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Story & Photos by Steven Drake | 10.21.2019

Fresh White Hell

  • Pursuit: Big Game

Clinging precariously to slick terrain coated in snow and ice on a 55 plus degree slope, we attempted to ascend a 2,000-foot face littered with ice falls. A team member had just fallen 10 feet with a fully loaded pack. We were close to making it through this tricky section, but realized that a dangerous line had been crossed: No goat was worth dying over.

Two winters ago, I joined four Canadians and an Aussie to set out on a mission to test our gear and wits on a backpack mountain goat hunt in one of the snowiest places on Earth: the coastal mountains of British Columbia. After months of planning, charting routes on Google Earth, multiple email threads and meetings, we packed up and headed north. The crew consisted of Dustin Roe, Dan Watson, Connor Gabbott, Nolan Osborn, Adam Janke and me, Steven Drake. No matter the outcome of this trip, I knew it would be rewarding thanks to the wisdom and experience of this team on a backcountry adventure. The more I hunt—and document hunting—the more I’m drawn to these types of adventures.

After three days of travel, we took a charter boat ride to a remote bay and ferried gear to shore in our waders. From there, we skied and snowshoed while pulling sleds filled with gear up a valley bottom to the base of the mountain. Sweat poured as we slogged our way up and we quickly realized that the estimated 6-hour trip to reach the base of the mountain would take at least 12. The snow was deep! Yet, morale stayed high even at 4,000 feet above the tree line: we spotted mountain goats.

The valley bottom was an ice box. Every bit of firewood we could find was soaked through due to the coastal humidity and frozen solid. Nothing would burn and our tipi tent with wood stove that we’d planned to use as a basecamp was deemed useless. Lesson learned! There was a 2,000 vertical foot section of mountain that we knew would be the crux. Topo lines were stacked, but there had to be a way up. We spent the next three days trying to find a route up through the maze of ice falls and cliffs, stopping to reassess. We had crossed a dangerous line and agreed that no goat was worth dying over. As a group, we decided to turn back and explore a different drainage that looked more forgiving. On our eighth day of the hunt, Nolan connected on a billy.The hunt was successful, but we had unfinished business in the first drainage and knew there must be a route. So, we began the planning for our 2019 redemption attempt.

Dustin Roe, Connor Gabbott, Dan Watson and I joined together for the second attempt at the first drainage. Dustin and Connor would bowhunt, Dan was there as support. I was there to photograph the entire adventure. This time, we were prepared. Not only were we armed with the wisdom gained from our previous treacherous hunt in the area, but we also had better-suited gear, SITKA prototypes and an optimistic attitude. Ready to go, we chartered a boat, waded to shore and began our redemption mission.

By day two, we’d made it half-way up the slope, sleeping there for a night after carving out reasonably flat ledges for our tents. On day three, we dropped our heavy packs and split up to more efficiently find a passable route. Finally, we found one. We reassembled, everyone loaded up and, finally, safely reached the top of the mountain.

The terrain above the slope, although covered with 8 feet of snow, was home to many goats and conducive for bowhunting. Yet, we weren’t in the clear; the possibility of avalanches surrounded us. We had to take this new risk factor into account. We set camp on a ridge complex away from the most severe avalanche danger and utilized the deep snow to build a snow kitchen, dig a snow cave for added shelter and create tent platforms so we’d be less exposed to the cold and wind at night. We lucked out with a high pressure system over the area, which gave us clear weather. However, the clear skies brought brutally cold temperatures. We began our battle with frostbitten toes, frozen water bottles and boots so stiff in the morning it took a good 20 minutes to put them on.After a few close stalks and Connor passing up a younger billy at 30 yards, we changed tactics and built a snow blind near a prominent feeding area. On our sixth day of hunting, a mature billy stepped out to feed at 30 yards. As Connor drew his bow, I held down my shutter release, hoping to get a shot of the arrow in flight, but nothing happened. I looked over at Connor and he was frantically pressing the trigger on his release. The freezing temps and condensation had froze the firing mechanism in his release aid. The billy finally caught wind and bolted.

That was the hardest earned hunting opportunity I’d ever been involved with. Connor and I laughed in agony at the crazy chain of events. Fortunately, a half mile away, Dustin and Dan were aiming to cut off a billy that Connor and I had spooked earlier. We watched as Dustin and Dan literally slid down the mountain on their butts and into bow range. Dustin sent a perfectly placed arrow at 25 yards. The billy expired on top of a 500 foot cliff. Dustin threw a harness on, roped up and tried to tie off the billy to prevent him from falling into the abyss.

Unfortunately, the goat slumped over and fell off the cliff out of sight. We didn’t have enough rope to rappel down. From our saved satellite imagery of the area, it looked like there was a series of ice chutes and cliffs below and, if the goat fell all the way down, we might recover him 3,000 feet below. It worked out as two days later after descending the mountain and locating the fall line, the goat was recovered.This hunt was incredibly demanding on the team, both physically and mentally. It wore us down, but, at the same time, left us wanting more. The team came away having shared a wild experience and new perspective for the demands of winter hunting. It’s amazing what the human body can do when you support it with knowledge gained from experience, good gear and a positive attitude.