and mental anguish that was continually overcome to reach the top of the mountain.  Those are the real rewards of tahr hunting.–Scott Haugen


A Quest for the Crown in a Far Away Kingdom


Throughout history, kings have worn crowns made of precious materials beautifully adorned with sparkling jewels as symbols of power and exceptional prowess. Commoners dreamed of being worthy enough to have an audience with the monarch who wore such an awesome decoration upon his head and for years I had dreamed that one day I might have a similar audience — not with a king of men, but a king of deer. Jewels may be precious to some, but antlers with many points in a crown-like formation were the objects of my quest. I saw those antlers, both in the scope and on the ground on June 9, 2012. The icing on the cake was that my nine-year-old son was with me on the stalk and watched it all unfold. Later, he, too, would get to squeeze the trigger on a magnificent creature most fellow Pennsylvanians have never even heard of, let alone seen.

New Zealand is known for its many mighty red stag.  For this quest, my son, Tommy, and I traded a Pennsylvania summer for winter in beautiful Queenstown on the South Island of New Zealand. Before this adventure, the largest member of the deer family I had hunted was mule deer. I had held red stag antlers in my hands before, but the anticipation of taking one was at times all-consuming. I also decided not only to hunt stag, but also chamois, a tahr and wallabies. I hoped this would not be my only trip to New Zealand, but if Tommy and I were going that far to hunt, we were going to make the most of the trip.

questforcrownfathersonstagOn the morning of our stag hunt as I was lacing up my boots, the outfitter explained that there was a certain stag with light colored antlers that no one had been able to find for weeks. I thought it must be a good stag if the guides had been looking for him, but that my chances of finding him were probably slim. With that in mind, Tommy, our guides, Sam and John, and I set out on our stag hunt. The first two stags we came across were respectable, but not what I wanted to pull the trigger on just an hour into the first morning of a five-day hunt.  We carried on and climbed a very large hill to glass and spotted five stag across the next valley. I thought long and hard about taking the biggest one, but while we were formulating a plan, we learned that the stag with the light colored antlers had been spotted.

Sam took off ahead to get to the area where the stag had been spotted while Tommy and I followed with John at a much slower pace. We arrived to see Sam seated next to a spotting scope on a trail about a mile away. As I looked through the scope, I saw a nice stag lying in some tall grass that was almost as light as his antlers. We watched the stag for a while and when he turned around I saw his antlers from behind. I wanted crowns and there were certainly crowns upon his head and I knew for sure that he was the stag I wanted.

We formulated a plan to work our way toward the stag by heading down into a riverbed and then using the other side of the bank for cover. We crossed over a stream and wound our way through thorny bushes and then across the face of the opposite bank to just below and out of sight of our quarry. At times I had to reach back and grab my son’s hand to help him up the bank, but he kept telling me not to worry about him and to focus on what I was doing.

I was hunting with my trusty Model 75 Sako chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum. I would have had no trouble taking the stag from the spot 260 questforcrownMtshuntforever022414yards away where we first popped our heads up over the embankment, but Sam thought we could get closer undetected. We snaked our way through the prickly brush on the embankment, staying as low and as quiet as we could, then stopped at a spot where Sam took off his pack. He ranged the “deer,” as the Kiwis call them, at 160 yards.

I laid down prone and used Sam’s pack as a rest. The stag was standing broadside, feeding, and had no idea anything was around. He certainly had no idea my crosshairs were coming to rest behind his shoulder. I found my focus, shifting a few times between the antlers and the shoulder and when I was comfortable, pulled the trigger. But nothing happened. I had forgotten to put a cartridge in the chamber… again, safety first. It’s not often that we get second chances, but that time I did. I worked the bolt, got comfortable again and squeezed off the perfect shot.  As soon as I got my eye back on the scope after the recoil, all I saw was antlers hit the ground. The stag never knew what hit him and he went down without taking a single step. It was exactly what I wanted — a great stag, taken cleanly and quickly.

