Climbing for Goats

Chapter I

Near the point at which the great Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains crosses the Canadian border another range edges in toward it from the south. Between these ranges lies a space of from twenty to forty miles; and midway between them flows a clear, wonderful river through dense forests. Into the river empty other, tributary, rivers rising in the bleak and lofty fastnesses of the mountains to right and left. Between them, in turn, run spur systems of mountains only a little less lofty than the parent ranges. Thus the ground plan of the whole country is a good deal like that of a leaf: the main stem representing the big river, the lateral veins its affluents; the tiny veins its torrents pouring from the sides of its mountains and glaciers; and the edges of the leaf and all spaces standing for mountains rising very sheer and abrupt from the floor of the densely forested stream valleys. In this country of forty miles by five hundred, then, are hundreds of distinct ranges, thousands of peaks, and innumerable valleys, pockets, and “parks.” A wilder, lonelier, grander country would be hard to find. Save for the Forest Service and a handful of fur trappers, it is uninhabited. Its streams abound in trout; its dense forests with elk and white-tailed deer; its balder hills with blacktail deer; its upper basins with grizzly bears; its higher country with sheep and that dizzy climber the Rocky Mountain goat.

He who would enter this region descends at a little station on the Great Northern, and thence proceeds by pack train at least four days, preferably more, out into the wilderness. The going is through forests, the tree trunks straight and very close together, so that he will see very little of the open sky and less of the landscape. By way of compensation the forest itself is remarkably beautiful. Its undergrowth, though dense, is very low and even, not more than a foot or so off the ground; and in the Hunting Moon the leaves of this undergrowth have turned to purest yellow, without touch or trace of red, so that the sombre forest is carpeted with gold. Here and there shows a birch or aspen, also bright, pure light yellow, as though a brilliant sun were striking down through painted windows. Groups of yellow-leafed larches add to the splendour. And close to the ground grow little flat plants decked out with red or blue or white wax berries, Christmas fashion.

In this green-and-gold room one journeys for days. Occasionally a chance opening affords a momentary glimpse of hills or of the river sweeping below; but not for long. It is a chilly room. The frost has hardened the mud in the trail. One’s feet and hands ache cruelly. At night camp is made near the banks of the river, whence always one may in a few moments catch as many trout as are needed, fine, big, fighting trout.

By the end of three or four days the prospect opens out. Tremendous cliffs rise sheer from the bottom of the valley; up tributary cañons one can see a dozen miles to distant snow ranges glittering and wonderful. Nearer at hand the mountains rise above timber line to great buttes and precipices.

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Fisher, Frank, and I had been hunting for elk in the dense forests along the foot of one of these mountains; and for a half day, drenched with sweat, had toiled continuously up and down steep slopes, trying to go quietly, trying to keep our wind, trying to pierce the secrets of the leafy screen always about us. We were tired of it.

“Let’s go to the top and look for goats,” suggested Frank. “There are some goat cliffs on the other side of her. It isn’t very far.”

It was not very far, as measured by the main ranges, but it was a two hours’ steady climb nearly straight up. We would toil doggedly for a hundred feet, or until our wind gave out and our hearts began to pound distressingly; then we would rest a moment. After doing this a few hundred times we would venture a look upward, confidently expecting the summit to be close at hand. It seemed as far as ever. We suffered a dozen or so of these disappointments, and then learned not to look up. This was only after we had risen above timber line to the smooth, rounded rock-and-grass shoulder of the mountain. Then three times we made what we thought was a last spurt, only to find ourselves on a “false summit.” After a while we grew resigned, we realized that we were never going to get anywhere, but were to go on forever, without ultimate purpose and without hope, pushing with tired legs, gasping with inadequate lungs. When we had fully made up our minds to that, we arrived. This is typical of all high-mountain climbing–the dogged, hard, hopeless work that can never reach an accomplishment; and then at last the sudden, unexpected culmination.

