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Southern Alps In Winter

Posted by PointsSouth on

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The onset of winter conditions and shorter days spells the beginning of the tahr and chamois ruts, making it an exciting time to be out in the Southern Alps. Make no mistake about it, alpine hunting is a great challenge. But, it can also be fairly easy to come unstuck.

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 involved with alpine travel is a whole different set of skills. If you’ve never travelled, much less hunted, at higher altitudes you might be in for an eye opener.

Hunting tahr in the snow

Image @Sean Powell

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. What happens next is usually walking away pissed off at leaving an animal on the hill, or hanging on by your fingernails scaring yourself stupid. Most (sensible) people will only do the scare yourself stupid bit once.

Everyone has different abilities and comfort zones. It’s all too easy to get excited and suddenly find yourself well outside your comfort zone. With 60% of alpine hunting injuries coming as the result of a fall, it pays to have a healthy respect for the terrain, the gear required as well as your own abilities.

Winter Tahr Hunting

Image @Sean Powell

A trip, slip or fall in alpine terrain will often become serious due to the steeper and more exposed nature of the terrain. 100% of alpine hunting fatalities are as a result of falling, and interestingly 4 of the 5 were hunting alone at the time. I know a lot of us like to hunt solo, but simply put, in an alpine environment you’re better off hunting with a buddy.

Blood trail in steep country

You can see just how steep it is when you spot Tom standing at the bottom. Image @Sean Powell

Alpine hunting tips and tricks

  • Plan your hunt well, as there's no way you want to be in terrain like this with darkness approaching. Try your best to minimize travel after dark, or at least make sure you're off the more serious sections well before. Simple things like dropping a GPS pin on camp or any other important features, can be dam helpful when you do end up shuffling home in the dark. As is remembering that all important head torch.

  • Have the right equipment and know how to use it. The usual bush hunting or back of the farm gear probably isn't going to cut it if your caught out in a storm on the tops. It pays to have the best apparel you can afford. Ignore the marketing hype and actually look at the fabrics involved and what the waterproofing and breathability ratings are. An ice axe AND crampons are a basic necessity in alpine terrain (and not the little instep type crampon's, as these are better suited to icy car parks). Have the right equipment and learn how to use it. If you need the tools then look here

  • As always, be prepared. A PLB and enough gear to survive an unexpected night out is simply a no brainer. The decision to stop and bivvy where you are will be a whole easier to make knowing you can be somewhat comfortable.

  • Pick those campsites carefully. Are you too exposed to the wind? What’s the likelihood of rockfall or an avalanche? A good tip here is to look at the rocks around you, are they old and covered is moss/lichen? If not, then how do you think they got there?

  • 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? We found a good example of this a few ruts back when we climbed up a bunch of 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 temperatures 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 that gut when it does! 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, only just managing to pull himself up by digging his rifle barrel into snow and stopping just short of a serious drop. Needless to say, he was bruised and grazed and the very next day purchased an axe and crampons.

 This bull tahr is standing at about 1800 meters in elevation. This bull tahr is standing at about 1800 meters in elevation.

Using an axe and crampons means you’re not only safer, but also much more efficient moving across firm snow and ice. At the least you should take a basic alpine class. There are quite a few providers. If you’re looking to start venturing onto the tops in winter then the Mountain Safety Council is a great starting point for information on some of the courses available. Be sure to check out the snow conditions and weather before you go. It’s vital that you check the New Zealand Avalanche Advisory and read the whole forecast. Understanding the risks now and into the future will be a key part of safe alpine travel.

At the end of the day it really is just a shaggy goat, and it’s certainly not worth risking your neck over.

The video below shows a bull of a lifetime in some super serious terrain. Filmed and narrated by Hugh Bagley, it really highlights the type of predicament you can easily find yourself in.

Stay safe out there

Winter camp in the snow while tahr hunting

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