"Winter hunting can be rather brutal in the Southern Alps but with good systems, quality gear and a few cunning tricks, you can operate safely and comfortably even above the snowline"
Alpine hunting naturally takes you into some pretty serious terrain. It’s one thing to be an experienced hunter, but having an understanding of the objective hazards (hazards that are a natural part of the environment and therefore cannot be eliminated) associated with alpine travel is a whole different set of skills. If you’ve never travelled, much less hunted at higher altitudes, you could be in an eye-opener.
The tahr rut usually coincides with at least one or two substantial cold fronts and every year we hear of guys getting blasted by wind and rain or wading through waist-deep snow. We all know the ultimate in alpine hunting is to take a bull in full winter cape, which is exactly is when you’re going to deal with short days and bad weather.
If you live handy to tahr country it’s a dam site easier to play the weather to your advantage, rather than being committed to booked flights and a certain timeframe. Either way we thought we’d share a few basic tricks, tips and thoughts we’ve stolen from various people over the years to hopefully make your winter hunting that little bit safer and more comfortable.
If you're climbing above the snowline or even flying into one of the higher elevation landing sites, take a snow shovel and don’t let a little snow put you off. If your timing is good and the snow pack has had a chance to consolidate, these are the ultimate conditions for getting around easily. A frozen, solid snowpack means with the right tools you can travel more quickly and easily than if there were no snow at all. It can also open up that terrain that’s far from friendly with no snow on it. Know your limitations and don’t even think about it without the right gear ie axe AND crampons, and not just the little rubber strap on things that are only going to help you in an icy carpark.
In cold temps or higher altitude, the usual butane cookers really struggle, often to the point where there not even useable. A liquid fuel stove is the way forward, which will also keep you in line with the new CAA regulations where you can only carry 4 butane canisters inside a helicopter these days. Check liquid fuel stoves HERE
Melting snow for water means you will need an efficient cooker, and water becomes precious. On a fly in trip I’m a fan of boiling saveloy’s for lunch, but that then means saveloy flavoured tea or coffee for afters. Simple things..
A chilli bin is a no brainer on those fly in trips, doing a great job of preventing your food and beverages from freezing. A cheap tarp is another good thing to pack in the back of the heli. In bucketing rain, you can rig it over the top of your tent and if you’re snow camping you can put it under your tent to help keep your tent floor dry.
Another great idea is to cut yourself off a small section of foam bed roll to carry around and sit on instead of getting a wet butt sitting in the snow. It weighs nothing and those long periods of glassing will be much more enjoyable.
Image @ Sean Powell
Electronic devices can be a hard one to manage with batteries really struggling in the cold and lasting a fraction of what they normally would. I tend to keep my camera and phone in a warm pocket, but a good trick here is to have a couple of chemical hand warmers to throw in your pocket with your electronics. And take a powerbank to charge your camera a few days in.
We all know how much kiwis love their long johns and stubbies, but high in the alps in foul weather is no place for them. Get a waterproof and highly breathable jacket and pants, and you’ll stay a lot warmer as they will cut the wind. They will also make a big difference if you end up spending a night out in the open. A quality down jacket is a worthy investment, and always one of the first things I throw in the pack.
Keeping dry is often a challenge in the snow, breathable gear is the key as otherwise you will end up wet from your own perspiration and then you’ll get cold as soon as you stop moving. Do your homework - ask about breathability ratings – and shop wisely. A high end shell these days should have a breathability rating of upwards from 35,000gm2, and waterproofing of at least 30,000mm
Image @Tom Overton
A good set of gaiters will help keep your boots dry. When your boots do eventually get wet - and they will - they become a nightmare in the morning when there frozen. You may have to use your cooker to soften them up just enough to put on. With multiple days in the snow wet boots are hard to avoid, so waterproof them before you go and do your best to keep them dry. A sneaky tip here is to put your wet gaiters under your themorest at night, that way there not frozen solid in the morning and less of a nightmare to put on. Running out of dry socks is no fun either, a last resort for me is to just wear a damp pair in my sleeping bag overnight, they’ll be a lot dryer in the morning. Shop for high quality apparel HERE
At some point most hunters will end up learning the hard way about shooting animals in irretrievable positions. Even after that lesson, it's still easy to misjudge the terrain and do it again, after which youll either walk away, pissed off at leaving an animal on the hill or youll end up hanging on by your fingernails and scaring yourself stupid. Most (sensible) people will only do the “scare yourself stupid” bit once. Remember its just a shaggy goat and not worth your neck.