We topped a gently rounding summit; took several deep breaths into the uttermost cells of our distressed lungs; walked forward a dozen steps–and found ourselves looking over the sheer brink of a precipice. So startlingly unforeseen was the swoop into blue space that I recoiled hastily, feeling a little dizzy. Then I recovered and stepped forward cautiously for another look. As with all sheer precipices, the lip on which we stood seemed slightly to overhang, so that in order to see one had apparently to crane away over, quite off balance. Only by the strongest effort of the will is one able to rid oneself of the notion that the centre of gravity is about to plunge one off head first into blue space. For it was fairly blue space below our precipice. We could see birds wheeling below us; and then below them again, very tiny, the fall away of talus, and the tops of trees in the basin below. And opposite, and all around, even down over the horizon, were other majestic peaks, peers of our own, naked and rugged. From camp the great forests had seemed to us the most important, most dominant, most pervading feature of the wilderness. Now in the high sisterhood of the peaks we saw they were as mantles that had been dropped about the feet.

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Across the face of the cliff below us ran irregular tiny ledges; buttresses ended in narrow peaks; “chimneys” ran down irregularly to the talus. Here were supposed to dwell the goats.

We proceeded along the crest, spying eagerly. We saw tracks; but no animals. By now it was four o’clock, and past time to turn campward. We struck down the mountain on a diagonal that should take us home. For some distance all went well enough. To be sure, it was very steep, and we had to pay due attention to balance and sliding. Then a rock wall barred our way. It was not a very large rock wall. We went below it. After a hundred yards we struck another. By now the first had risen until it towered far above us, a sheer, gray cliff behind which the sky was very blue. We skirted the base of the second and lower cliff. It led us to another; and to still another. Each of these we passed on the talus beneath it; but with increasing difficulty, owing to the fact that the wide ledges were pinching out. At last we found ourselves cut off from farther progress. To our right rose tier after tier of great cliffs, serenely and loftily unconscious of any little insects like ourselves that might be puttering around their feet. Straight ahead the ledge ceased to exist. To our left was a hundred-foot drop to the talus that sloped down to the cañon. The cañon did not look so very far away, and we desired mightily to reach it. The only alternative to getting straight down was to climb back the weary way we had come; and that meant all night without food, warm clothing, or shelter on a snow-and-ice mountain.

Therefore, we scouted that hundred-foot drop to our left very carefully. It seemed hopeless; but at last I found a place where a point of the talus ran up to a level not much below our own. The only difficulty was that between ourselves and that point of talus extended a piece of sheer wall. I slung my rifle over my back, and gave myself to a serious consideration of that wall. Then I began to work out across its face.

The principle of safe climbing is to maintain always three points of suspension: that it to say, one should keep either both footholds and one handhold, or both handholds and one foothold. Failing that, one is taking long chances. With this firmly in mind, I spidered out across the wall, testing every projection and cranny before I trusted any weight to it. One apparently solid projection as big as my head came away at the first touch, and went bouncing off into space. Finally I stood, or rather sprawled, almost within arm’s length of a tiny scrub pine growing solidly in a crevice just over the talus. Once there, our troubles were over; but there seemed no way of crossing. For the moment it actually looked as though four feet only would be sufficient to turn us back.

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At last, however, I found a toehold half way across. It was a very slight crevice, and not more than two inches deep. The toe of a boot would just hold there without slipping. Unfortunately, there were no handholds above it. After thinking the matter over, however, I made up my mind to violate, for this occasion only, the rules for climbing. I inserted the toe, gathered myself, and with one smooth swoop swung myself across and grabbed that tiny pine!

Fisher now worked his way out and crossed in the same manner. But Frank was too heavy for such gymnastics. Fisher therefore took a firm grip on the pine, inserted his toe in the crevice, and hung on with all his strength while Frank crossed on his shoulders!


Once more, lured by the promise of the tracks we had seen, we climbed this same mountain, but again without results. By now, you may be sure, we had found an easier way home! This was a very hard day’s work, but uneventful.

