Pursuing The Elusive Chamois

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When we set out before dawn, the mountains are barely visible against the blue-black firmament. But soon their jagged silhouette stands out clearly from the horizon and the sky turns a vibrant orange. One by one, the last points of light on the opposite slope go out. A small mountain village briefly comes into view and disappears around the next bend. And then, after a final ascent in a very tight curve, we reach the mountain pass.

Hunting guide Cédric drives the car through a small hamlet and parks the off-road vehicle under a large locust tree. Here, time seems to stand still. The village has less than a dozen houses, built in the old-fashioned way from sandstone and quarry stone. A little chapel marks the center of the settlement. An elderly woman sweeps the small courtyard in front of her house and gives us a friendly nod, while a black cat lolls on the windowsill.

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The first rays of sunshine are now gleaming on the horizon, bathing the autumn leaves of the locust in a fiery yellow. Some of the colored leaves are already beginning to fall softly to the ground. It is a peaceful landscape. The sun warms our stiff limbs and the air is filled with the sweet, spicy scent of dry herbs. Cédric sets a slow pace. We cross the meadows and head towards the edge of the plateau. We’ve been walking for maybe 20 minutes when Cédric slows down again and adopts a crouched stalking stance. I follow his lead and slowly, very slowly, we approach the edge of the escarpment that separates the plain from the rugged cliffs. Cédric sits down and peers over the steep edge.

Only now do I realize that our hunt might not be quite so “easy” after all: Steep, jagged rocks drop almost 1,000 meters almost vertically, sometimes overgrown with low bushes and grasses, sometimes bare and rugged. Carved into deep gorges and crevices by the ice masses of the last glacial period, the terrain offers a pristine, almost wild scenario. The chamois must feel very much at home here, given the variety of hiding places and retreats.

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We carefully scan the whole area, but no game comes into view. A truly magnificent landscape spreads out before us, although perhaps not quite as dramatic as the huge rock massifs of our familiar Alps. The mountains of the Pyrenees are not terribly high, and the individual mountains may not be so striking on their own, but their isolation and unspoiled nature take my breath away.

Long valleys, broad hollows and plateaus alternate with deeply cut gorges and ridges. No road, no village far and wide. Some valleys, Cédric explains, are still completely untouched and undeveloped.
Finally, we turn away from the magnificent panorama, move on a few hundred meters, and stalk toward the edge of the precipice again. Cédric tells me to follow him very slowly and to keep my head as low as possible. And now we see game. A chamois is standing on the edge of a 300-meter cliff, and looking down. If I were a sculptor and wanted to place a statue of a chamois, I would have put it right there. Proud and graceful at the same time, it watches over the edge of the abyss, peering here and there and then disappearing with two elegant leaps, never to be seen again.

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Cédric, now scanning the slope in front of us, draws my attention to a chamois with its fawn. About 400 meters below us, the two are grazing on the sparse vegetation in a wide scree field. It’s difficult to make out the pair, whose coloring blends in perfectly with their surroundings. In fact, we can only discover them when they are in motion, moving from bush to bush. But Cédric’s trained eyes spotted them without binoculars. We wait a little. Perhaps a chamois buck will follow them. That would be more than likely now, during the rut, but this time we wait in vain.

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Slowly, the sun rises higher and the smell of wild thyme and lavender intensifies. We can’t complain about a lack of game sightings either. Again and again, we spot small groups of chamois. But what makes hunting here so exciting and thrilling is the challenge of getting within shooting distance of the game.

Early this morning, Cédric had enquired about my maximum shooting distance. When I replied “around 200 meters”, his look had spoken volumes. Now, in this wide-open terrain, I understand why. I still don’t want to give up my resolve to cap my shooting distance at 200 meters. Mountains or no mountains, this maximum distance is a matter of ethics for me. And so we have to search a little longer until we come across a chamois buck that can be stalked to within shooting distance.

