To Hell and Back

These six adventuress will test your body, spirit, nerves and hunting skills like no others. Are you game?

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Fair warning, couch potatoes and faint of heart: If your idea of prime time afield is plopping your flabby butt astride the old ATV and vroom-vrooming out to your favorite tree stand on the back 40, this article is definitely not for you. Ditto if your idea of dangerous game is a rabid squirrel or a scolding goose.

But if you're one of those old-fashioned types who lives for the road less traveled, who thinks that the greatest hunts are more about the adventure experienced than the trophy taken, who longs for dramatic vistas and exotic locales-in short, if you're up to the challenge of lung- busting, leg-wobbling terrain, bitter-cold conditions and quarry that could potentially turn the tables and kill you, read on.

You see, we're not talking mildly demanding hunts here, the kind that force you to work up a sweat or two, or might blister your big toe, or actually require more than a modicum of shooting skill. We're talking tough, treacherous hunts, the kind that will push you to your limits physically and mentally in pursuit of trophy big game. We're talking dangerous hunts that could get you gored, stomped, chomped or flayed.

But if you dare to go on any of these six hunts, if you've got the right stuff and have fine-tuned your gear and trained and practiced hard, you just might come home with the trophy of a lifetime-and a whopper of a tale to match it.

WHITE MOUNTAIN WILDERNESS ELK// New Mexico
Even when it's easy, elk hunting's tough, but it's darn near brutal in the towering volcanic crags west of Ruidoso, New Mexico. The peaks and canyons off the backside of the famed Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation are 9,000 to 11,000 feet high and crawling with big bulls. Unit 36's 50,000 acres are so steep, rocky and choked with underbrush that they have reduced grown men to tears. Literally.

"You'll see guys come back into camp that first day pale, sick and near crying from the altitude and the steepness," says Colorado native Mike Unruh, a physical fitness and elk nut who applies to hunt in the White Mountains every year. "You won't find a tougher elk hunt anywhere, but if you're prepared you could kill the biggest bull of your life."

Kentucky hunter Jimmy Boone, who arrowed a 360-class 7 by 7 in the White Mountains several years ago, agrees. "There are some absolute giants in there. But it's as nasty or nastier than the Wyoming unit where I killed my bighorn ram. The second morning I was there another hunter started throwing up right after breakfast. He'd survived the first day, but he knew what was coming and just couldn't face it."

Johnny Hughes lives in Ruidoso and has guided for elk in the White Mountains for more than 10 years. "The hunters who are successful here have been in rugged, high-altitude country before and know what it takes to get through a six- to ten-day hunt," he says. "And it's not about age. We've had twenty-five-year-old guys collapse after a day, and we've had a sixty-seven-year-old who went everywhere we asked him to."

Hughes's clients have killed bulls approaching the 400-class, but they've worked insanely hard for them: An average 14-hour day chasing elk on foot in Unit 36 during archery season demands that a hunter cover five to seven miles and climb anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 vertical feet. Muzzleloader hunters have it a bit easier, but they should still be in the best shape of their lives.

"The first year I wasn't fully prepared and I'd like to have died, but I kept seeing this three-eighty bull and had to go back," says Nevada muzzleloader hunter Harlan King. "The next time I went, I started training four months before by loading my pack with twenty-five pounds of lead shot and climbing for five miles five times a week through the steepest stuff I could find near my house. Six weeks before the season I increased the weight to fifty pounds. Then I was ready. I di't get the monster I was after, but I'm applying again this year. The elk are too big for me not to."

Contact: New Mexico Department of Game & Fish (505-476-8000; wildlife.state.nm.us). Johnny Hughes, Elite Outfitters (505-257-5379; eliteoutfitters.com)

[pagebreak] CAPE BUFFALO// Tanzania
Of Africa's Big Five game animals, the Cape buffalo is the one almost guaranteed to give you nightmares and trigger a flood of adrenaline. Myopic and volatile, "dugga boys," as the oldest bachelor bulls are known, can also be lethal, especially when they are tracked and stalked in the classic style, which requires a hunter to walk anywhere from two to ten hours to get close for the shot.