Now, four days later, I crossed the river and set off above to explore in the direction of the Continental Divide. Of course I had no intention of climbing for goats, or, indeed, of hunting very hard for anything. My object was an idle go-look-see. Equally, of course, after I had rammed around most happily for a while up the wooded stream-bed of that cañon, I turned sharp to the right and began to climb the slope of the spur, running out at right angles to the main ranges that constituted one wall of my cañon. It was fifteen hundred nearly perpendicular feet of hard scrambling through windfalls. Then when I had gained the ridge, I thought I might as well keep along it a little distance. And then, naturally, I saw the main peaks not so very far away; and was in for it!

On either side of me the mountain dropped away abruptly. I walked on a knife edge, steeply rising. Great cañons yawned close at either hand, and over across were leagues of snow mountains.

In the cañon from which I had emerged a fine rain had been falling. Here it had turned to wet sleet. As I mounted, the slush underfoot grew firmer, froze, then changed to dry, powdery snow. This change was interesting and beautiful, but rather uncomfortable, for my boots, soaked through by the slush, now froze solid and scraped various patches of skin from my feet. It was interesting, too, to trace the change in bird life as the altitude increased. At snow line the species had narrowed down to a few ravens, a Canada jay, a blue grouse or so, nuthatches, and brown creepers. I saw one fresh elk track, innumerable marten, and the pad of a very large grizzly.

The ridge mounted steadily. After I had gained to 2,300 feet above the cañon I found that the ridge dipped to a saddle 600 feet lower. It really grieved me to give up that hard-earned six hundred, and then to buy it back again by another hard, slow, toilsome climb. Again I found my way barred by some unsuspected cliffs about sixty feet in height. Fortunately, they were well broken; and I worked my way to the top by means of ledges.

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Atop this the snow suddenly grew deeper and the ascent more precipitous. I fairly wallowed along. The timber line fell below me. All animal life disappeared. My only companions were now at spaced-out and mighty intervals the big bare peaks that had lifted themselves mysteriously from among their lesser neighbours, with which heretofore they had been confused. In spite of very heavy exertions, I began to feel the cold; so I unslung my rucksack and put on my buckskin shirt. The snow had become very light and feathery. The high, still buttes and crags of the main divide were right before me. Light fog wreaths drifted and eddied slowly, now concealing, now revealing the solemn crags and buttresses. Over everything–the rocks, the few stunted and twisted small trees, the very surface of the snow itself–lay a heavy rime of frost. This rime stood out in long, slender needles an inch to an inch and a half in length, sparkling and fragile and beautiful. It seemed that a breath of wind or even a loud sound would precipitate the glittering panoply to ruin; but in all the really awesome silence and hushed breathlessness of that strange upper world there was nothing to disturb them. The only motion was that of the idly-drifting fog wreaths; the only sound was that made by the singing of the blood in my ears! I felt as though I were in a world holding its breath.

It was piercing cold. I ate a biscuit and a few prunes, tramping energetically back and forth to keep warm. I could see in all directions now: an infinity of bare peaks, with hardly a glimpse of forests or streams or places where things might live. Goats are certainly either fools or great poets.

After a half hour of fruitless examination of the cliffs I perforce had to descend. The trip back was long. It had the added interest in that it was bringing me nearer water. No thirst is quite so torturing as that which afflicts one who climbs hard in cold, high altitudes. The throat and mouth seem to shrivel and parch. Psychologically, it is even worse than the desert thirst because in cold air it is unreasonable. Finally it became so unendurable that I turned down from the spur-ridge long before I should otherwise have done so, and did a good deal of extra work merely to reach a little sooner the stream at the bottom of the cañon. When I reached it, I found that here it flowed underground.


For ten days we hunted and fished. When the opportunity offered, we made a goat-survey of a new place. Finally, as time grew short, we realized that we must concentrate our energies in one effort if we were to get specimens of this most desirable of all American big game. Therefore Fisher, Frank, Harry, and I, leaving our other two companions and the majority of the horses at the base camp, packed a few days’ provisions and started in for the highest peaks of all.

