Bronwyn's Tahr - When Does 'Safe' become 'unsafe?'

As published in the New Zealand Professional Hunting Guides Assn magazine 'The Scope.'

It came as somewhat of a shock when Bronwyn blindsided me and asked ‘will you take me for a hunt'? The ‘organised madness' of our main season was behind us, we had five days available and a favourable weather forecast so my answer was ‘okay sure'.

I will spare you the next two paragraphs where most authors proceed to explain to the reader how great a hunter they are and cut straight to the point. The tents are up, it's a fine evening and there is a nice old bull tahr 800m from camp; not bad. Half an hour later the two of us can walk no closer, I have judged the bull as a trophy and set Bronwyn up on the .270 with bipod 240m from our target animal, BUT we have a problem. Between the hunters and the bull lies a canyon with vertical walls dropping down to a nasty looking creek bed some 300m below.

The bull is very happy; very, very happy indeed, he is on a hot nanny and he's not letting her go anywhere. Every so often one or both of the tahr appear through gaps in the tight alpine scrub clinging to the vertical wall of the far side of the canyon. My first thought is, we'll leave him, if the bull dies where he is there is no way of retrieving him, that vertical far side canyon wall really doesn't turn me on too much. So we sit, snap some photo's, roll some film and enjoy the moment.

Some time passes and the bull appears out of the scrub atop a small bluff, offering a full view of himself. The country below the bull is sheer rock face with alpine scrub petering out as it gives way to gravity. The guide gets to thinking that the bull will probably cartwheel off the bluff and fall to the creek bed below if shot cleanly. A very laborious climb back down the mountain and up the creek itself to retrieve the bull would be needed, but it was doable.

So Bronwyn gets the green light and makes a perfect shot from 235m into the front of the bulls right front leg as he stands quartering towards us facing uphill, he is a dead bull standing, the problem being - he is still standing! Bronwyn lost her sight picture of the bull after her first shot (which often happens with clients as we all know), I try to guide her back on target but it's not happening so I wriggle in behind the rifle, my crosshairs can find no target, our bull has disappeared. For a moment neither of us are 100% sure where the bull is, until a replay of the video shows him rolling over dead into the scrub which has somehow held onto him...It's not a great thing to have to explain to someone that their trophy animal is irretrievable, especially when it's their first trophy.

The next morning we discover that the nanny we were watching the previous day really is a ‘hot nanny' as another big bull has joined her and he is practically standing right on top of our bull as he goes about his business. We watch proceedings for a time from a position a little higher up the mountain than the previous day. While doing so a plan hatches in my head as I notice a possible route down the canyon wall to the bull, I leave the Sat phone with Bron, put the epirb in my pack and pull on an orange hi vis vest so Bron can keep track of me as I climb up around the top of the canyon and along the terraces above the far side.

I start thinking to myself, would I ask anyone that has ever guided for me to attempt this retrieval and the answer is a straight out ‘no'. So why am I doing this, well I think I can do it safely is the answer that comes back. The thought of a long strop under a helicopter surfaces, but I discard that idea, I have retrieved tahr like this in the past, but I've always been able to ground my feet and attach a short strop around the bull to the long strop, I'm not even sure I could get off the long strop its that steep. There are too many variables that I am unfamiliar with for that scenario. Yes easy for guides reading this to say you should have done this or that, but every situation is different.

Heading down towards the lip of the canyon to begin my descent over the edge I see a bull pop up out of the canyon and begin to make his way up the terraces toward me. The bull disappears behind a bench of scrub and as I make ready with my camera he walks up to me and I mean right up to me. He is a great trophy and we share a few special moments looking right into each others eyes (that sounds wrong doesn't it) before he breaks. Some of the best wild tahr photos and video I have ever taken is the result. This big mature bull at 5m is a bow hunters dream, I wonder if he is the bull who has been with the ‘hot nanny'.

