The Rocky Mountains are a vast, formidable barrier that cuts America from top to bottom; they are babies in the family of peaks; young, fresh and jagged. A raw and wild America was built on the courage and determination of the rugged individual willing to risk all. Those first who journeyed west were the toughest of the tough. Adventurers, explorers, and trappers plied the vast wilderness, and hard rock miners with a lust for gold dreamed of riches.
Strangely, at a critical moment in my hunt I would cross paths with one of these men who, although long gone, would save me from sure disaster.
Long before I had drawn my tag, I saw my first wild mountain goat deep in the Colorado wilderness while scouting for elk. Across a vast chasm a mile away I spotted a single white speck moving up through a rock face just a degree or two short of straight up. Looking through my spotter I couldn’t help but think the goat looked like a man in a white gorilla suit climbing a ladder. The billy strolled steadily up this vertical stone like a carnival pony with a kid on his back and was soon over the top and gone. This ascent would demand a seasoned mountaineer with technical gear and a day of good weather. On this drizzly cold day that goat had done it in less than ten minutes.
Wild sheep are legendary-living in remote, high and other worldly spots that put hunters to the hardest of tests in the some of the most beautiful country on earth. You might find nannies, kids, and young billies in the transition range from sheep to goat country. Sparse patches of crabby grass and broken-backed dwarf trees pounded by the relentless wind are practically the Garden of Eden compared to where the big billies live. They live on the wrong side of the tracks; banished to the most corroded and barren rock in North America, the desolate high altitude leftovers. These reclusive old Ogres don’t live under the bridge ready to snatch an errant kid, but in rotten stone and cliffs, mostly alone or with a buddy or two in testy alliances almost daring you to come after them.
So, considering where they live, the difficulty of hunting them and that they wear one of the most luxurious snow-white coats on earth, why isn’t a big billy the world’s top trophy? The only answer I can come up with is that they are not crowned with forty inches of spiraled horns and have the dashing good looks of a stud ram. The greatest goat ever will sport arched spikes not much bigger than a ten dollar cigar. However, for what they lack in impressive horns, they make up for in grit. The trophy in a big billy is not the bone on his head but the bone in his heart.
After a lifetime of waiting, the precious mountain goat tag was mine! I scouted all summer long putting some fresh dents in my truck and busting hiking sticks leaving no doubt the Rocky Mountains were well named. I was seeing goats, but not any gnarly old billies worthy of that precious tag. It was becoming clear I was going to have to dive in and dive in deep.
Traveling to my area, the radio told of tragedy. Forty miles from where I would be hunting a family of five was killed in a rockslide in the unstable area above timberline. I was hunting solo and it was sobering thought. The scars of erosion and gravity is everywhere, and the high country had been wet and the mountains were loose. Mountain hunting has an element of risk, but so do many of the best things in life. Two days earlier this country had been in an angry blizzard, but now it was crystal clear with a cool testy wind. Far below me the valleys were insane with fall color. It was a good day to be alive.
Midday I saw two goats bedded just below the of a 13,500 foot peak a couple of miles away. It was too far to get a sharp look considering that the difference between a juvenile male and a hoss billy is the length of your pinky and half a roll of 50 cent pieces. I could see their blocky bulk and “horse heads” ; the signature of a mature billy. Odds are, a goat or two without kids in that kind of country is a billy. I was certain enough but these fellas had picked their crow’s nest wisely might have as well been on the moon.
I hiked into another area for a good glassing spot and drew a blank. I decided to check back on the goats I had seen earlier. Thirty seconds later and I would have missed the white speck as it trickled down through a series of slate-colored crags into a secluded valley below where I had seen the billies earlier.
I cinched up the back pack and was off for the three hour hike to the distant drainage. When I arrived at the foot of this mile-long amphitheater of crumbling stone and flint edged cliffs it looked like classic billy heaven. On the dark side of the valley was a lifeless area of loose rock ridges that had funneled down through massive stone fingers. Wandering through the far end was a lone goat. Too far to be sure, but it just had to be a billy. If he kept moving he would soon be in the cliffs and impossible to follow. I needed a break and got one when he bedded down on a stack of busted stone at the head of the basin.
