October 22, 2014

Climb Hunting

This story starts on December 8, 1970, when the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish released 15 Persian (Bezoar) Ibex (introduced from Iran) in the Florida Mountains near Deming, NM.  A short while later, 27 more ibex were released. Three years later, the first public ibex hunt in New Mexico was held.  Today, over 700 Persian Ibex populate the Floridas, with hunting seasons for rifle, muzzle loader, archery, and a special nanny season to help control the population.

Fun Fact: Persian Ibex (wild goats) are the primary or perhaps only progenitor of present-day domestic goats.  Evidence of goat domestication extends back about 10,000 years (Wikipedia "Bezoar Ibex" 10/21/14).

The Florida Mountains lie about 20 miles north of the US-Mexico border.  This isolated range is about 12 miles long, consists of very rugged terrain, and has peaks up to about 7,000 ft in elevation.  The surrounding terrain is depressingly flat and sits at about 4,500 ft in elevation.

After applying for six years for the hard-to-draw New Mexico archery ibex tag, my good friend Jake got lucky.  He had visited the area previously on two occasions: one to assist a friend on his archery ibex hunt, and another to take part in the nanny (population control) hunt.  Based on these two trips, Jake began to understand the challenges associated with hunting ibex with a bow.  The average annual success rate on this hunt ranges from 3 to 8 percent.  Considering that the tag allows the hunter to shoot "any ibex", and the 3 to 8 percent includes nannies and immature billies, the odds of shooting a mature billy are even lower.  Taking a mature billy with a bow is considered by many seasoned hunters as the most difficult hunting feat in North America.

As I would soon see for myself, there are many reasons for this difficulty.  First, the terrain they live in is insane.  They seem completely comfortable travelling, feeding, and napping in terrain that I would never consider going without a rope and climbing gear.  Sure, there are areas in the range without near-vertical cliffs, but the ibex seldom, if ever, go there.  They stick to the cliffs and make sheep and mountain goats seem like flat-land creatures.  In addition to the terrain, their eyesight and general wariness is unmatched by any other animal I have encountered.  Exposing the bill of one's hat is enough to spook a group of ibex at 250 yards.  Walking in plain sight will spook a herd 3/4 of a mile away or further.  Stalking within bow range would be a true challenge.

Knowing what it would take to be successful, Jake built a team to give him the best chance for arrowing a mature billy.  That team consisted of a rock climber (me), and a spotter (Dan).  Dan is a friend of Jake's from Baker City who coincidentally drew an archery ibex tag for January, so he was excited to both help out and learn a bit about the terrain and ibex that he would be hunting in a few months time.  An experienced sheep hunter in Oregon and armed with great optics, Dan has an amazing ability to spot well-camouflaged animals at great distances.  We dubbed our trio "Team Ibex", and enjoyed making fun of ourselves for doing so.

Jake as we worked our way toward camp

Jake decided his strategy would be to backpack up into the mountains where most of the ibex lived and stay up there for the entirety of his hunt, which included the final five days of the archery season.  He would then be free to poke around the cliffs and crags using Dan and me as needed.

On the first day, Jake and I backpacked up to a saddle separating the east and west sides of the range, dropped our packs, and went out in search of the amazing ibex.  As it turns out, they're generally not hard to find with such a dense population in a relatively small area with little vegetation.  Jake spotted a group of about 30 across a canyon from us relatively quickly.  We watched from about 700 yards as the group wandered over the ridge crest and out of sight.  There were about three nice billies in the group, so Jake decided to pursue them.

We quickly relocated to a spot close to where we thought the ibex had gone.  Soon enough, Jake spotted a nanny at about 200 yards as he peeked over a rocky crag.  I stayed put as Jake attempted to work the terrain and get closer.  I could see a nanny from where I was, and I watched her for over an hour while Jake stalked, out of sight.  When she finally spooked, I assumed she had detected Jake's presence.  I later found out that Jake had stalked in to the edge of the herd, with ibex as close as 60 yards.  This is well within bow range for Jake but he decided to pass as none of the ibex within range were mature billies.

The young billy that lived due to Jake's patience (60 yards and completely unaware of his presence)

Our spirits were elevated that night as Jake was now fully convinced that he could stalk these ibex that everyone was trying to tell him were unstalkable.  The local guides often use a team of "pushers" to push ibex herds past hunters in hopes that they might get a long-distance running shot, which they encourage the hunters to take.  They generally consider this type of low-percentage shot to have much higher odds than stalking.