Now directly below lies the piece of country I have burnt into my memory, where to begin my descent down the canyon wall. Before I left Bronwyn I lightened my pack to the bare essentials and so far I decide it's safe to continue with my pack on (with knife, rope, epirb and survival gear inside). A tahr trail angles down through the scrub, the scrub is shoulder height and offers plenty hand holds, so far it's safe going, a little bit dodgy as a bit of a jump is needed through a rock chute, but its all within the realms of what I would deem safe. I reach a point where I know I'm close. My left knee likes to jump around a little when a situation is becoming unsafe, so far, my knee is behaving.

The two way radios are back at camp, I was confident we would be able to yell across the canyon to each other and use hand signals for the final approach. Besides I wanted a least three limbs in contact with the rock face, sometimes a radio is more of a hindrance than a help, (as you end up becoming a robot for the person on the other end) I wanted full concentration.

Glassing back to Bronwyn I followed her hand signals and we shouted instructions back and forth. I was half prepared for what happened next as I'd tried to go over all the variables before starting my descent. An explosion of sticks, scrub and hair burst through underneath me and crashed out of sight... Three boyfriends in two days - she is one very ‘hot nanny'.

The upside of that was now I knew I was really close, the downside and I literally mean the downside was that the rock face below turned from a manageable grade to near vertical, I really had to have a think. Should I really be doing this? Off came my pack and I jammed it into the scrub. I tied my rope off around the base of two sturdy bushes and slipped my iphone (for photos) and knife into the pocket of my pants.

Directly below lay the bull, from what I could see looking into the shade of the scrub he looked to be hung up by one horn and one back leg. ‘It only takes one step to get you into trouble', that's one of my favourite sayings, avoiding that step is key in the mountains, I had a further ten metres to descend, was I about to take that step? From studying the rock face while on the other side of the canyon I knew as soon as I reached the top of the clear bluff (the bull had died beside) the angle steepened again to almost vertical and what I would call ‘unsafe'. There was no way to feed the rope straight down in a tight line as the dense alpine scrub held the rope up off the face at around hip height, not ideal at all as this created slack points in the rope. Climbing down one foothold at a time facing the rock face I had to let go of the rope at times to negotiate around scrub pushes to allow the bottom of the rope to remain directly over the scrub bush that held the bull. Again I deemed this safe providing the scrub bushes allowed for good hand holds. I didn't want the line of the rope off target as the alpine scrub prevented me from sliding the rope back to where it needed to be, directly over the bull.

My left knee started to jump around a little as I dropped in above the bull and wedged my backside into the rock face digging both feet in behind the sprawling trunks of two substantial bushes. I was now well balanced and reasonably secure, with a substantial scrub bush underneath me. Should something go wrong, the same bush which held the tahr's right horn and left back leg was going to have to hold me, again a judgement decision.

I didn't tie myself off as I felt secure enough, but I did tie the rope around the bulls horns as I wasn't sure what might happen when I managed to remove his head. Taking the head off the bull involved extending my right forearm as far as possible while keeping my body weight back against the rock face, trying not to over balance. Eventually the bulls head came free, his body stayed put. No chance whatsoever of recovery of the cape; that would involve 3 steps in the wrong direction from safe - to unsafe - to insanity. As we all know a tahr's cape is the greater part of the trophy, I didn't feel good about leaving it, but I had no option.

The ten metres back up to my pack was a very slow, very calculated ascent, once I reached it I felt well back inside the safe zone, having come from the extreme outer limit. Five minutes later I was back atop the canyon wall stripping off layers and admiring Bronwyn's 12 inch eleven and a half year old trophy.

That night I was thinking, how do you teach this stuff or probably better, how do you teach people not to do this stuff, the conclusion I reached was you can't. You can't buy or teach experience. The more time people (guides) spend in the mountains the more they get to learn their own abilities and inabilities; what their safe zone is may be completely different to someone else's.

On the flight out we flew directly over the scene of the tragic death of an Australian hunter only two weeks before. The pilot pointed out where the hunter had fallen, he also pointed out the bull tahr that the hunter was making his way down to...

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