As we walked up on the stag, Tommy was very excited. He wanted to see the stag on the ground and I was very happy to have him with me and to share this perfect moment with him. We learned as we got closer that the stag’s right hip had been injured. It was apparently dislocated.  He must have been in some pain and been hunkered down as a result. Perhaps that is why he had been elusive for weeks. The fact that he may have been in pain reinforced my decision to take this particular stag. I like to believe that I ended his suffering without causing any more.

The stag was eventually scored at 368 SCI, which I understand makes him a gold medal stag.  There was some discussion back at the lodge about having the antlers stained, but I have no intention of doing that. His light colored antlers are what attracted me to him in the first place and I am not about to change them. I want him to remind me for the rest of my life about the hunt with my young son in such a far-away place. His golden crowns had shown in the New Zealand sun and would look just as spectacular in our home.

questforcrownchamoishuntforever022414Our New Zealand adventures took a turn toward the extreme when we decided to go after chamois and tahr. Gary had spotted some chamois on a steep rock face of a mountain and took Tommy with his rifle and put a shotgun with buckshot in my hand. The plan was for Tommy to take the chamois, but if the animal ran my way, I was told that I would need to shoot him.  I was also informed that chamois are not slow movers.

Gary and Tommy moved farther up the mountainside. Things seemed a bit slow once we were all in position, but then I saw a chamois’ head pop up from behind a rock. After a second or two of contemplating whether to shoot or not, the old “one in the hand is worth two in the bush” thinking kicked in and I sent some buckshot toward the chamois.  He ran up the hill away from me and I fired again, then lost sight of the animal.

A few seconds later, I heard a single shot from Tommy’s rifle and shortly thereafter Gary appeared from behind a rock with a smile on his face and a thumbs up.  He had Tommy’s rifle in his hand so I presumed it was Gary who finished the chamois.  To my delight, I learned that Tommy had fired. It turns out that my shots had sent the plump chamois up to the opening of a nearby cave and if Tommy had hesitated, the animal would have quickly retreated into the darkness. Tommy took aim, squeezed the trigger and put the chamois down.  Once again, he made me proud.

We shifted gears to become tahr predators and went to another area where tahr are known to reside. As luck would have it, we found some, again on the side of a mountain near some large boulders and caves. There was a nanny with a few young in a group and as our luck continued, big daddy was close by.

I was not going to be able to get as close as I did to the chamois. I was at the bottom of the ravine with a snowy mountainside in front and another questforcrownTahrhuntforever022414behind me. I ended up resting my rifle on a snow-covered boulder with the barrel pointed up at what I felt was a pretty significant angle. The tahr hunkered down and Gary decided he was going to try to move toward the group to make something happen.  After waiting a bit, the nanny and her youngsters started to move and then it got a bit confusing. One of the young tahr ran toward me and came within 20 yards of my position. The tahr that I wanted appeared broadside and I took a shot, then another and another.  The tahr was moving but not running and I could not understand why I kept missing or why the beast would not go down.  I emptied my gun and reloaded, then got closer to the tahr as he moved to a rock formation on the side of the mountain. I had him in my scope broadside at a very reasonable distance and put three more bullets in him before he tumbled down, head over heels.

I could not believe the toughness of the tahr. Not only do they live in places most creatures have no desire ever to climb, but they do not go down easily. When the animal was caped out, I learned that I had hit him in the boiler six times and also grazed his front leg. I felt better about my shooting skills and was shocked at the resilience of the tahr. Gary called him a monster.  I don’t have any knowledge or experience to confirm or argue with his assessment as I had never seen a tahr before, but I took his word for it. The tahr was surprisingly heavy and difficult to move on my own and in my mind will always be a “monster.”