Crest of the Florida Mountains, with our tent in the saddle near the bottom

The next day, I stuck with Jake until about noon while we spotted several groups of ibex, but struggled to find any mature billies.  Shortly before I needed to head into town to pick up Dan, I spotted two billies that were on the small end of mature.  They seemed to appear out of nowhere as we were glassing the adjacent canyon wall.  I watched them for only a few seconds as they appeared over one rise, moved toward us, and disappeared behind another rise at about 175 yards.  I got Jake's attention and told him that if they continued on their current trajectory, they would be in view and just barely out of range as they appeared over the next ridge.  After waiting for about 30 minutes, we surmised that they bedded down on the cliff face that was just out of view rather than continuing up and over it.  Jake quietly stalked in to investigate while I stayed behind to watch their escape.

Jake scrambling in typical ibex terrain

Thirty minutes after that we determined the ibex vanished.  I could see every possible escape route except for one, which would have required the ibex to climb about 200 ft of near vertical chimney.  They did this, and they did it silently.  I spent the rest of the day making a trip to town, picking up Dan, resupplying, and hiking back up to camp with 12 liters of water.

When I got to camp, Jake told me stories of spotting big billies, chasing them around, and trying to get close.  Without fail, they were located in and surrounded by such steep terrain that he couldn't get closer than about 200 yards.  The plan for the next day would be to find these billies again, but have a harness and minimal amount of rope with us in attempt to level the playing field.

The next morning, Jake and I contacted Dan on the radio.  Dan was down below glassing the cliffs from where we parked the truck.  Jake and I would continue hunting up high as we had before, and Dan would let us know if he spotted anything of interest on his side of the mountains.  Less than an hour went by and Dan was on the radio, "I've got a couple of big billies spotted."  He proceeded to attempt to give Jake the location of the ibex in the tangled mess of crags, cliffs, spires, and canyons.  Jake eventually figured out where Dan was referring to, and we spent about an hour trying to approach the area.  Once again, we were completely cliffed out and unable to even get a view of the ibex.

Before we'd completely given up, Dan was back on the radio, "I see more big billies.  There're big billies everywhere!"  He then gave us the approximate location and we were able to see them with our binoculars, about a mile away.  They were in a location similar to the others that we couldn't access, but they were near the top of the cliff.  If we could get in position before the ibex moved too far, Jake might be able to get above the billy and shoot straight down at it.  So, off we went.

The billies we were now after were located high on the prominent cliff on the left

We made good time over to the new location and positioned ourselves at the top of the cliff.  We knew several ibex were within bow range, but just out of sight over the cliff edge.  Jake sneakily peeked over the edge in a few places, but couldn't see very far as the cliff face went from steep to steeper.  He then stepped back from the edge and came up with a plan.  Jake put on a climbing harness while I set up an anchor on a nearby juniper tree.  I then put Jake on a hip belay and lowered him as far as I could as he leaned out over the edge.  He soon ran out of rope, as we only had about 40 feet with us.  He directed me to take him off belay and move to a different location, further to the left and closer to the cliff edge.  A few seconds later I had him back on belay.  When Jake was about 30 feet from me, I saw him step back.  He told me he saw the horns and head of a nice billy.  He nocked an arrow and told me to give him 2 more feet of rope and hold tight.  When he leaned back out over the edge, he said the billy looked straight at him.  Jake drew, the billy took a couple of steps, and Jake released!  The shot was about 50 yards and nearly straight down.  From where I was, I heard an arrow shatter as it struck rock.  I then watched Jake calmly nock another arrow, draw, aim much further to the right, and gradually raise his sight until he released again.  This time I did not hear the arrow strike anything.  I watched for Jake's reaction, which was delayed . . . then, a silent fist pump!

Hearing Jake tell the story afterward, I learned that his first shot was high and missed.  After the missed shot, the billy ran behind an overhang and out of view.  When he came back into view, Jake ranged him at about 48 yards (horizontal distance), drew, and mentally adjusted for the increased distance as the billy walked away.  Then, just before the billy went over a rise and out of sight, he stopped to look back.  As soon as he stopped, Jake released with lethal effect.  The fist pump I observed happened when he noticed copious amounts of blood on the rock as the billy went out of sight.