He had picked a good vantage point, but I could see there was enough play in the in the land to make a stalk and keep hidden if he stayed put. In the belly of the valley was a small lake surrounded by scrub and runt trees that I was using as cover. I was startled when the biggest covey of ptarmigan I had ever seen exploded all around me, curling and cutting the air sailing back down the valley, their winter white flickering in the blue skies. It was a stunningly beautiful sight and I took it as an omen.
Soon the basin opened up, exposing a hidden fold high on the mountainside. In a small grassy area I sighted three goats. At first glance I thought it was a nanny and two kids: big one and two little ones. The smaller ones were up and feeding. The big one was off by itself lying down, nothing but a heap of white hair. I busted out my scope and looking hard I could see it was three billies. Focusing on the big billy I heard myself mutter “whoa…that’s a big one.”
I had been studying how to judge the size of goats all summer but this was a no- brainer. This billy was half again bigger than his buddies and when the brute got up, I was in awe. He moved in a lumbering stroll, his massive shoulders gave him a hulking cartoon bully look as the wind rippled across his winter coat. The smaller billies looked up from their feeding, moving away, giving the big boy a wide berth.
When you are high and steep there are plenty of things to turn your hunt sideways. Gravity is ready to snatch anything it can and flat spots in this country are as rare as a redneck at the ballet. Just about any location is a bad place to shoot a goat. Don’t pull it off just right and they will start a tumbling death crash quickly turning your trophy into a mangled mess. The small ledge they were on would be perfect if I could drop the big billy where he stood. I figured it would take me about an hour to get to a small edge just below the goats. I could only hope they stayed in that sweet little spot.
The slope was steeper than it looked and the altitude was taking its bites one step at time. I cringed when the inevitable loose stone clattered behind me. The unstable slope had me using my hands as much as my feet and I felt like I was crawling up a slide of granite baseballs and busted bricks. It took almost two hours and was starting to get late in the day. What had been a beautiful fall day in the high country was growing cold dark shadows.
Finally I was where I wanted to be just out of sight from the shelf I had last seen them on. The thin air was stingy and I found myself breathing deeply with little recovery and could taste the tinny flavor of blood in my mouth. I knew I had to keep pushing hard. Simply no other choice. In typical Colorado high country fashion the wind had shifted dozens of times in the last two hours. I could only hope the goats hadn’t gotten a snout-full of my stink. Doing my best to crawl across the sharp edge stone to the area where the goats should have been. They were gone. The only place they could have gone unseen was higher over the rock ridge several hundred yards in front of me. I knew that just around that edge it dropped into jagged nastiness of straight up and down.
Staying focused and breathing deeply, I kept moving forward and saw a bit of white. Then a goat head peeked back. I was in the open with no place to hide. By his reaction it was clear he saw me and he quickly disappeared. Just over the crest I could see the backs of running goats. I knew I had to dig deeper than ever before and move up quickly to get a shot, knowing that around the side of the mountain it would be impossible to follow them.
Scraping the bottom of the energy barrel hard I was able to cover about 300 yards. On the ridge one of billies paused and looked back giving me a shot. Two hours before this was a goat I would have taken proudly. The big billy had hammered a deep impression in me and I knew this wasn’t him. The goat quickly turned his head and was gone. Something told me the big billy would come back and take a peek at what his buddies were excited about. Sure enough he did and with his bulking size there was no doubt it was the boss. The image of him standing above me on that windy ridge will be with me forever.
