The beginning of the day before finding a chamois
I am gobsmacked the moment I wake up and draw back the curtains to reveal mountains covered in snow and forests of pine. The sun is yet to peek over the peaks and is dispensing its rays with Scrooge-like munificence.
Having arrived at night, I was unable to appreciate the immaculate beauty of the surroundings. I slip into my Hell’s Canyon II outfit and go downstairs to the dining room. My friend Peter is waiting for me at the table, and we gulp down a coffee.
At 6.15 we’re in the 4×4 owned by Stane, our guide who has come to pick us up. The flora and mist block out most of the view as our car winds its way up the mountainside. I take the chance to clear the fog from my mind, which is distinctly disinclined to wake up at the light of dawn.
A breathtaking landscape
Suddenly, the view clears and we arrive at a snowy plain. For a few seconds, my breath stops while my heart races. We are driving above a sea of cloud, over 5,500 feet up. I remind myself that this is why I hunt – to experience moments just like this. At one with nature and back to what is really important.
Our 4×4 continues uphill tentatively. As it begins to get stuck in the snow, Peter and I get out and push. It’s minus 10° and the cold is stinging my cheeks. We abandon our vehicle a little further on, at the foot of a mountain refuge. Peter hands me the X-Bolt Composite .308Win that will bag me a quarry unlike any other – the chamois. We continue our climb on foot.
Peter and Stane, both 20 years my senior, climb with mouflon-like ease as I struggle for breath. I blame it on the altitude rather than my penchant for raclettes, chocolate, and cigarettes. At the top of a ridge, our guide signals me to stop stock-still. A few yards further on is a dizzying void. He glasses the horizon for minutes on end. Not a chamois to be seen.
We set off again, along the edge of a ravine where we fell alone in the world, with a sea of clouds still at our feet. We are like castaways. Far in the distance is a village, deserted at this time of year, like an island in the middle of the ocean. We stop again to look for the much-anticipated animal we had hoped to see.
A day without encounter, but rich of lessons
In the end, our guide realises they must have moved to another slope to escape the icy winds that have been blowing these last few days. We retrace our steps and decide to climb down below the cloud line. On the way, we come across a number of roe deer who couldn’t be less afraid to see us. This reserve stretches across almost 50,000 hectares (!) and sees very little hunting activity.
This seems a promising spot. We walk on, alongside the empty drop. I hold on to a metal cable fortunately positioned along the path. My boots are up to the job in Belgium; here, they fool no-one. I lose my footing a number of times and start being extra careful as my life insurance won’t keep my family in financial comfort for decades to come. Besides, I wouldn’t like to die before the chamois. My calves are warming up and I’m enjoying every second of this blessed peace. The landscape reflects my satisfaction: immense and heady.
There will be no encounter this day. Stane seems baffled, almost bothered. As we make our way back down into the valley, I have a smile on my lips: I’ve had a wonderful day.
A new day stalking Chamois
We try again the next day. Darko, joint manager of the site with Peter, joins us. He’s a friendly man who tries to be reassuring: “nobody has ever left here without getting what they came for”. I’m far from worried, aware of how lucky I am. And anyway, I didn’t come here to hunt.
We board the vehicle in the early hours again and decide to try a different slope. Again, the sight is breathtaking. The forest is cloaked in fog at our feet. There are only a few yards between us. Peter has lent me a more suitable pair of boots and I’ve stopped slipping. We head up a rocky mountainside path. We see a chamois eating peacefully on the slope opposite. It’s too far away for us.
I’m like a tourist walking around Paris, wanting to take a photo every few minutes. But I’m also aware there are no words and no SD cards in the world that can capture the beauty of this moment. So I push ahead, faster now, realising the fog could suddenly close in again and spare a chamois that would be unaware of how lucky it is.
It’s time to seize my luck
Stane and Darko signal to me to be quiet, but especially not to go slip-sliding on my face like a prat again. We’re coming to a vantage point with a view over a cliff that is particularly popular with chamois. Peter whispers to me that two years ago the spot we’re in now was covered in footprints left by the region’s many brown bears. We stretch out on the ground and bring our binoculars to bear.
Some 440 yards away is the long-awaited game. A chamois goat (a female?) munching on some tufts of grass. We decide to move in closer. Chamois are very strong and can cover long distances when they are injured. I’m not practised in mountain marathons and don’t want to take any risks, my heart wouldn’t last.
I struggle along the steep, rocky ground. My breathing is fast and the icy air is burning my throat. A hillock hides us from the animal’s sharp eyes, which can spot slight movements from well over 500 yards away. I crawl the last few yards so my outline doesn’t stand out at the top. I settle against the stock of my X-Bolt.
My scope shows a beautiful chamois. It seems to know that something is up. It looks towards me, but can’t see through my A-TACS camouflage. It’s close, maybe 160 yards away. I’ve all the time I need to adjust my aim. I release the safety. I caress the Super Feather trigger and take the shot. The Winchester Extreme Point hits in the lower shoulder. The chamois’ front legs buckle beneath it, and the 15x scope shows me the expression in its eyes.
The chamois tips forwards, its body slides down the steep slope. Our shared adventure ends here. Inside, I thank it for these magical moments.