All you can hear is the soft groaning and creaking of the tall spruce trees, barely moving in the wind. Otherwise, it’s completely still in the mountains as we leave behind our cozy hunting lodge and step into the crisp alpine air. The snow seems to have swallowed all sounds. Even our conversations seem quieter, muffled. The cover doesn’t look terribly deep, but as soon as we leave the path and take our first step into the freshly-fallen, untouched drifts, we sink in, up to our knees. And so our little troop presents a curious sight, having lost a third of our height with one small step.
But that’s what I was hoping for when I was invited on this trip. To go chamois hunting in the mountains when the snow is plentiful and the landscape has chosen one main color: white.
But, at first, things hadn’t looked good. The weather forecast 14 days prior to departure was still unseasonably warm, with no change in sight. But then the temperatures dropped and the first snow fell, first on the peaks and then down into the valleys, covering everything with its splendor. It snowed almost continuously and only stopped again on the day we arrived in Styria.
We are very close to Gesäuse National Park – plenty of untouched areas, not too overrun, and brimming with breathtaking sights. The mighty peaks of the Limestone Alps tower above us, while we gaze into the wild gorges and ravines of the Enns River. The whole area is covered by a dense forest. In the tranquility of new-fallen snow, the landscape feels freshly created. It’s as though we are the first humans allowed to set foot in it. Golden eagles circle and soar above, and the wind gently brushes snow off the spruces, dusting our eyelashes.
First, we want to stalk a little to see where the chamois are. Andreas, the local professional hunter who is in charge of the hunting grounds, knows the stands by heart and wants to lead me and Christian, a dear family friend, to one chamois each. Led by Andreas, we set off in single file, following in each other’s footsteps to save as much energy as possible. We make slow progress. After just a few hundred meters, we notice how exhausting it is to walk in the deep snow.
Every single step is a knee lift. A slight twinge in our thighs tells us where our muscles will ache tomorrow. We don’t talk much, saving our breath, and focus on getting ahead in the snow. Grateful for every brief pause that Andreas allows, we scan the surrounding slopes and areas for chamois.
We haven’t been on the trail long when Andreas spots a chamois buck in a small clearing below, surrounded by a tall stand of spruce trees. The animal is almost impossible to spot – from time to time, we glimpse his horns peeking up from behind a snowdrift. But Andreas is sure that this buck is worth a closer look. This means we have to leave the path and head through the tall spruces, which proves quite difficult. What looks like a flat blanket of snow turns out to be, just centimeters below the surface, a tangle of fallen trees, boulders, branches, and stones. Here, the snow is even deeper – if we sink in, it’s up to our hips.
Our stalking sticks, indispensable companions on alpine hunts, give us valuable assistance. We repeatedly test the ground with our sticks before taking the next step. Sometimes we use our sticks to lean sideways, into the slope. We move as silently and carefully as possible, aware that the chamois could be standing right beneath us. Thanks to the snow, which swallows the sound of our approach, we cover another 30 meters. This gives us a good shooting position.
Sometimes, the stars align…
Now the buck moves a little further and we see his full stature. Andreas identifies him precisely once more. Then he nods in my direction – no words needed – and makes space for me next to a tree. I lean my shooting stick against the spruce to give myself a stable position.
The buck peers in my direction – has he noticed us? I’m not sure, but I don’t want to hesitate too long and waste decisive seconds. I cock my rifle. The reticle rests securely on the buck’s side. I breathe in one last time. Then out. And let the bullet fly. The buck is down!
Tension gives way to relief. Everything went so well. Andreas and Christian congratulate me, but I can’t fully believe it yet – after all, it happened so quickly! We hadn’t been out very long. And mountain hunts are unpredictable. It’s incredible that the first animal we encountered was a suitable buck.
The shot wasn’t long – just over 160 meters – but steeply downhill, right through the tall spruce trees. We already know how difficult it is to get around in this deep snow, but that’s not going to get any easier. I unload my rifle before we slowly and carefully make our way to my buck.
Again and again, we sink in, up to our hips, slide halfway down the slope, or lose our footing on uneven terrain. Fortunately, the snow cushions our falls like a pillow. Once we reach the trail, we pay our last respects to the chamois buck. Christian hands me my bruch – the traditional “hunter’s branch”. We sit down together for a while and only now do we really get chatting, as Andreas reveals a few more tricks on how to identify chamois.
Retrieving my chamois is easier than expected. Thank goodness we don’t have to carry him up through the spruces. Andreas pulls the buck a bit further downhill, to the next plowed path. We wait there while Andreas gets the car, then we comfortably transport the chamois to the cabin and prepare it there. By the time that’s done, it’s not even 11 o’clock. We still have half the day ahead of us, which we round off in the cozy atmosphere of the hunting lodge.