I was pumped with adrenaline and my heart and lungs had taken a pounding from the effort of the climb, leaving me light-headed at a 12,000 foot plus altitude facing the shot of a lifetime. I did my best to put the puzzle back together knowing he wouldn’t look more than a few seconds before he realized what the fuss was all about. At the crack of my .270 WSM, a hard “thwack” whip-snapped through the clear air and he dropped hard out of sight over the ridge. Goats are built like hairy tanks and notorious for taking lead. Just as quickly as he went down I saw his head lift and the hump of his back go up as he went out of sight towards the disaster of the cliffs over the ridge.
My dream was quickly turning into a nightmare. He had been facing me when I shot and had gone down hard. Either I center punched him and he was dead on his feet, had broken a shoulder, or a velocity flesh wound had shocked his spine. None of it would matter if he made it into those cliffs.
In a hobbling run across what was nothing more than an immense pyramid of wobbly watermelon and grapefruit sized boulders I caught a glimpse of him at 100 yards, making his way to the edge. On shaky legs and with a heaving chest I could barely keep him in the scope. I had a moment before he would be gone and instinctively snapped an offhand shot. The bullet walloped him hard. Quickly he started hurtling in a downhill crash, his hooves spinning up like a windmill as he accelerated over the crest of the rim and out of sight.
The excitement of the moment had turned nauseating. I was certain my hard won prize was going to be a hairy wad of hamburger 1500 feet below at the bottom of the cliffs.
Working my way to the edge of the abyss I saw a tuft of white hair a hundred yards below where I last saw him. Miraculously, on this huge mountainside there was a two yard wide gash which had been cut in the mountain by a hard-rock miner about 150 years ago. The billy hit it dead perfect. It was the only thing that would have stopped him and it did. Two feet either direction or he would have surely tumbled all the way to the bottom.
There are truly certain magic moment in our lives as hunters which burn deep, and this was one of them. He was a white beast. My dream billy. Kneeling next to him I ran my hands through his magnificent thick coat, in awe of his wildness and feeling the magnetic vertigo of the nothingness below us. Even after his 100 yard death crash down a near vertical slope of shattered stone, he was in great shape with the exception of a half inch of missing horn tip.
I would find out later that without the deduction of the missing tip, his thick curved black daggers might have made Boone and Crockett Awards. It really didn’t matter, as this hunt is one of my all time best life experiences, and that doesn’t come off a tape measure.
Boiling out a skull is normally just thoughtless, greasy work, but something stopped me in wonder. I felt like I was taking a peek into King Tut’s tomb. His teeth looked to be plated with the luster of gold – amazing! I’m not talking about tan stains but polished gold, real gold. How could it be? I thought of Bigfoot and white buffalos and now I was looking at a gold toothed billy goat.
I dug into the mystery and learned about the legend of rare golden sheep and goats that roamed the Rockies.
I out found some of the first miners in the 1800’s filled with gold fever tracked mountain game after taking one for pot and laying eyes on its glittering grill sure it would lead them to the mother lode.
Science can sometimes be a wet blanket. Although very rare, at times the combination of old age and enzymes reacting to mountain knotweed can coat teeth, giving them a golden metallic luster that appears to be the proud work of a Tijuana dentist.
But who wants to believe some pencil-neck with a botany book when face to face with a bona fide miracle. I am feeling a dose of gold fever myself, and next summer will back track deeper into the heart of Ogre Valley.
I think I will start at the goat-saving mining gash in the mountain. Other than a few small pieces of rotten plank, I found a rusty tin can that had been crudely chopped into with a knife. I can imagine a hard man of sinew and bone in the middle of a hard day’s work stopping for a bite of salt pork and hacking into a cold can of beans to eat his meal off the tip of his knife. Maybe he took a slug of whiskey to smooth the edges of the magnificent yet hard country. I would have liked to have met that man, who high up on this mountain swung his pick dreaming of riches. I hoped he found his hard won dream in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
In a strange twist of fate, he had saved mine.
• While finishing this story grim news of a solo Colorado goat hunter his pack heavily laden with his trophy of a lifetime fell to his death. His name was his name was Ted Leach and although we never met I feel a kindred spirit and would like to dedicate this story to him.