Bowhunting is full of highs and lows. The highs come in small doses of promise, and the lows—like a tsunami— wash away any hope of success. Most bowhunters work for weeks scouting and preparing stand locations and then sit for days waiting on the opportunity for the 30 seconds of shear panic and adrenaline we call the “moment of truth.”
I said “most” because there’s a unique group of bowhunters—mountain hunters—who take these highs and lows to another level. They pursue sheep and goats in tremendously rugged and remote terrain. They spend 10 days, 14 days or even 21 days in a row living in a bivy bag, eating freeze-dried mush and burning 4,000 calories a day looking for a ghost on the steepest part of the mountain.
Sheep and goat hunting is an acquired taste. Some hunters do one trip and know immediately that this game isn’t for them. Others might luck into some sort of windfall and tag out in a day or two, immediately claiming to be a sheep hunter and with the full-curl horns to prove it. There are, however, a few diehards who live to hike and hunt, who enjoy climbing into the alpine with enthusiasm. Mountain hunters are athletes, guys and gals who work out and stay in shape, knowing that bow range in rugged country comes at a price.
The tourism and outfitter brochures can be an ego booster. What’s more gorgeous than an alpine lake or a vista of jagged peaks? The thought of gripping full-curling horns and thrusting a bow skyward in celebration is a huge motivator. And it takes some motivation when the typical wild sheep hunt costs $20,000 or more. Mountain goats can be sought for less than half that amount, yet bowhunter success rates on wild sheep and goats are well below 50 percent.
Sheep and goats live life like a Star Trek movie: “Boldly going where no man has gone before.” When hunting mountain goats, it’s best to glass the roughest, steepest and most inhospitable country first because this is likely where you’ll find goats. A fear of heights isn’t an asset to a mountain hunter because walking sheer ridges, traversing slides and climbing into downright “scary stuff” is common.
Sheep will often feed on the “softer” side of the mountain, but when alarmed they always high-tail it into the toughest country. Avid mountain bowhunters know that their best approach is often from above, a strategy that means a hunter can’t take the most direct route to the animals. Instead, getting to the edge requires climbing around and above the sheep, circling the back side of the ridge and then sneaking down toward the animal.
I’m a licensed pilot and not afraid of heights, but I’ve been in some very uncomfortable places on the mountain. I clearly recall a sheep hunt in Canmore, Alberta, where a nice day on the mountain suddenly turned deadly; clouds rolled in and the wind picked up, literally within 30 minutes. Guide Chad Lenz, cameraman Jeff Parker and I were face-down on the ridge being buffeted with winds in excess of 100 mph. Sugar snow turned to sandblasting, and rocks rolled across the landscape. We were pinned down and literally couldn’t get up because of the risk of being blown entirely off the mountain!
Mountains make their own weather, and if you don’t believe it, spend 10 days at the top of one. Sunburn, windburn, rain, sleet, snow, bitter cold and searing heat all before breakfast are all possible, and they’re a sure reminder that no matter how prepared you are, you can’t truly be prepared.
To be a successful bowhunter in mountain country is to understand mental toughness. When things are going well, it’s easy for everyone to stay positive. Yet when the fun of hunting actually becomes serious work, the shine quickly wears off, and what was a great idea last week can quickly become a nightmare on the mountaintop.
I’ve been on many mountain hunts and can break the mind game down into three main factors: First is the shear amount of exertion/exercise required to climb mountains day in and day out. If a bowhunter isn’t in good shape, two things are certain: The hunt isn’t going to be enjoyable, and the likelihood of success is very low. Climbing mountains is hard work, and base camp is often high in a mountain valley. The elevation will usually be 8,000-10,000 feet above where a hunter normally lives, and this thin air starves the lungs of oxygen, which starves the blood cells. As a result, less oxygen gets to the muscles and hunters quickly tire, breathing like freight
trains only steps from camp. The second factor is the “do over.” You climb and work all day to get within bow range and then realize it’s not your day to tag out. For a bowhunter who must get within 50 yards of a spooky ram or goat, every day on the mountain can feel like Groundhog’s Day. Most hunts in mountain country don’t offer stalks every day, and if there is a stalk, it usually takes an entire day. During August sheep hunts, there can be 18-20 hours of huntable light, making for long, grueling days. Getting rested and having muscles recover with only 6 hours of sleep (or fewer) isn’t easy. In fact, sleep becomes a commodity on the mountain because tents are cramped, mummy bags claustrophobic, and even the best sleeping pad isn’t like a comfy mattress at home. If a hunter heads to the mountains out of shape, the hunt is certain to be miserable.
The last factor is the stress from realizing that after a few days there’s a real possibility the hunt could end without a ram. Exhaustion, coupled with the reality of spending $20,000 in addition to the amount of travel and time off of work devoted strictly to one hunt, often weighs heavy with each step. One quickly learns why so many bowhunters opt for a guide’s rifle on the second or third day of an expensive sheep hunt (bow stalks often end out of arrow range yet within easy rifle range).
Diehard bowhunters must go into a sheep or goat hunt knowing full well that the end result can be a goose egg. This is why preparation is so important. Fitness, mental toughness, longrange shooting ability and plain old elbow grease are required for success.
MIND OVER MATTER
One of my favorite sayings is “Mind over matter—if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” This is so true in sheep and goat hunting. Successful mountain hunters refuse to give up. Quitting is not an option.
On steep climbs or descents, I count steps to 20, then rest, then count 20 more. Pace is mandatory, as is finding your mental “happy place.” When exercising, think about good things. Many marathon runners use music to achieve the mind state of “Zen” where they no longer focus on the body punishment, but remove the task from their mind all together. I don’t advocate an iPod on the mountain, but if “Stairway to Heaven” can get you to the top, then fire up some Zeppelin and get climbing.
Treasure hunter Mel Fisher spent nearly 15 years looking for the wreck of the ship Nuestra Señora de Atocha. This Spanish galleon was wrecked during a hurricane in 1622 and carried $450 million in gold and silver to the bottom. Each morning of the search Fisher would echo the words, “Today’s the day!” And one day he was right. This is the essence of a successful mountain hunter. No matter the weather, no matter how tired or how many days, the mindset in camp must always be, “Today’s the day!”
Bonus Video: Release Tips From Luke