Goats on Ice

By Bob Robb

Mike and I shared a passion for hunting Dall sheep and mountain goats. When we lived in Valdez, Alaska (of Exxon Valdez fame) there was no shortage of goats nearby. The massive Columbia glacier—larger than the state of Delaware—is close to town, descending from an icefield some 10,000 feet above sea level down the flanks of the Chugach Mountains, then tumbling into a narrow inlet that leads into Prince William Sound. The mountains surrounding the glacier are home to some of the region’s largest billy goats.

To get to them, we needed Mike’s Piper Super Cub and his skills as a pilot; he knows how to fly the tricky and often dangerous mountain air currents. One summer, on a scouting flight, we located a couple of good-sized male goats living far back in the rugged mountains surrounding the glacier. As summer turns to fall and then winter, the little bands of goats migrate from the backcountry peaks, ending up along the mountains facing the ocean where they can winter while avoiding the worst of the region’s massive snow buildup. (Valdez is the snowiest town in North America, with an average annual snowfall in town from 2010-19 of 312.7 inches, or 26 damn feet. Thompson Pass, adjacent to the only road in and out of town and just 20 miles distant, averages over 500 inches of powder annually.) Every couple of weeks we’d fly over and monitor their progress. We finally lucked out and saw that the big billies had moved into an area where we could access them, weather permitting.

Mikey found a spot on the glacier where he could land the plane on the ice, and after a few passes and a touch-and-go to test the surface, set her down. Alaska law prohibits hunting the day you fly, so we took out three giant ice screws, augured them into the ice—one under each wing and one behind the tail—using them as a makeshift hitching post to tie the airplane snuggly down so it wouldn’t be blown all over the place when the inevitable winds kicked up. We had a sandwich, then spent the night inside our sleeping bags catnapping while sitting upright in the tiny cab of the airplane.

The next morning we grabbed our gear, hiked a half-mile across the ice, then climbed 1,000 vertical feet or so up the mountain, got a drink of freeze-your-teeth water out of a small glacial lake, and started doing what I call “sneak & peek” hunting. We’d get to a vertical edge, go down on all fours, crawl to the edge, and peek over to see if there were any goats. After a couple of hours, there he was—a lone big billy bedded maybe 75 yards below. I was bowhunting and Mike had a rifle, so I was up first. As I was trying to figure out how to close the distance without blowing it, the billy stood up and started shambling away. I backed off and dog-trotted to get ahead of him, but when I got to a small rise I saw him about to go up and over, out of sight. I took a quick rangefinder reading—I remember it was exactly 49 yards—drew the bow, put the 50 yard pin on his backline, and let ‘er fly. The billy disappeared over the edge.

“Mike, Mike, get over here, we can’t let this guy get away!” I hollered, thinking I’d missed and Mike could erase my misfortune with his .300 Win. Mag. But he was on his knees looking straight down over the edge when I saw him raise the rifle, and … boom! He’d found another big billy, and anchored him in his bed.

“Awesome man! Now c’mon, let’s go find my goat, he’s a stud,” I remember saying, thinking he’d be close enough we could rifle him, too. But when we got to the little hump that he’d disappeared over, there he was, not 50 yards away, stone dead. My arrow had taken him quartering away through both lungs. It was one of the best bow shots I’ve ever made.

We back-slapped and smiled, took a few pictures, and got to work caping and butchering two goats, then hustling to pack them back to the plane. 

Glaciers are alive, constantly shifting and moving. The danger of leaving the airplane screwed into its surface is that if the ice shifts too much, it can literally tear the wings off. Add a strong wind—a common occurrence atop a huge glacier—and you cannot just leave your only ticket home unattended for long.

When we got back, the ice had shifted, and a fissure had started to open up near the right front tire. One wing rope was slack, and the tail rope was so taut we had to cut it to free the plane up. We were able to push the plane away from the fissure and get it lined up into the breeze before loading goats and gear, then taking off. We landed right at dusk.

I got home and immediately dumped my shit in the garage, put the meat and cape in the freezer, and grabbed a jug of the best bourbon I had in the house. I poured three fingers into a cut glass tumbler over ice and drank in the gratitude and satisfaction of a successful adventure.