“The chamois is cunning and places sentinels on guard, so the hunter must be still more cunning, and scent them out,” said Hans Christian Andersen in The Ice Maiden. The pursuit of the chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) has always been surrounded by a certain mystique – the image of the courageous, enduring, Alpine jaeger pitting his wits against the living and sometimes malevolent mountain for an elusive and slightly magical quarry. Although the Ice Maiden eventually gets him in her coldest embrace, the young hero, Rudy – who chooses the life of a chamois hunter rather than something more mundane – has always had my vote.
My first chance to shoot rather than muse about chamois came a couple of years ago courtesy of Swarovski Optik which maintains its own hunting areas and a small team of professional guides in the Austrian Tyrol. My guide, Wolfgang, was a splendid fellow with a dog which seemed to have supernatural abilities. I was put up in the rather grand Speckbacher Hof Hotel and felt thoroughly spoilt. I got my chamois in the mountains at Halltal with surprising ease on the first morning using Wolfgang’s break-action, single barrel Blaser .243 – a straightforward shot at 125yd – and went home satisfied and thoroughly impressed with the pro-fessionalism of the whole operation. They still do things in style in Austria, especially if the Swarovski family is involved.
DANGER? WHAT DANGER?
I hardly expected to gain much more experience of Alpine hunting. But last summer I won a Swarovski-sponsored rifle-shooting contest at Bisley and another trip to Austria, the Speckbacher Hof and the same magnificent private hunting areas. This time the hunting would be all the more interesting because, scheduled a little later in the year, one could expect snow as well as altitude and extreme gradient. I can’t pretend it was an Alpine expedition – if you really want to test yourself try ibex in Kazakhstan or give the Matterhorn or the Machame route of Kilimanjaro a go – but it certainly has challenges. I met my new guide, Albert Unterberger, early one morning – though, happily, post-dawn – after a day and night of being pampered at what is now one of my favourite hotels. We headed off to the nearby mountains in a small Jeep. There had been a sudden snowfall the week before, and as we drove up a steep but paved track an Achtung! sign and roadblock impeded further progress. There was a warning of an imminent avalanche. I was not especially encouraged; I had seen the results of nature getting restless in this very area on my previous trip. Don’t mess with the Ice Maiden. Needless to say, we drove round the roadblock and carried on up the mountain. I did not really know Albert at that stage, but he inspired confidence. His neat beard, weatherbeaten face and traditional loden uniform added up to a picture of the consummate pro.
I knew the form. We would leave the vehicle, walk a bit, glass up the surrounding peaks for signs of our famously wary quarry and make a stalking plan. The snow made movement quite hard. Nor did we see much initially – such is hunting. But, marching on, we started to observe a few beasts on the mountain. The chamois is a curious creature when you first behold it in its natural habitat. Its appearance is of a cross between a goat and an antelope. Males, which tend to be solitary, have well-developed chests and seem to stand with a particular pride, like a good stag. It is quite an experience suddenly to see one on a rocky ledge above you surveying its kingdom and its harem. The females are smaller and tend to congregate in modest herds. Both sexes have white faces with characteristic black striping beneath the eyes and short horns curving rearwards.
My licence was for a female of a specific class. This was normal. The Austrians are very strict about what may and may not be shot. The guides are all professionally qualified as well as following a vocation which often runs in families. Their cull plan is scientific and executed with great discipline. As a result, the beasts are typically in excellent condition and the hunting experience one of the most predictably impressive in the world.
Back to the mountain. Using a large, high-powered telescope made by his employers, Albert spotted a group of beasts that met the criteria. He repacked the telescope into a loden sheath within his canvas rucksack and picked up his long, thick mountain staff and a .270 Winchester Steyr Mannlicher Stutzen (a short carbine with full stock to muzzle). We were off. He made the trail through knee-deep snow. I felt guilty, if slightly relieved, about expending significantly less effort. The wind was in our favour and we manoeuvred ourselves into a perfect shooting position with beasts 200yd or so in front and just a little higher than us. It was all so well done, just as it had been with Wolfgang. We communicated in my basic “Army colloquial” German in whispers and with hand signals. I was soon getting down into a comfortable firing position. I had made myself familiar with Albert’s Mannlicher on exiting the vehicle.
Luckily, I have a similar gun in .308, but this one had a double-set trigger. You pull the rear blade to set it, and a very light touch on the front trigger will then fire the gun. Care is required. Settling down, Albert indicated which beast. She was on a ledge some 170yd to my front by now. Peering through a 6-power Swarovski scope, I lined up for a shoulder shot, often my favourite (especially with an un-familiar gun or in circumstances where I want a beast to be pinned). I set the trigger, brought the crosshairs up the front leg, and touched the trigger. The .270 barked. I was sure of my aim but Albert indicated I had missed. My heart fell. I was positive I hadn’t but my chamois bounded off. Believing it was wounded, I risked another shot slightly under 200yd when she was just slowing to negotiate her way to higher ground.
This had dramatic effect. The bullet struck home well; she fell 60ft or more on to the rocks below stone dead. It was one of those moments that will stay in my hunting memory for a long time. Albert and I sat down and had a cigarette, always a good thing to do after a kill in any country, and thought about how we would retrieve the beast. This turned out to be somewhat harder and potentially more dangerous than the stalk itself. We got to her eventually and found that the first bullet had grazed her spine. Albert manoeuvred the carcass some way down the mountain and performed the gralloch with the skill of a Barts surgeon. Some rocks began to fall on us from above and I wondered whether the Ice Maiden’s virtue might have been trespassed upon. Albert, in whom I now had the greatest confidence, was unconcerned, so I ignored the falling rocks. All we had to do was bring the chamois back. The descent required that we negotiate difficult ledges.
Albert seemed to skate down with his Alpine staff. I was not so sure-footed and lost balance twice. The first time was no big deal and I fell in the snow keeping the muzzles of the rifle up with one hand. On the second occasion, under-booted, I lost it completely and started to toboggan down a nasty, jagged and very steep slope. I knew that I would have to keep in some control or risk going head over heels to serious injury (I’d been down a mountain on a blood-wagon once, an experience I hoped not to repeat). Anyway, I slid on for 15yd or so, bumped bum and back and tore my pants, but bruised nothing more than my dignity. I got up, gave Albert a thumbs up and we both smiled and completed the trek to the road.
Despite my slight mishap, maybe because of it, it was a great experience. The Tyrol is one of the most unspoilt places I have ever stalked in. Chamois-hunting is exciting and conducted in a majestic environment. You have a sense of wonder just looking at the mountains. The streams, the clouds and blue sky seem almost too beautiful. My trip was made all the more memorable by the hospitality and great food, not to mention a trip to the Swarovski factory. This was interesting not only because of the extraordinary skill of the workers and development staff, but be-cause of the commitment to old-fashioned craftsmanship and traditional apprenticeship. I saw a number of young people, some no more than 15, learning their trade in a way that has vanished from these islands. Then, there was lunch in Innsbruck. Good? Wonderful.