"Cape buffalo are notoriously short-tempered animals prone to charge when they're wounded or when their comfort zone is violated," says Jill Kleynhans, a safari operator who specializes in tracking Cape buffalo hunts in the famous Selous preserve in southern Tanzania. "We often track them through mopane forests and twelve-foot-high grass where you can stumble onto them. It can be a deadly scenario if you're not prepared."

Adam Clements, another professional hunter who specializes in Tanzanian safaris and shot his first dugga boy at age 7, agrees. "Nine times out of ten, if they wind you they'll stampede away. But if you get close before they scent you or you wound them, they head for the thickets and lie in wait. Then you're in for trouble."

Indeed, every year buffalo hunters are charged, stomped and gored, which is akin to being hit by a pickup truck with horns. Making matters worse is the habit some buffalo have of circling back to check their trail when being followed. If you're lucky, you'll never have that experience.

"It's always in the back of your mind," says Robert Crew, who had to follow a Cape buffalo he wounded with Clements in the Selous in 2003. "He went into the thick stuff and we had to crawl in after him on our hands and knees. It was almost like night in there. We had to inch forward, studying the shadows, listening to the beast crashing ahead of us. My eyes were as big as saucers and every hair on my neck stood on end the entire time we were in there. Five shots later, he was dead."

_Contact: Adam Clements (210-698-0077; safaritrackers.com) or Jill Kleynhans (+27 83-280-3558; mafigeni.co.za) _

[pagebreak] BIGHORN SHEEP// Montana
These six hunting units in southwestern Montana are the last places in the Lower 48 where you are guaranteed to pull a sheep permit if you apply. Even nonresidents don't need to hire an outfitter to go.

Unlike in most other bighorn sheep units in Montana, pulling the permit is the easy part. The unlimiteds are so tough that experienced sheep guides who've tried to conquer them have left limping and shaking their heads. Why? Much of the country is so sheer and rocky that using horses to pack in a camp is impossible. Everything goes in and comes out on your back. Couple that with the fact that sheep numbers are so low that you might have to hike a hundred miles or more to get a shot at a ram. Oh, and did we mention that the unlimiteds are infested with grizzlies?

Most sheep aficionados agree that the biggest rams in the unlimiteds live, not surprisingly, in the toughest unit, 501, which encompasses a large portion of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness between Red Lodge and the Paradise Valley.

"It's like hunting on the moon," says Tim Schinabarger, a sculptor who has successfully hunted several of Montana's unlimited units, including 501. "The Beartooths are Montana's toughest mountain range. Going after sheep in them means you've got to put in miles and miles of backpacking."

Schinabarger helped his wife, Roxanne, hunt 501 in 2003. Between scouting and hunting trips the couple put in 37 days, hiked 125 miles and climbed and descended more than 30,000 vertical feet before she at last shot her sheep, an exceptional, broomed-off ram that scored 165 Boone and Crockett points.

"To do well in 501 you've got to be darn near obsessed, ready to wear out a pair of boots and aware that you'll be dealing with grizzlies," says Schinabarger, who had a sow and two cubs charge into his camp during the hunt. "But if you've got the time and are prepared and committed to the hunt, you can shoot a nice representative ram."

Mike Lovely has hunted sheep for 25 years and bought the rights to outfit 501 from famed guide Jack Atcheson Jr. "Jack used to say that God deposited ninety percent of the rock in Montana in 501, and I'd say he was about right. I've had clients who've hunted in the Brooks Range up in Alaska and down in Mexico come here and tell me it's the toughest sheep country in all of North America."

Indeed, when people call Lovely about hunting 501, he tries to discourage them. He tells them that they'll be crawling around in scree slides and boulders above 9,000 feet, that they might go eight days without seeing a sheep and that they could face everything from heat to blizzards to gale-force winds.