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We journeyed up an unknown cañon eighteen miles long, heavily wooded in the bottoms, with great mountains overhanging, and with a beautiful clear trout stream singing down its bed. The first day we travelled ten hours. One man was always in front cutting out windfalls or other obstructions. I should be afraid to guess how many trees we chopped through that day. Another man scouted ahead for the best route amid difficulties. The other two performed the soul-destroying task of getting the horses to follow the appointed way. After three o’clock we began to hope for horse feed. At dark we reluctantly gave it up. The forest remained unbroken. We had to tie the poor, unfed horses to trees, while we ourselves searched diligently and with only partial success for tiny spots level enough and clear enough for our beds. It was very cold that night; and nobody was comfortable; the horses least of all.

Next morning we were out and away by daylight. If we could not find horse feed inside of four hours, we would be forced to retreat. Three hours of the four went by. Then Harry and I held the horses while our companions scouted ahead rapidly. We nearly froze, for in that deep valley the sun did not rise until nearly noon. Through an opening we could see back to a tremendous sheer butte rising more than three thousand feet by a series of very narrow terraced ledges. We named it the Citadel, so like was it to an ancient proud fortress.

Fisher reported first. He had climbed a tree, but had seen no feed. Ten minutes later Frank returned. He had found the track of an ancient avalanche close under the mountain, and in that track grew coarse grasses. We pushed on, and there made camp.

It was a queer enough camp. Our beds we spread in the various little spots among the roots and hummocks we imagined to look the most even. The fire we had to build in quite another place. All around us the lodge-pole pines, firs, and larches grew close and dark and damp. Only to the west the snow ranges showed among the treetops like great, looming white clouds.

For two days we lived high among the glaciers and snow crags, taking tremendous tramps, seeing wonderful peaks, frozen lakes, sheer cliffs, the tracks of grizzlies in numbers, the tiny sources of great streams, and the infinity of upper spaces. But no goats; and no tracks of goats. Little by little we eliminated the possibilities of the country accessible to us. Leagues in all directions, as far as the eye could reach, was plenty of other country, all equally good for goats; but it was not within reach of us from this cañon; and our time was up. Finally, we dropped back and made camp at the last feed; a mile or so below the Citadel. Two ranges at right angles here converged, and the Citadel rose like a tower at the corner. Here was our last chance.

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As we were finishing breakfast my eye was attracted to a snow speck on the mountainside some two thousand feet above us and slightly westward that somehow looked to me different from other snow specks. For nearly a minute I stared at it through my glasses. At last the speck moved. The game was in sight!

We drew straws for the shot, and Fisher won. Then we began our climb. It was the same old story of pumping lungs and pounding hearts; but with the incentive before us we made excellent time. A shallow ravine and a fringe of woods afforded us the cover we needed. At the end of an hour and a half we crawled out of our ravine and to the edge of the trees. There across a steep cañon and perhaps four hundred yards away were the goats, two of them, lying on the edge of small cliffs. We could see them very plainly, but they were too far for a sure shot. After examining them to our satisfaction we wormed our way back.

“The only sure way,” I insisted, “is to climb clear to the top of the ridge, go along it on the other side until we are above and beyond the goats, and then to stalk them down hill.”

That meant a lot more hard work; but in the end the plan was adopted. We resumed our interminable and toilsome climbing.

The ridge proved to be of the knife-edge variety, and covered with snow. From a deep, wide, walled-in basin on the other side rose the howling of two brush wolves. We descended a few feet to gain safe concealment; walked as rapidly as possible to the point above the goats; and then with the utmost caution began our descent.

In the last two hundred yards is the essence of big-game stalking. The hunter must move noiselessly, he must keep concealed; he must determine at each step just what the effect of that step has been in the matters of noise and of altering the point of view. It is necessary to spy sharply, not only from the normal elevation of a man’s shoulders, but also stooping to the waist line, and even down to the knees. An animal is just as suspicious of legs as of heads; and much more likely to see them.

