Each step was a chore when the climb began. Now each is agonizing. Two hours ago the mountain didn’t look this tall. From the river bottom I could tell it was double-black-diamond-ski-slope steep but it looked “doable.” Now the sweat dripping from my nose makes me wish I could see the top, the goat—anything besides the blasted rock before me. For the first time ever I want a hunt to end on the first day. That can only occur if the goat we spotted two hours ago is still standing in the same spot on this Canadian rock when we reach our destination.
Each step takes me 2 feet higher, sometimes less. As our climb progresses the need increases for handholds on saplings, bushes, rocks—anything that seems like it won’t give. I test each before I trust my weight with it. My climb could end any moment if any one of them fails. But there is no other way—the face is just too steep to climb with leg power alone.
Unless you are Brody Cardinal, my guide. Almost half my age, his effortless climb above me makes me wish for younger days. They say you get in shape to play a sport; you don’t play a sport to get in shape. The same goes for alpine forays, as any sheep hunter will tell you. I’d heard a winter mountain goat hunt described as relatively easy compared to sheep hunts. Unlike sheep hunting, the theory goes, a goat hunt is often marked by just one tough push upward rather than climbs in alpine terrain for days on end.
To prepare for this adventure I’d tried a new workout that built cardiovascular endurance, and I lost weight. But clearly I hadn’t lost enough. Now I had doubts not only about what seemed like bum advice surrounding the pursuit of a goat but my preparation before arriving in Terrace, British Columbia, or my ability to finish this climb. I tried to erase them but I couldn’t escape the nagging need to keep telling myself, “Don’t look down.”
The float upriver took more than an hour under power on day one. Steady rain and fog kept us in camp, an old trapper’s cabin tucked among the hemlocks on the Kitsumkalum River—the Beaver, as locals call it. The soup was so thick we couldn’t see a hundred yards uphill on either side of the stream. Brody prepared a dinner of chicken, red peppers and rice with Thai sauce, and explained how we’d approach things.
A winter goat hunt (from November through February) relies on the weather to push down the critters from their summer range. That should equal relatively short climbs now, in mid-November, which is good because the days are short. We won’t leave camp until about 7 each morning, and ideally we’ll be off the mountain by 4 when darkness descends because, as Brody says, “You don’t want to come off the mountain in the dark.”
There’s no use glassing the slopes on the south side of the river; the goats will be on our side, the north side, looking for green shoots on south-facing slopes. We’ll motor upstream each morning and glass. If we spot a good billy we’ll strip down to only enough clothing to block the wind in temperatures that hover around 30 degrees, pack the rest and our lunch and some water in our packs and start climbing.
On day two the fog kept us in the cabin until 8:45 a.m. We headed upstream amid towering hemlocks and cedar, spruce, red alder and red osier dogwoods. Eagles soared above us. The last of the year’s coho spawned in pools. They swim up the Skeena to here, some 300 klicks from the coast. That’s nothing compared to the journey of the sockeye, Brody says, which swim up the Fraser almost to Alberta, some 800 kilometers inland.
The fog lifted and revealed a nanny and a small billy, then a lone nanny. As we strode the shore of the river we found moose tracks and droppings, and grizzly tracks in the moose tracks, which made the Model 700 .30-06 in my hands seem small. A move downriver revealed more of the same—some small billies, a nanny and a kid. We called it a day as dark closed in at 3:30. After dinner Brody taught me to play cribbage. I lost every game.
The weather on day three was clear and dry, and when Brody identified a billy among a group of goats worth the climb we doffed layers to take a stab uphill. “C’mon,” he said, “let’s stretch our legs.” He lashed my rifle to my pack frame—“You’ll need both hands to climb.”—and off we went. Picking our way through the evergreens to the base of the face was the easy part, as I soon learned.
Now, after taking a break to chug water, Brody determines that either the goats weren’t exactly where we thought they were, or they’ve moved since we began our climb. Regardless, it’s time to get off the mountain. We don’t make it far before he decides to lash up crampons—crampons! I’ve never worn spikes before. Brody, seasoned as he is, merely leans back as he descends the near-vertical face. I fall more than once. If not for a couple saplings at one point I’d still be rolling. Back at the boat at 4 o’clock I note we’ve climbed steadily up and down for four hours and 45 minutes with no more than 10-minute breaks from time to time.