In the end, our quest for the crown was a complete success. Tommy and I took great trophies. New Zealand is spectacularly beautiful. We learned about Kiwi culture and took in lots of the adventure activities Queenstown has to offer. We bonded as males, as hunting buddies and as father and son. We learned, laughed, shed a tear or two and loved each other and our experience at every turn. As the Kiwis are oft to say, we had “no worries, mates,” none at all.—Tom Anderson

Perfect Place for a Honeymoon

honeymoonhuntstag2huntforever012714It all started on February 25, 2008, when my girlfriend of four years, Natasha, and I took a trip to Seaside, Oregon, a beach town about five hours away from our home in Goldendale, Washington. Little did she know that on the trip she would become my fiancée.

It was a beautiful afternoon and we were having a great time together. I had stashed the ring in the car before we left, but found I couldn’t get to the car to retrieve the ring without Natasha asking what I was doing. While we were sitting on the couch, though, she said it was time for a nap before going out to dinner. That was my opportunity to get the ring. I almost messed up, though, blurting out, “Yeah, that is a great idea!” After a surprised and weird look, she headed for a nap. I waited about 30 minutes, headed out to the car, and snatched the ring from the flat tire carrier–the only place I knew she would not look. I dashed back upstairs and hid the ring under the couch. A while later, she woke up, we went to a great dinner, then came back to the apartment and got settled in.

I’d had ankle surgery about five weeks prior, and was still in a walking boot. With her sitting on the couch, I went over to her and tried to kneel down. Much to my surprise, it was impossible to kneel with the boot on, so I had to propose on two knees. After many kisses, hugs, tears and, of course, a “yes,” we were engaged. We set a date of May 3, 2009, with months of planning the wedding and her finishing school in front of us.

Shortly after returning home, we started talking about honeymoon destinations. I had never flown on a plane before and said I never would. However, after a few bribes and a lot of begging I decided I would fly, but in that same breath told Natasha that I was not flying halfway around the world not to be able to shoot something. She said that was fine so long as she could shoot something, too. So began my search for the perfect honeymoon place.

I had dreamed of going to New Zealand for red stag since I was a young boy, so we decided that New Zealand it would be. After many long hours on the computer, I was able to find a booking agent who got me setup with Wilderness Quest New Zealand. We set dates of May 8 through 12 and, after our wedding and a very long series of plane rides, we were standing in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was the 7th of May and after taking in several tourist attractions, we headed for our hotel for a good night’s sleep.

honeymoonhunthuntforever012714The morning of the 8th was upon us, and Jonathan Christian of Wilderness Quest New Zealand was there early to pick us up. Along the three-hour breathtaking ride through Lord of the Rings country, we learned of the many other animals and adventures that he had to offer. While listening to him talk, I thought to myself, “Jonathan is a great person and is going to be a great guide.” He would also become a great friend to my wife and me.

After arriving at the lodge and meeting Zion, Jonathan’s cousin, cameraman and also a guide himself, we got a quick bite to eat, shot our rifles, and headed out for an evening hunt. Our main goal was a bronze stag for my wife and a gold stag for me. I had learned that Wilderness Quest offered wild boar hunting, too. I have always wanted a big boar and told Jonathan that if the opportunity presented itself, I would really like to take one home with us.

We got to a high vantage point where we could see a good distance. After spotting several fallow bucks and some arapawa rams, we located a stag. The stag was estimated to be in the bronze class so Natasha was first up. After a long stalk that had us out of site of the stag, we were able to get above him. Natasha got set up on the shooting sticks, with the stag bedded 100 yards below us. She took her time and squeezed of her first shot, hitting the stag right behind the shoulder. He managed to rock to his feet as she chambered a second round and placed it perfectly behind the shoulder again.  With a few sways back and forth and only going about eight steps, the stag piled over into a creek below him and our screams of excitement began.

We made our way down to the stag and he was a beauty. He had 18 points, great crowns and large mass. What a trophy! We knew he would be a top bronze, but after Jonathan scored him, he went into the silver class, scoring 313 5/8. We caped him out and decided that with an hour or two before last light, we would head farther back up the mountainside. Hearing stags roaring in the distant hills was all the motivation I needed to keep going.

