We were already a quarter of the way up the mountain when a text came through on our Garmin inReach from Tekapo Helicopters - "Forecast isn't too good! Best to plan for today as tomorrow is looking pretty bad. Could you be ready to go by 2pm?" Rihana and I were heading up the mountain with TJ and Grant of Metanoia Ventures to potentially recover my first bull tahr. It was easily a 3 hour hike, plus recovery time, then packing him back out. We were racing the clock.
REWIND 24 HOURS:
The previous day we had hiked several hours, gaining 3,200 feet in elevation, then nestled into the boulders on a steep ridgeline and glassed for roughly 45 minutes. We heard rocks sliding on the neighboring ridge and all felt a sense of excitement after a full day of little movement. Shortly after, Rihana glassed up some tahr at the very bottom of the basin, then just moments later TJ says "Get down! Get down!" In the direction of the sliding rocks, an absolute stud bull and a few nannies came into clear view. They were over 500 yards away, so TJ and I booked it across the ridgeline to close the gap for a last minute shot with the gun. We were fighting time and I wasn't about to take that long of a shot after so many years of barely touching a gun. Of course I wanted to make it happen with a bow, but on the last night I was willing to set it aside.
I got set up on a rock face and ranged the bull at 464 yards. I squeezed through the trigger, only to watch the bull spin around, then head straight down the mountain. I never heard the bullet connect and his behavior didn't suggest a hit either, but I went ahead and hiked over to where he previously stood to search for any sign. Nothing. I was devastated. It was my last chance at a bull and I messed it up. Little did I know it wasn't my last chance. After a short pity party, I look up to find Rihana waving frantically and pointing back toward the ridge that we originally glassed from. It was another bull! I raced back up the mountain and set up for another chance.
"Take your time Jess. Make sure you're on him." I took several deep breaths to calm my heart rate. Between moving quickly uphill and the adrenaline pumping at the thought of another opportunity, it was challenging to bring it down. He stood perfectly broadside and gave me ample time to get comfortable. I ranged him at 372 yards. Clearing my mind of any doubt was the most difficult part. It's tough to feel confident when you just completely missed, but I managed to gather myself. I quickly jogged my memory to my childhood when my pops taught me how to shoot. Pulling through the trigger seemed effortless, and I can vividly remember the sound of that bullet connecting, but the gun rocked my world and I couldn't relocate the bull to put another one in him or even see where he ran. It all happened so fast.
TJ: "I think you tipped him!!"
Rihana: "I think you got him Jess! It looked like a hit!"
Unfortunately nobody was 100% sure because he went behind another steep ridge and disappeared, and we were running out of light. The wind was picking up and TJ had busted his shoelaces which resulted in an injured ankle, so we backed out and decided to return the next morning via helicopter because it was our pickup date. We get back to the cabin to pack everything up, only to realize we lost track of time and we had one more full day to hunt! It was perfect. We would get up the next morning and make the hike ourselves to recover him, then hopefully get Rihana on a bull. Little did we know that the weather would change those plans as well.
Fast forward to our recovery hike.
We decided to split up at that quarter mark on the mountain. TJ's ankle was still acting up which was going to make it nearly impossible to move quick enough, so he went back down and packed up the entire camp. Grant, Rihana, and I raced up the mountain. Tekapo Helicopters insisted that we keep them updated with our progress due to the weather rolling in quickly. Rihana and I decided to take a route straight to the top. We were in the steepest, most dangerous terrain I've ever seen, with the majority of it being scree. It was an absolute disaster. It seemed we were constantly taking one step forward and two steps backwards. I began to regret our decision to not recover the bull the previous evening. Here we were, hiking another 3,200 feet in elevation, with only the HOPE that there was a bull on the other side of that ridge, while simultaneously fighting weather and getting updates from pilots telling us to hurry, or simply turn around.
Grant fell behind after dropping his camera on a loose scree face. Rihana and I continued and made it over the ridge, then proceeded to drop halfway down the opposite side to the last place we remembered seeing him. Rihana was roughly 20 yards in front of me, working her way across the face when I hear her scream "Jess!! There he is!!" We both dropped to our knees and hugged and cried. In that moment, our decision to go up the mountain all of a sudden seemed justified. We slid down the rest of the way on the steep scree face, tearing holes in my pants and laughing and crying the whole time. My heart was literally coming out of my chest with gratitude.
We snapped a few photos and instantly began caping him out on the one rock that happened to stop him from sliding down further. It was a challenge in itself just to keep the tahr from rolling down the mountain and taking us with him. Meanwhile, it began to snow and we could see the weather coming straight to us. The pilots messaged us and said it was too windy to land on top of the mountain or at the bottom of the basin. We continued to work diligently so we could get to the bottom safely. Next thing we knew, Tekapo Helicopters was doing circles around us. We couldn't figure out why they were hovering over us and chalked it up to trying to find a place to land safely in the strong winds, contrary to what they said in the Garmin messages. Then just minutes later, they were gone. Come to find out, they never saw us, but they saw Grant cresting that saddle and stopped to pick him up. By that time, we were finishing up the tahr and frantically deciding on a backup plan. Rihana and I agreed we would drop down to a vacant hut on the same side as the tahr and stay put until we could get help.
Moments later, we hear the helicopter again and they begin to circle us once more. We were gathering our things to pack out, when we look up to see one of the pilots dropping down on the scree face. All I could say was "I'm so sorry" because they made it clear that the conditions were dangerous to be flying in. He points us in the direction he wants us to go, but I could barely balance my own body weight without anything on my back. The drop was simply too steep. I'll never forget when he looked at me and said, "We're running out of time and fuel. Give me your pack and head to the helicopter." I quickly dropped my pack and raced across the mountain side.
He signals for us to stay low until the pilot flew straight toward us to be picked up. Watching Rihana climb into a hovering helicopter that was fighting the wind was one of the scariest moments of my life. She will also tell anybody that in that moment, she truly thought she was going to die. I quickly followed her into the helicopter, grabbed my pack from Jason so he could jump in too, then we were off. The wind kept pulling us into the mountain and I had constant butterflies from the unstable ride to safety. The pilot told us that the only reason they found us is because Grant spotted the pink flesh from the tahr cape against the barren terrain. Furthermore, he bluntly stated we would've been stuck for a week on the mountain if they didn't find us. I think I hugged Rihana for 5 minutes after he said that and I couldn't help but cry. When you experience life threatening moments the way we did, and you make decisions even when there are consequences involved, it builds character that can't be measured. It's one thing to make those decisions for yourself, but having a fearless chick next to me that was willing to be there every step of the way is something special. I don't personally know many people, if any, that would've done what we did, given the undeniably dangerous conditions.
If someone would've told me that one day I'd go to New Zealand to chase a new species in the most unforgiving terrain, climbing thousands of feet in elevation multiple days in a row, and be rescued by a hovering helicopter on the side of the mountain after shooting my first bull tahr, and meet another female that's equally as fearless and passionate about the outdoors as myself, I would seriously laugh. This lifestyle continues to give me the gift of adventure and friendship beyond my wildest dreams, and for that reason alone I'd do it all over again.