Shooting Chamois in Austria
The chamois is cunning and places sentinels on guard, so the hunter must be still more cunning, and scent them out
Hans Christian Anderson
The pursuit of the chamois has always been surrounded by a certain mystique – the image of the courageous, enduring, 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 cold embrace, Hans Christian Anderson’s young hero, Rudy – who decided to pursue chamois rather than something more mundane in life – has always had my vote.
My first chance to shoot, rather than muse about, chamois came a couple of years ago courtesy of Swarovksi Optik who maintain their own hunting areas and small team of professional guides in the Austrian Tyrol. My guide, Wolfgang, was a splendid fellow with a dog who seemed to have supernatural abilities. I was put up, moreover, in the wonderful and rather grand Speckbackerhof Hotel and felt thoroughly spoilt. I got my chamois in the mountains with surprising ease on the first morning using Wolfgang’s break-action, single barrel Blaser .243 – a simple heart shot at 125 yards – but went home satisfied and thoroughly impressed with the professionalism of the whole operation. They still do things in style in Austria, especially if the Swarovski family have anything to do with it.
I hardly expected to gain much more experience of alpine hunting. But, last summer, I attended a Swarovski sponsored rifle shooting competition at Bisley. Being a jammy bugger, I won another trip to Austria, the Speckbakkerhof, and the same magnificent private hunting areas. I went home from the British Sporting Rifle Club ranges with a Cheshire cat like grin. This time the hunting would be all the more interesting because, scheduled a little later in the year, one might expect snow as well as altitude.
I can’t pretend it was an alpine expedition – if you really want to test yourself try ibex in Kazakhstan or give the Matterhorn a go – but it certainly has challenges. I met my new guide, Albert, early one morning – though, happily, post dawn – after a day and night of being very spoilt 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 snow fall the week before. And, as we drove up a paved track an Achtung! sign and road block impeded further progress. There was a warning of immanent avalanche danger. 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 road block and carried on up the mountain! I did not yet really know Albert at that stage, but he inspired confidence. His neat beard, weather-beaten face and traditional loden completed 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 see a few beasts on the mountain. The Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) is a curious creature when you first behold it in its natural habitat. It appears a cross between something 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 a sight to suddenly see one on a rocky ledge above you surveying its kingdom and its harem. The females are smaller and tend to congregate in small herds. Both sexes have white faces with characteristic black striping beneath the eyes and short horns curving rearwards.
My license was for a female of a specific class. This was normal. The Austrians are very strict about what may or may not be shot. The guides are all professionally qualified as well as following a vocation. 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-power, telescope made by his own employers, Albert, spotted a group of beasts that met the necessary criteria. He carefully repacked it into a loden sheath and into his canvas ruck sack, 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 200 yards of so in front and just a little higher than us on the mountain. 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 rifle 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 170 yards 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 unfamiliar gun or in circumstances where I want a beast to be pinned). I set the trigger, brought the cross hairs 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 sure I hadn’t but my Chamois bounded off. Believing it was wounded I risked another shot just under 200 yards when she was just slowing to negotiate her way to higher ground. This had dramatic effect. The bullet struck home well, she fell 60 feet or more onto the rocks below, literally, 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 rather harder, and potentially more dangerous, than the stalk itself. We got to her eventually – the first bullet had grazed her spine – Albert manoeuvred the carcase 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 if the Ice Maiden’s virtue might have been trespassed upon. Albert, in whom I now had the greatest confidence, was unconcerned so I ignored them.
Now, all we had to do was bring the chamois back. This required that we negotiate some difficult ledges. Albert seemed to skate down the mountain with his alpine staff. I was not so sure footed and lost balance twice, once, it was no big deal and I fell in the snow keeping the muzzles of the rifle up with one hand. But, on a second occasion, under-booted, I lost it completely and started tobogganing down a nasty, jagged, and very steep slope. I knew that I would have to keep in some control or risk going head over heals and serious injury (I’ve been down a mountain on a ‘blood-wagon’ once, an experience I hope not repeat). Anyway, I slid on for ten yards or so, bumped bum and back, and tore my pants, but bruised nothing more than my dignity. Albert looked back with concern, I got up, gave 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 not only exciting but conducted in a majestic environment. You have a sense of wonder just looking at the mountains. The streams, the clouds and blue sky all 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, interesting not only because of the extraordinary skill of its workers and development staff, but because of the commitment to old fashioned craftsmanship and traditional apprenticeship. I saw a large number of young people, some no more than fifteen, learning their trade in a way that seems to have vanished in these islands. Then, there was lunch in Innsbruck. Good? Wonderful.
“In a few years Rudy would become an expert chamois hunter, for he showed quite a flair for it, said the uncle. He taught the boy to hold, load, and fire a gun; in the hunting season he took him up into the hills and made him drink warm chamois blood to ward off hunter's giddiness; he taught him to know the times when, on different slopes of the mountains, avalanches were likely to fall, in the morning or evening, whenever the sun's rays had the greatest effect. He taught him to observe the movements of the chamois and copy their leaps, so that he might light firmly on his feet. He told him that if there was no footing in the rock crevices, he must support himself by the pressure of his elbows, and the muscles, of his thighs and calves; if necessary even the neck could be used.” Hans Christian Anderson
Sometimes he could cheat them by arranging his hat and coat on his alpine staff, so that the chamois would n e the dummy for the man. The uncle played this trick one day when he was out hunting with Rudy.
It was a narrow mountain path - indeed, scarcely a path at all; it was nothing more than a slight ledge close to the yawning abyss. The snow there was half thawed, and the rock crumbled away under the pressure of a boot; so that uncle lay down at full length and inched his way forward. Every fragment of rock that crumbled off fell, knocking and bouncing from one side of the wall to the other, until it came to rest in the depths far below. Rudy stood on the edge of the last point of solid rock, about a hundred paces behind his uncle,