Matt McDowell pulled away from the spotting scope and turned. “We need to take a closer look at this goat.”
Scott Tibbs, sore from 9 miles in the saddle and dizzy in the high altitude, scrambled for his pack and rifle. Tibbs followed McDowell down through the scree, a descent of 400 vertical feet into the basin. Then they attacked the ridge.
In the thin air, Tibbs’ lungs burned with exertion. The tops of his legs were on fire as the hunters traversed shale slides where the rock shifted and slid underfoot, and pulled themselves up, hand over hand, through granite chimneys.
After climbing for several hours and 1,000 feet, they stopped for another look. Tibbs thought he was seeing double. Instead of one goat, there were two, the second bigger than the first.
To confuse matters further, the hunters had inadvertently put a band of six worried bighorns between themselves and the goats. Tibbs found a position from which he could shoot. He could not get the range-finder to read beyond 49 yards. The range-finder was set for bowhunting distances.
The friend he had borrowed it from had forgotten to show Tibbs how to change the setting.
Tibbs, wedged into a granite slope with a 40-degree pitch, snugged the rifle against his shoulder and guessed the range. The goat turned broadside and Tibbs eased into the trigger. And missed the goat clean.
The animal worked his way up the mountain and turned broadside again, with the bottom third of his chest blocked by rocks. Tibbs locked the bolt home on another round and bent into the scope. His second bullet splattered stone. The billy walked over the top of the ridge, stood in silhouette against the sky, then disappeared into the next basin.
Last year, 681 hunters applied for the West Hurricane Creek mountain goat hunt in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of the Wallowa Mountains. Somebody had to draw it. That somebody was Tibbs, a 34-year-old information systems supervisor from Prineville.
The West Hurricane Creek hunt area is 20 miles long and 5 miles wide with elevations from 4,000 feet to 9,600 feet with no access roads and few trails. Tibbs began to understand what this was going to mean in terms of physical conditioning. It was June 13. He had exactly three months to get in goat shape.
Next, he had to figure out how to get there. He wrote six letters to outfitters in Northeast Oregon and settled on Matt McDowell from Eagle Cap Pack Station.
By September, Tibbs had dropped 16 pounds and his workouts included a five-mile run and a 10-mile bike ride BEFORE he went to the gym each day to lift weights.
For the hunt, Tibbs chose a Kimber Montana 300WSM. Trouble was, last summer there were no cartridges available for purchase in Central Oregon.
He began to load his own. After trying various combos, he hit on a load that produced three-inch groups at 300 yards.
Opening day, Tibbs, McDowell and Jerry, the camp cook and wrangler, lined out on horseback up the Lostine River drainage. For the next 9 miles, they followed the trail up, up, up through 52 switchbacks where the stirrups hung out over nothing. Vine maple and fir gave way to twisted hemlock and granite. They topped out on a ridge in the thin air and a great basin unfolded in front of them. For the next few days, home would be a windswept ridge at 7,400 feet above sea level.
At midday, Tibbs spotted the first billy. After the climb and missed shots, McDowell and Tibbs returned to their binoculars and spotting scopes and it wasn’t long before Tibbs spotted another, this one a large nanny feeding alone.
First light, Sunday, the hunters glassed three goats from camp and then saddled up before the sun pushed back the shadows. The hunters were little more than 100 yards out of camp when McDowell turned in the saddle.
There, on the mountain behind them, stood a single billy. Reining around, they dismounted and began to work their way up through the talus.
The billy had been hidden in a boulder field. Now he was 110 yards away.
McDowell took a last look and signaled ‘thumbs up.’ Tibbs caressed the steel trigger and lanced his hard-earned mountain goat with a blue-tipped Barnes TTSX.
Later, the goat’s horns would tape out at 472⁄8 B&C. It would be the biggest Rocky Mountain goat taken in the Eagle Caps in 2009 and would place high in the Oregon Big Game Records and qualify for the Boone and Crockett awards.
This is the third year for our High Desert Backcountry Outdoorsman award. Dara Smith won it in 2007 for her Kodiak Island adventure. Darrel Ries was selected for his Cusick Mountain hunt. This year, Scott Tibbs will take home the bronzed Danner trophy.
Many hunters, when they draw a bighorn sheep or mountain goat tag, surrender before they even start. It can be that tough. It takes a little luck to draw the tag, but it takes a backcountry hunter’s toughness, skill, discipline and determination to bring home the meat.