"It takes a special kind of person, someone who's as tough mentally as physically, to succeed in the unlimiteds," Lovely says. "Older hunters seem to do better than the younger guys, who all seem to spend too much time watching the Outdoor Channel rather than getting ready. But nice rams are killed in the unlimiteds every year. It all comes down to the hunter and what he's willing to endure to succeed."

Contact: Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (406-444-2950; fwp.state.mt.us). Guide Mike Lovely, Rollin-Boulder Outfitters (406-932-5836; rbo@mtio.net)

[pagebreak] PRAIRIE WHITETAILS// Canada
The temperatures and wind chill in late November in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba can easily hit 20 or 30 below zero. Blink and your eyelashes might freeze. Take off your glove and you'll be frostbitten in minutes.

But when it's bitter cold and the rut's on, some of the biggest whitetail bucks in the world start to move. Rifle hunters survive the brutal conditions by using box blinds with heaters. Archery hunters, however, have to tough it out, perching in tree stands where they'll face the elements for 60 hours during an average week afield.

"It can be tough, real tough," admits Jim Hole Jr., who guides in the famous Edmonton bow zone, arguably the best place in the world to hunt giant whitetails. "If you don't have the right gear to survive the cold, the strength to climb trees and hang stands and the positive mental attitude necessary to succeed in the harsh conditions we can get up here, you're finished before you even begin."

Indeed, if you move too fast and sweclimbed and descended more than 30,000 vertical feet before she at last shot her sheep, an exceptional, broomed-off ram that scored 165 Boone and Crockett points.

"To do well in 501 you've got to be darn near obsessed, ready to wear out a pair of boots and aware that you'll be dealing with grizzlies," says Schinabarger, who had a sow and two cubs charge into his camp during the hunt. "But if you've got the time and are prepared and committed to the hunt, you can shoot a nice representative ram."

Mike Lovely has hunted sheep for 25 years and bought the rights to outfit 501 from famed guide Jack Atcheson Jr. "Jack used to say that God deposited ninety percent of the rock in Montana in 501, and I'd say he was about right. I've had clients who've hunted in the Brooks Range up in Alaska and down in Mexico come here and tell me it's the toughest sheep country in all of North America."

Indeed, when people call Lovely about hunting 501, he tries to discourage them. He tells them that they'll be crawling around in scree slides and boulders above 9,000 feet, that they might go eight days without seeing a sheep and that they could face everything from heat to blizzards to gale-force winds.

"It takes a special kind of person, someone who's as tough mentally as physically, to succeed in the unlimiteds," Lovely says. "Older hunters seem to do better than the younger guys, who all seem to spend too much time watching the Outdoor Channel rather than getting ready. But nice rams are killed in the unlimiteds every year. It all comes down to the hunter and what he's willing to endure to succeed."

Contact: Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (406-444-2950; fwp.state.mt.us). Guide Mike Lovely, Rollin-Boulder Outfitters (406-932-5836; rbo@mtio.net)

[pagebreak] PRAIRIE WHITETAILS// Canada
The temperatures and wind chill in late November in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba can easily hit 20 or 30 below zero. Blink and your eyelashes might freeze. Take off your glove and you'll be frostbitten in minutes.

But when it's bitter cold and the rut's on, some of the biggest whitetail bucks in the world start to move. Rifle hunters survive the brutal conditions by using box blinds with heaters. Archery hunters, however, have to tough it out, perching in tree stands where they'll face the elements for 60 hours during an average week afield.

"It can be tough, real tough," admits Jim Hole Jr., who guides in the famous Edmonton bow zone, arguably the best place in the world to hunt giant whitetails. "If you don't have the right gear to survive the cold, the strength to climb trees and hang stands and the positive mental attitude necessary to succeed in the harsh conditions we can get up here, you're finished before you even begin."

Indeed, if you move too fast and swe