As we came to another vantage point overlooking a valley, Jonathan said to me, “Matt, there’s a big boar.” Man did my eyes light up! After finding him in my glasses, I saw he was a big, jet-black boar in the range of 250 to 300 pounds. While we put together a stalking plan, another boar–the wild boar of my dreams– emerged from the cover and walked next to the first boar, dwarfing him in size. This one was a massive silver and white boar with huge white tusks gleaming in the fading light. The boars were heading toward a valley with a creek, so we quickly took off down the hill.

After getting a glimpse of them in the brush a mere 60 to70 yards away, we moved down a bit closer to a gap in the cover where we anticipated the boars would cross. As honeymoonhuntboarhuntforever012714we got there, I pulled my shooting sticks out and went to sit down. While still in motion, I saw a black head pop out about 50 yards away and quickly found the crosshairs in my Leupold. The black boar chopped his teeth, spun and headed downhill. As soon as he did, the silver boar followed. With a hard quartering away shot, I let my Sako .300 Winchester Magnum bark, striking the boar through the vitals. I chambered another round as the boar dashed for cover, and took off on a run after him. I saw the boar a bit below me, cutting through the cover and going straight away. I took a running shot off-hand at about 60 yards, striking the boar through the back hip, with the bullet continuing forward into the vitals. The big silver and white boar turned toward the other boar, and I quickly chambered a third round. The boar was about 60 to70 yards away and on the move, but I got the crosshairs on his vitals and sent my third 180-grain Nosler Partition right through the top of his vitals, breaking the opposite shoulder. The boar buckled with the impact. I had done it–another one of my dream animals was now mine.

After some great pictures showing the boar’s six-inch-long tusks, we headed back for a wonderful dinner and a good night’s sleep. The second morning started great with many animals seen but no gold stags. As morning became early afternoon, I got a glimpse of a stag going through cover ahead of us that sent my heart racing. The chase was now on. Jonathan got a good look at the stag as it passed through an opening and declared that it was one for me.

The cover was so high that every time I set up for a shot, I could not see a clearly to his vitals. After three or four attempts, the stag started going downhill, headed for an opening. Knowing that was my golden opportunity, I got setup for the shot. With a roar from Zion, the stag came to a stop at about 150 yards and the 180-grain Partition was on its way. The bullet struck the stag through the lungs. With a jump and a kick, the stag turned and my second 180-grain Partition was sent with deadly accuracy to the point of both shoulders, instantly taking the stag from his feet. With many very loud war hoops and some fast running to my trophy, I had my gold medal stag in my hands. He scored 336 inches and is everything I dreamed of in mass, width and height, with huge crowns and 22 points in all.

honeymoonhuntsheephuntforever012714Natasha and I had come for two stags and we had them, plus a boar and several days of hunting left. During the next two and half days, I was able to take a management fallow buck with my Sako at 168 yards and Natasha took an arapawa ram with her rifle. I switched to my trusty PSE X Force set at 75 pounds and with Easton FMJ arrows tipped with Innerloc broadheads, took a trophy arapawa ram, a management arapawa ram, and a feral goat.

We came for two animals and left with eight. I also bagged five pheasants, eleven hares, a pair of paradise ducks, and several other pest animals. Our time at Wilderness Quest New Zealand will always be remembered–not only as our honeymoon, but also as some of the best hunting in our lives. They’re first class people with second-to-none accommodations and awesome trophies. We booked again with Jonathan. Thanks, guys, for the perfect honeymoon!– Matthew Wilkins

Personal Best

The author and his tahr.
The author and his tahr.

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.

personalbestbasecamphnt4evr121813I 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.

As we ascended, sharp tussock grass gave way to jagged rock and then into loose shale covered in fresh snow. A ribbon of twilight appeared above the peaks across the valley.personalbesttahrhuntsunrisehnt4evr121813

“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.

personalbesttahrhunthnt4evr121813When you begin to slide your thought process is gone – you go on instinct and hope the training kicks in. It did.

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