The belay and shot location are pretty accurate.  The ibex location is the location at the time of the first shot.  The second shot was much further to the left in this photo.  After the second shot, the billy went further left, around the corner, and out of view.

Since Jake thought his shot might have been too far back, we decided to give the billy about 2 hours before searching and potentially further spooking him.  When we eventually started looking, we found the billy right where Jake thought he would be.  After going out of sight, he ran down an impossibly steep gully for 150 yards and piled up dead.

Billy's final resting place

Once we located the ibex, we scouted around for a way to access its location.  Coming at it from the top was impossible without ropes.  It looked like there might have been a super sketchy way to hike way down and around to come at it from the bottom, but even that looked like it had one or two places where it would cliff out.  So, we decided the only reasonable way to recover the billy was to get a bunch of climbing gear from the truck and rappel down to it.  It looked to be between one and two rope lengths from the top (about 100 meters), so we planned for a double rappel and an intermediate anchor.  Jake's job was effectively done, and mine had just begun.

I got on the radio with Dan at the truck who had watched the entire thing through a spotting scope.  We told him we would need several ropes and a bunch of gear from the truck, which he quickly gathered.  He also got a hold of Mike and Ryker, two guys who work for a local outfitter (Graham's Guide Service), who were helping us out.  Dan, Mike, and Ryker proceeded to carry all the requested gear to our camp, and we worked our way back to camp to meet up with them.  After we met up, Mike and Ryker went back down and carried some non-essential items with them.  Dan, Jake, and I went back to the location of the ibex and brought our camp with us.  I was pretty sure we could not retrieve the ibex before dark.

Anchor building at the edge of the cliff

Once we got back to the top of the cliff above the ibex, I built an anchor and set up a rappel.  The wind was a steady 35 to 40 mph at this point, which made me a bit nervous on such a long rappel.  Thankfully, the spot we found to rappel from was tucked into a little 'V' in the otherwise shear face.  We set up the first rappel, and with a few directional anchors we were able to reach the floor of the slot canyon after descending about 55 meters.

Starting the first rappel

From the bottom of the first rappel, the ibex lay about 40 meters down the slot, which descended at about a 45 degree angle with a couple of vertical sections.  I set up a second anchor at the base of the first rappel and we descended safely the rest of the way to the billy, leaving all lines in place so we could eventually climb back up them.

Jake with the billy, deep in the slot canyon

After taking lots of pictures, Jake gutted the billy.  In addition to being good for the meat, we figured this would make hauling him back up the cliff easier.  I ascended the lower rappel line back to the intermediate anchor, put the ibex on belay, and had Jake wrestle the ibex up the lower section while I prevented it from sliding back down.  Once we hit the vertical upper section, new antics would be required.  The plan was for me to ascend to the top, set up a 3:1 haul system, and Dan and I would haul the billy while Jake ascended the other line and kept the billy from getting caught on things.

Me, beginning the ascent of the upper rappel section

By the time I reached the top and it was time for Jake to begin, it was getting dark.  When the billy was about 20 feet off the ground, it was dark and Jake decided we should resume the rescue in the morning.  He climbed out of the hole and we left the billy hanging until daylight.

We spent the night about 40 feet from the anchor with three dudes, a two person tent, two sleeping bags, and two sleeping pads.  The next morning, I set Jake and Dan up with the haul system before descending to retrieve the ibex.  Retrieval was fairly straight forward in the daylight and I got a system going where I would ascend my line to about 10 feet above the ibex, use a radio to instruct Jake and Dan to haul on the ibex line, which was separate, and hold the ibex off the rocks while it was raised.  Once it got up to me, I would again ascend above it and repeat.


Once we got the ibex to the top, it was time for more pictures followed by butchering, packing up camp, and hiking/scrambling about 3-1/2 miles back to the truck.

Back at the top of the cliff

I won't lie, I was pretty stoked to combine two of my favorite activities

Packing out

Congratulations to Jake for making success happen on such a challenging hunt!  It was truly an honor to be part of it and watch him plan an execute the hunt with such precision and confidence.  Also my utmost respect goes out to Billy and his fellow ibex.  They are amazing animals and it's inspiring and humbling to be in their presence.

Team Ibex