Image @ Sean Powell - Blood trail and a bit steep once you spot Tom Overton standing below
Everyone has different abilities and comfort zones. It’s all too easy to get excited and suddenly find yourself well outside yours. With 60% of alpine hunting injuries caused by falls, it pays to have a healthy respect for the terrain, and a good knowledge of the gear required, as well as your own abilities.
The big thing in alpine terrain is to think about the objective hazards as you’re moving. What’s above and below you? Rockfall potential? Avalanche conditions? And are the conditions changing as the day heats up for example?
We experienced a good example of this early in the 2016 rut when we climbed up into steep country at first light and in firm snow. The day turned into a scorcher, which completely cooked the snow pack and had roller balls running all over the place. We had no choice but spend the day on safe high points and ridges until the temperature dropped again and we could climb down just on dark. Without understanding the significance of the cooked snow pack, we could have very easily found ourselves in a bunch of trouble.
Another classic is the spring avalanche cycle. We've all seen the piles of debris and smashed up trees and scrub. Most of these avalanche paths will run every spring, and you don't want to be climbing one of those guts when they do!
Rather deep avalanche debri
Winter and spring conditions mean we have to think about potential sliding hazards. Do you know how to self-arrest? A few years ago, a buddy of mine was hunting an East coast valley in winter and ended up sliding about 200m down an icy slope, he managed to pull himself up by digging his rifle barrel into snow, stopping just short of a serious drop. Needless to say, he was bruised and grazed and the very next day he purchased an axe an crampons.
The Mountain Safety Council is a great place to start to further your knowledge about avalanche safety and snow travel, and it’s a great idea to sign up for one of their courses. It also goes without saying that you should be keeping tabs on the avalanche advisory for current conditions. Check out their courses HERE
Or check out the Introduction to Alpine Hunting hunts we are now offering HERE
Being tent-bound in a storm can be a real test of your mental stability, and passing the time often ends up with a fair bit of comedy. A few years ago, we found ourselves camped in the snow high on the Westland tops in strong winds and blowing snow. After dinner and few whisky’s we all departed from Luke’s tent back to own but one of us neglected to zip the tent shut as we left. Luke woke up at 4am literally in a snow drift that had formed on top of him. On only the second night of a 6 day trip, this was was highly comical but far from ideal.
Snowy comfort in the heated MIA tent, check them out HERE
During the start of the rut it’s worth being patient and really watching what’s happening. Many a hunter has rushed in and shot that fairly mature bull holding the nannies, only to then spot the truly mature bull making an exit after that. I’ve found these older bulls will just hang not too far off the nannies, then swoop in when the nannies are actually cycling.
Sam Martin with a solid bull
If you’re lucky enough to time it perfectly and the ruts in full swing, bulls will be moving all over the place, with new bulls dropping into your catchment all the time. Those bluff systems with a resident population of nannies will be a magnet, often with the same bull showing up in his favoured rutting grounds year after year.
Normally I’d be a big advocate of encouraging people to shoot a few nannies for meat. But given the Department of Conservations complete disregard for recreational hunters as a conservation tool, and their refusal to consult with hunters as a stakeholder. I think I’ll just shoot the occasional truly mature bull until we have a revised Himalayan Tahr Control Plan that we can all agree to.
This article was originally produced for NZHunter Magazine, be sure to check out their latest issue.