Goats at the Top of the World

In the vertical terrain mountain goats call home, one false step can be fatal. Hunting these animals with a rifle is a challenge. Hunting them with a bow is borderline crazy.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

The harsh ring of the satellite phone shattered the silence. Chase Fulcher had been waiting patiently for hours. Elsie answered the call from her husband, nodded a couple of times, and with a shallow "ah-huh" hung up.

The wind rushed hard against the shanty; an occasional moan accented the timbers' struggle to remain steadfast. She turned to Fulcher. "He'll be here in short order. Like I figured, weather put 'em down." Fulcher, a fortysomething Kentucky native, turned up his collar and walked out onto the rickety wooden porch. A bitter nor'easter blew stiff into his face, his collar flapping as he spied the tiny seaplane coming into view on the distant horizon.

The little plane made a wide arc some 600 yards off the island's shore, searching for solitude from the wind and a place to land. A few minutes later it chugged up to the floating dock.

Stepping onto the dock, the pilot brushed spilled coffee off the lap of his wrinkled trousers. It had been a rough ride. Under his breath he cursed the weather that had grounded him for three hours. Disheveled, with a three-day stubble, he walked over and offered a leathered hand. "Guy Antilla," he said. "Please call me Guy." His accent hinted at his Finnish ancestry.

Introductions complete, Antilla said, "We've got to hurry. It's a long trip and darkness will be on us soon." Fulcher and his guide, Ben Sternbergh, jammed the small fuselage with a week's worth of gear, then somehow squeezed in themselves.

Goats Below
Base camp was about 80 miles due north, through a narrow passage, along a translucent blue glacier and over three snow-capped mountains.

Fulcher came to the Yukon to fulfill his bowhunting dream. Sternbergh tugged on his coat and tapped his finger on the plane's window glass, pointing to the jagged terrain below. "That's them," he said. "That's your goats." Fulcher leaned over, straining for a look. Two thousand feet below the plane's belly, three goats perched on a tiny rock cliff outcropping just below a fresh snow line. Spotting them, Fulcher nodded with a big smile and signaled a thumbs up as Antilla guided the plane down to the mountain's base.

Once they drifted to a stop, Sternbergh and Fulcher moved quickly to unload. Antilla offered both men a firm handshake as a farewell. The small plane disappeared quickly, leaving the two with the sound of rushing water and howling wind. The radio had warned of a front that would push through the area, bringing even stronger winds and heavy thunderstorms.

They quickly set up their small camp. The wind was blowing so hard that Fulcher had to put rocks inside the tent to keep it from blowing away. That night Fulcher couldn't sleep. He kept replaying the vision of those goats on top of the mountain. As awe-inspiring as the sight was, he couldn't help but think about how high they were.

A Precious Handhold
Fulcher got up at 4 a.m. and Sternbergh rose as daylight broke. They packed light, taking only the essentials they would need to survive a night on the mountain in case they got stuck. Sternbergh shouldered his pack and his .338 Winchester Magnum-grizzly insurance. Fulcher grabbed his gear and followed.

The air grew thin as the two men climbed, struggling during their four-hour ascent over unforgiving terrain. As he picked his way along a steep ridge, Fulcher chuckled to himself, thinking that here was a place that only a mountain goat would go. Amusement suddenly turned to panic as his footing gave way. Sliding toward the edge of the mountain, Fulcher flailed about for a handhold. As he gathered speed, he rolled onto his stomach, clawing for anything in the loose rock that would cancel his rapid descent. Somehow he managed to grab a small rock that kept him from going over the edge.

Battered, bruised and bleeding, Fulcher eventually regained his composure. He now haa much clearer understanding of why trophy mountain goats are rare.

He and Sternbergh made it back to their base camp 16 hours after they had left, looking more like a couple of interstate overpass transients than an accomplished bowhunter and a professional guide. They had spotted only one goat. The third day of the hunt was equally fruitless. Sternbergh and Fulcher discussed their options and decided that they had to move to another mountain. Fortunately, Antilla was due for a fly-by that day to check on their camp. They hurried back to meet his plane and switch locations.

Their new camp was less hospitable than the first. It was harsh, cold and moonlike. The temperature hovered near zero and the wind gusted at 45 mph. But they had spotted seven large goats on a nearby mountain, so it was home for now.

The Low Goat
The next morning, Fulcher grabbed the spotting scope and slipped outside for a look at his new mountain. To his surprise, he spotted a billy halfway up. Shaking uncontrollably from the cold, he ducked back into the tent to tell Sternbergh, who grabbed the scope and took a look for himself. Their teeth chattering, the hunter and guide exchanged high fives.

Their plan was to climb up above the goat, stalk down to it and, hopefully, get within bow range. They dressed quickly, then packed enough for two days on the mountain.

They hiked for about three miles, figuring they were at least a mile downwind of the goat. Then they started their climb and for four hours struggled nearly straight up with their 45-pound packs. Eventually, the two crawled to a cliff that overlooked the goat's bedding area. Sternbergh glassed left and right, scanning the terrain, but saw no goat.

They figured their prey had winded them. Sternbergh was certain the goat had climbed higher. Fulcher tightened his backpack straps and started uphill. Two hours later, they found themselves staring straight up a sheer vertical bluff.