The shoulder of the mountain here consisted of a series of steep grass curves ending in short cliff jump-offs. Scattered and stunted trees and tree groups grew here and there. In thirty minutes we had made our distance and recognized the fact that our goats must be lying at the base of the next ledge. Motioning Harry to the left and Fisher to the front, I myself moved to the right to cut off the game should it run in that direction. Ten seconds later I heard Fisher shoot; then Harry opened up; and in a moment a goat ran across the ledge fifty yards below me. With a thrill of the greatest satisfaction I dropped the gold bead of my front sight on his shoulder!

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The bullet knocked him off the edge of the cliff. He fell, struck the steep grass slope, and began to roll. Over and over and over he went, gathering speed like a snowball, getting smaller and smaller until he disappeared in the brush far below, a tiny spot of white.

No one can appreciate the feeling of relaxed relief that filled me. Hard and dangerous climbs, killing work, considerable hardship and discomfort had at length their reward. I could now take a rest. The day was young, and I contemplated with something like rapture a return to camp, and a good puttery day skinning out that goat. In addition I was suffering now from a splitting headache, the effects of incipient snow-blindness, and was generally pretty wobbly.

And then my eye wandered to the left, whence that goat had come. I saw a large splash of blood; at a spot before I had fired! It was too evident that the goat had already been wounded by Fisher; and therefore, by hunter’s law, belonged to him!

I set my teeth and turned up the mountain to regain the descent we had just made. At the knife-edge top I stopped for a moment to get my breath and to survey the country. Diagonally across the basin where the wolves were howling, half way down the ridge running at right angles to my own, I made out two goats. They were two miles away from me on an air line. My course was obvious. I must proceed along my ridge to the Citadel, keeping always out of sight; surmount that fortress; descend to the second ridge; walk along the other side of it until I was above those goats, and then sneak down on them.

I accomplished the first two stages of my journey all right, though with considerably more difficulty in spots than I should have anticipated. The knife edge was so sharp and the sides so treacherous that at times it was almost impossible to travel anywhere but right on top. This would not do. By a little planning, however, I managed to reach the central “keep” of the Citadel: a high, bleak, broken pile, flat on top, with snow in all the crevices, and small cliffs on all sides. From this advantage I could cautiously spy out the lay of the land.

Below me fifty feet dipped the second ridge, running nearly at right angles. It sloped abruptly to the wolf basin, but fell sheer on the other side to depths I could not at that time guess. A very few scattered, stunted, and twisted trees huddled close down to the rock and snow. This saddle was about fifty feet in width and perhaps five hundred yards in length. It ended in another craggy butte very much like the Citadel.

My first glance determined that my original plan would not do. The goats had climbed from where I had first seen them, and were now leisurely topping the saddle. To attempt to descend would be to reveal myself. I was forced to huddle just where I was. My hope was that the goats would wander along the saddle toward me, and not climb the other butte opposite. Also I wanted them to hurry, please, as the snow in which I sat was cold, and the wind piercing.

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This apparently they were not inclined to do. They paused, they nibbled at some scanty moss, they gazed at the scenery, they scratched their ears. I shifted my position cautiously–and saw below me, lying on the snow at the very edge of the cliff, a tremendous billy! He had been there all the time; and I had been looking over him!

At the crack of the Springfield he lurched forward and toppled slowly out of sight over the edge of the cliff. The two I had been stalking instantly disappeared. But on the very top of the butte opposite appeared another. It was a very long shot, but I had to take chances, for I could not tell whether or not the one I had just shot was accessible or not. On a guess I held six inches over his back. The goat gave one leap forward into space. For twenty feet he fell spread-eagled and right side up as though flying. Then he began to turn and whirl. As far as my personal testimony could go, he is falling yet through that dizzy blue abyss.

“Good-bye, billy,” said I, sadly. It looked then as though I had lost both.