On day four we see the same billy, only this time he’s a bit lower on the face. The route to a point from which I can shoot seems like a shorter climb than yesterday, which is encouraging, but when we reach our “spot” the goats are gone. We climb higher and, indeed, this time they were where we thought they were—we can see where they stood when we spied them from below. We must point downhill again, and we reach the boat two hours later. I note it’s been four hours since we left. We have yet to eat the lunches we packed two days ago.
Over more games of cribbage, Brody tells me about other clients he’s had, how he successfully bowhunted a stone sheep last year and why a winter goat hunt is “probably the toughest hunt of all.”
“Yeah,” I reply, “I’m beginning to figure that out.”
Day five dawns colder; ice floes in the river clog the jet outboard and often we stall. A short putt across from camp seems like a good idea.
In short order we spy two billies. The first one, amid a group of nannies and kids, looks good. The second one, higher and to the east, clearly is better. “Let’s get to that spot,” Brody says, pointing to a timbered finger on the face above the cabin. “If it’s late we’ll go for this lower one. If we think we’ve got the time we’ll go for the bigger one.”
The trail behind the cabin takes us past a marten with its head seized in a trap that hangs dead from a tree awaiting the man who will come to collect it. With legs weary from two days of climbing I think that if we’re successful any goat I shoot will not be left on the mountain to be collected tomorrow because I don’t want to make this trek again. When the trail ends we push uphill through alders as thick as hair on a dog’s back. I slip often and realize I’m sapping strength needed for the climb ahead. The distance between Brody and I grows greater and I curse, “Damn I’m old.” But with my guide’s encouragement finally I settle beside him atop our outpost and we see both goats still stand where we last saw them.
The billy to our east is a dandy but it’s another couple hours away judging by our progress thus far. The one above us probably tapes no more than 9 inches, but it’s right there, attainable before dark. If we can slink off this ridge and creep up a drainage below us concealed by brush I should be able to shoot it from 300 yards.
A half-hour later I settle in behind the Remington stretched across my pack. I stretch my legs ramrod straight, flatten my heels, grip the rear sling swivel with my weak hand and begin to breathe steadily as I watch the billy survey his domain. When the shot rings across the mountainside the goat disappears and Brody slaps me on the back: “Great shot!” I work the bolt and stare through the scope prepared for a follow-up but there is no sign of the beautiful white, wooly creature that stood atop a rock only an instant ago.
Everything felt good when the trigger broke, but as we climb we note the nannies have not retreated far uphill—a fact Brody doesn’t like. Thirty minutes later, as we climb the last few feet, the animal rises. I scramble to drop my pack and unleash the Remington then fire two finishers. The sun is low and I’m sopping wet with sweat; approaching darkness and the lack of clothing in my pack don’t add up to a good thing. But I smile for the camera. I wish I’d taken more pictures during this adventure. Then I take in the view—I’m on top of the world. I take stock of the last couple days and admit silently I’m not sure I ever want to do this again. So I acknowledge that this trophy, the few snapshots I have and my memories will sustain me. My smile broadens.
Later as we load my pack for the hike down my fingers burn. I can’t wiggle the toes of my right foot; in fact the whole foot feels like a block of ice. I know it must be at least a mild case of frostbite. (In fact it takes months after my return before I regain all feeling.) The fleece glomitts and half-finger gloves I brought didn’t cut it for the climbs, so on ascents I wore my leather-and-nylon Carhartts. Previously soaked from grabbing ice-covered rocks and brush and now frozen stiff, they provide little insulation. But I must pull them on again for our descent. I step off with my load 30 minutes ahead of Brody, and after he catches up we make it back to the cabin under moonlight at 9 o’clock.
The next morning the motor on the boat doesn’t start no matter how many times Brody pulls on the cord or how many words he slings at it. We figure we can row out; if it took an hour to travel upstream with jet power, maybe we can make it downstream in three with “arm-strong” power. We take turns rowing, and it looks as if our plan will work.
“Aim right, Brody,” I say as we approach ice. “Looks like it’s open over there.”
But it isn’t. A shore-to-shore ice dam blocks our route. The stuff is too thin to walk on and too thick to break. After we smash an oar it takes several tries before we successfully push off against the current and feebly row to shore. Unfortunately it is the wrong shore. Even if we walk out we still must ford the stream.
I contemplate a night in the bush. We have sleeping bags and plenty of fuel to start a great big fire, and we have plenty of food. I have no doubt we’d live through the night, but I don’t like the thought of it. Neither does Brody, who calls a rescue helo. An hour later we leave everything in the boat but my gun and gear, and the goat, and fly away. The last I saw of that boat it was tied to the south shore of the Kitsumkalum River.