Sternbergh looked at the imposing rock face rising before him. "The only way we're getting to the top is to drop back down the mountain and go up the other side," he said.

Fulcher knew this would mean another day lost to climbing. "Nope, let's climb it."

Sternbergh raised an eyebrow. "You can make it up that?" The guide was 20 years younger than his client. Determined, Fulcher nodded. Two-thirds of the way up, gravity again proved stronger than Fulcher's desire for a goat. His rocky foothold gave way, and he went on another wild ride down the mountain. Luckily, he slammed into an outcropping of rocks, stopping short of the mountain's edge.

Lying there, still, Fulcher checked himself for injuries. His body, though cut and battered, seemed intact. It was his sanity he questioned. It's only a damned goat, after all, he thought. They eat license plates and tin cans. Minutes later, Fulcher's freshly scraped and bloody hands were again pulling him toward the summit. Once at the top, Sternbergh offered Fulcher an arm to help him sit. Fulcher's body was spent and his spirit was drained.

Sternbergh took the opportunity to glass as Fulcher rested. Unbelievably, just 900 yards away were two trophy billies.

With only three hours of daylight left, it wasn't clear they could get to the goats fast enough. The hunter and guide made a pact to move as quickly as humanly possible. After two hours they had climbed above the goats. Using a rocky bluff for cover, Sternbergh belly-crawled through the snow for a closer look. Amazingly, both billies were within bow range. One was bedded down; the other, larger goat was standing, looking down the mountain. Sternbergh signaled Fulcher over.

Fulcher peered at the goats through fogged binocular lenses. Squinting for a second, he made the call. Distance: an even 50 yards. Elevation: 45 degrees downhill. He did the math in his head, subtracting 10 yards for the acute downhill angle. That put his goat at 40.

Fulcher guessed the left-to-right crosswind was blowing 35 mph. He then mustered everything the mountains hadn't taken out of him to draw his bow. He fought to settle his quaking 40-yard pin a little left of the goat's front shoulder. A quick prayer followed by a gentle squeeze on his release and the arrow was gone. It disappeared into the goat's shaggy vanilla coat, the crimson-stained shaft exiting on the aft side, its broadhead sparking on the rocks. The goat ran, stumbled and fell down. Fulcher collapsed right there in the snow.

Out of Time
Fulcher and Sternbergh had little time to revel in the moment. The temperature was plummeting and they were on top of a mountain with darkness minutes away. Sternbergh checked his watch; they had left base camp 15 hours ago. The men worked to cape and clean their trophy, finishing the task by the light of a full moon after the batteries in their headlamps died.

Now they faced a descent down the mountain in the dark. Five hours later, they stumbled off the mountain onto the glacier. Fulcher checked his watch. It had been 21 straight hours since they had begun their journey up that mountain.

The next morning they woke to the rhythmic thump of a propeller. Antilla landed his plane, walked over to the hunters and threw out a glib "Any luck?"

Neither Fulcher nor Sternbergh spoke. Fulcher's mind raced. Luck? Yes, he was lucky. Lucky to have survived two falls. Damned lucky to be alive, in fact. Lucky to have had a chance at a goat of a lifetime. Fulcher turned to Sternbergh and grinned. There was no need for words. Their mettle had been tested. With the plane packed, they left the mountain, glacier, goats and punishing pain behind. The tiny plane climbed sharply into a bright blue sky. Fulcher found himself contemplating just how warm his bed was back in Kentucky. in his head, subtracting 10 yards for the acute downhill angle. That put his goat at 40.

Fulcher guessed the left-to-right crosswind was blowing 35 mph. He then mustered everything the mountains hadn't taken out of him to draw his bow. He fought to settle his quaking 40-yard pin a little left of the goat's front shoulder. A quick prayer followed by a gentle squeeze on his release and the arrow was gone. It disappeared into the goat's shaggy vanilla coat, the crimson-stained shaft exiting on the aft side, its broadhead sparking on the rocks. The goat ran, stumbled and fell down. Fulcher collapsed right there in the snow.

Out of Time
Fulcher and Sternbergh had little time to revel in the moment. The temperature was plummeting and they were on top of a mountain with darkness minutes away. Sternbergh checked his watch; they had left base camp 15 hours ago. The men worked to cape and clean their trophy, finishing the task by the light of a full moon after the batteries in their headlamps died.

Now they faced a descent down the mountain in the dark. Five hours later, they stumbled off the mountain onto the glacier. Fulcher checked his watch. It had been 21 straight hours since they had begun their journey up that mountain.

The next morning they woke to the rhythmic thump of a propeller. Antilla landed his plane, walked over to the hunters and threw out a glib "Any luck?"

Neither Fulcher nor Sternbergh spoke. Fulcher's mind raced. Luck? Yes, he was lucky. Lucky to have survived two falls. Damned lucky to be alive, in fact. Lucky to have had a chance at a goat of a lifetime. Fulcher turned to Sternbergh and grinned. There was no need for words. Their mettle had been tested. With the plane packed, they left the mountain, glacier, goats and punishing pain behind. The tiny plane climbed sharply into a bright blue sky. Fulcher found himself contemplating just how warm his bed was back in Kentucky.