I worked my way down the face of the Citadel until I was just above the steep snow fields. Here was a drop of six feet. If the snow was soft, all right. If it was frozen underneath, I would be very likely to toboggan off into space. I pried loose a small rock and dropped it, watching with great interest how it lit. It sunk with a dull plunk. Therefore I made my leap, and found myself waist deep in feathery snow.

With what anxiety I peered over the edge of that precipice the reader can guess. Thirty feet below was a four-foot ledge. On the edge of that ledge grew two stunted pines about three feet in height–and only two. Against those pines my goat had lodged! In my exultation I straightened up and uttered a whoop. To my surprise it was answered from behind me. Frank had followed my trail. He had killed a nanny and was carrying the head. Everybody had goats!

After a great deal of manoeuvring we worked our way down to the ledge by means of a crevice and a ten-foot pole. Then we tied the goat to the little trees, and set to work. I held Frank while he skinned; and then he held me while I skinned. It was very awkward. The tiny landscape almost directly beneath us was blue with the atmosphere of distance. A solitary raven discovered us, and began to circle and croak and flop.

“You’ll get your meal later,” we told him.

Far below us, like suspended leaves swirling in a wind, a dense flock of snowbirds fluttered.

We got on well enough until it became necessary to sever the backbone. Then, try as we would, we could not in the general awkwardness reach a joint with a knife. At last we had a bright idea. I held the head back while Frank shot the vertebrae in two with his rifle!

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Then we loosed the cords that held the body. It fell six hundred feet, hit a ledge, bounded out, and so disappeared toward the hazy blue map below. The raven folded his wings and dropped like a plummet, with a strange rushing sound. We watched him until the increasing speed of his swoop turned us a little dizzy, and we drew back. When we looked a moment later he had disappeared into the distance–straight down!

Now we had to win our way out. The trophy we tied with a rope. I climbed up the pole, and along the crevice as far as the rope would let me, hauled up the trophy, jammed my feet and back against both sides of the “chimney.” Frank then clambered past me; and so repeat.

But once in the saddle we found we could not return the way we had come. The drop-off into the feather snow settled that. A short reconnaissance made it very evident that we would have to go completely around the outside of the Citadel, at the level of the saddle, until we had gained the other ridge. This meant about three quarters of a mile against the tremendous cliff.

We found a ledge and started. Our packs weighed about sixty pounds apiece, and we were forced to carry them rather high. The ledge proved to be from six to ten feet wide, with a gentle slope outward. We could not afford the false steps, nor the little slips, nor the overbalancings so unimportant on level ground. Progress was slow and cautious. We could not but remember the heart-stopping drop of that goat after we had cut the rope; and the swoop of the raven. Especially at the corners did we hug close to the wall, for the wind there snatched at us eagerly.

The ledge held out bravely. It had to; for there was no possible way to get up or down from it. We rounded the shoulder of the pile. Below us now was another landscape into which to fall–the valley of the stream, with its forests and its high cliffs over the way. But already we could see our ridge. Another quarter mile would land us in safety.

Without warning the ledge pinched out. A narrow tongue of shale, on so steep a slope that it barely clung to the mountain, ran twenty feet to a precipice. A touch sent its surface rattling merrily down and into space. It was only about eight feet across; and then the ledge began again.

We eyed it. Three steps would take us across. Alternative: return along the ledge to attack the problem ab initio.

“That shale is going to start,” said Frank. “If you stop, she’ll sure carry you over the ledge. But if you keep right on going, fast, I believe your weight will carry you through.”

We readjusted our packs so they could not slip and overbalance us; we measured and re-measured with our eyes just where those steps would fall; we took a deep breath–and we hustled. Behind us the fine shale slid sullenly in a miniature avalanche that cascaded over the edge. Our “weight had carried us through!”

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In camp, we found that Harry’s shooting had landed a kid, so that we had a goat apiece.

We rejoined the main camp next day just ahead of a big snowstorm that must have made travel all but impossible. Then for five days we rode out, in snow, sleet, and hail. But we were entirely happy, and indifferent to what the weather could do to us now.