From a distance, we have spotted a herd that has slowly moved behind the next ridge. Now we have to return to the edge of the plateau to see where they have gone. But they remain out of sight. So we have to abandon the plateau, which is so delightfully easy to stalk on. To reach the ridge behind which the chamois have disappeared, we scramble down a slope. Wanting to be on the safe side, I unload the gun completely and put the magazine in my pocket.

Now I also know why Cédric is reluctant to leave the flat and even ground, at least when accompanied by guests. Loose scree hampers the wobbly climb and I’m relieved when we can finally see over the ridge. But the game has disappeared. We follow the ridge to climb back up the slope and I gladly accept Cédric’s helping hand on some of the trickier sections. A little out of breath, we take a short break on the high plateau.

“Now, at lunchtime,” Cédric explains to me in his tried and tested combination of French, broken English, and a few descriptive gestures (he holds his palms together and tilts his head slightly to one side), “it gets harder to find any game.” So we set off again, hiking along the plateau’s edge, tirelessly scanning the areas in front of us, and unfortunately becoming increasingly careless as we approach the edge. Cédric has just positioned himself when I come alongside. His brusque hand movement makes me pause instinctively. We both immediately get down on our knees and crouch down. Deep below us, perhaps 350 meters away, are three chamois. A female with her fawn – and a mature chamois buck. All three are in the bushes at the edge of a cleft extending deep into the mountain. If the animals take two or three steps, they’ll disappear into the bushes, but right now, they are on rough rocks and can be clearly seen.

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The buck would be suitable. However, it is difficult to get close to the game. Ahead of us, a small mountain cirque descends steeply. To our left, the ridge of the cleft drops deep into the valley, with vertical rock formations behind it. Cédric thinks for a moment, then acts quickly. We have to stalk down the small cirque and set up a little lower down for the shot. Easier said than done. The perhaps most strenuous 100 meters of my life began. Hunched over, and with painfully bent knees, we creep down the slope in zig-zags. After just a few meters, my relatively well-trained leg muscles start to burn.

Just as I’m certain that I won’t be able to cover another centimeter in this position, Cédric points out a spot on the ridge. That’s where he wants me to set up for the shot. I take off my rucksack, place it on the small rocky outcrop in front of me, and slowly settle down on the uncomfortable boulder. A glance down shows me that the chamois are still there.

The fawn is standing on the ridge, looking in our direction. The mother is half-concealed by a few bushes two meters behind it, or rather below it. A shot steeply down. My rangefinder indicates a good 170 meters. “Should be doable,” I think to myself and take aim. It’s not the most comfortable spot: There’s a vertical drop to the left of my outcrop, the steep cirque to my right, and the steeply sloping rocky ridge in front of me.

I try to find a reasonably comfortable shooting position. Cédric is getting nervous. “Wait, wait!” he murmurs to me. Sure, I don’t want to shoot the fawn either, but where is the buck? Now the mother takes two steps and the fawn follows. Both immediately disappear behind rocks and bushes. Another chamois moves from the left to the exact spot where the fawn had been standing. Cédric identifies the animal and I look through the glass again, too. It’s the buck! “Shoot,” I hear Cédric say quietly. Seconds later, my bullet transfixes the buck.

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I’ve been on Chamois hunts where the game rolled hundreds of meters into the valley after the shot. But today I was lucky. The chamois buck collapsed exactly where I shot it. We wait a little longer and then set off on our descent – this time, thankfully, no longer in a crouched position.

When we reach the buck, Cédric congratulates me warmly. I, too, am thrilled about my success and the good outcome of our stalk. Cédric tends to the buck properly and stows it in his rucksack. Fortunately, we don’t need to hike too far – just 300 meters up the mountain, then across the high plateau to the car. Back at our lodge, Cédric immediately begins carving up the chamois. In the meantime, I have time for quiet reflection and can say farewell to the Pyrenees as the sun sets.

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