Hunting chamois in Romania

PUBLISHED: 17:41 14 July 2020

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Pedro Ampuero

Pedro De Ampuero takes on a hunting challenge like no other - traversing the dramatic Carpathian mountains of Romania in search of Chamois

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We start very early in the morning at a pretty low altitude (1,100m) and start hiking straight up. A couple of hours later, we finally get above the tree line. Hoping to see animals at this level, we are surprised to see them way above the snow line, and our local guide quickly confirms that we are only halfway towards our goal.

It is late on in Romania’s chamois season, as by early December most hunts have taken place. The rut has finished by now, and the risk of bad weather or lots of snow is pretty high. That being said, my cousin and I did not have any other dates available, so we have taken the risk and come to try our luck in the mountains.

As we hike higher, the clouds start to come in, covering us in fog, and the rain follows quickly. There is not much snow as yet, so the chamois haven’t been pushed down the mountain and are still really high. If you combine this with very little animal activity after the rut and bad visibility, the expectations for the day are not high, but we keep pushing up in the hope of getting above the clouds.

Weather conditions continue to worsen as we get higher and higher, and after a four-hour hike we reach the top, just to see the same dense fog all around us. The Carpathian mountains aren’t particularly tall, with peaks typically reaching up to 2,500m in elevation; compared to other European mountain ranges, this isn’t that daunting from a mountaineering perspective.

That being said, the access to many of these mountain valleys is very limited, and the altitude you need to gain, in a relatively short distance, is brutal and very unforgiving. We arrive at the top after hiking virtually straight up the mountain and gaining 1,400m of positive altitude.

We wait for a bit to see if things would improve, but there’s nothing we can do in these conditions other than freeze to death, so we decide to start hiking down. I have to admit it has probably been the toughest, most useless hike I have ever done while hunting. The conditions from the bottom looked terrible, but our excitement made us keep going in the hope of finding a window in the weather.We don’t have much time and waiting feels like you are just wasting your day. In these mountain trips, it is important to measure your efforts and monitor your physical condition. It’s vital to ensure the strain you put on your body can be maintained, so you can arrive at the last day of the hunt with the same (or almost, at least) energy levels you started with.

Romania is a very convenient place to travel to as you only need a short direct flight to Bucharest and typically you can be in the hunting area after a couple hours’ drive. A long weekend is usually enough time, and our plan was organised with that idea in mind, arriving on a Thursday night to hunt Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and get back home Monday morning. That is weather permitting, of course, and at this point we are starting to worry as the forecast did not seem to be improving over the next few days.

We are hunting in Transylvania, in the district of Brasov, and making our temporary home very close by in Bran, a city with a castle entwined in the legend of Dracula, although there is very little evidence that it actually plays a part in the story of Vlad the Impaler, the insiration for the Bram Stoker classic. The hunt in this case was organised through a Spanish outfitter called Hunt’ers, which has plenty of experience in the country and in mountain game in general.

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Day two

The second day starts very early, and we push hard to gain altitude as quickly as possible. The terrain here is very steep and broken, and more often than not it’s a case of mountain climbing rather than hiking, something very typical in chamois country. Even though you may spot an animal, a shot may not be an option, simply because the recovery would be impossible. To give you an idea of the incline, we have to use chains bolted to the rock walls in a couple of the more dangerous locations in order to continue our ascent.

After a couple hours, our guide stops and points to one of the peaks and says: “Capra Neagra”. Capra neagra literally translates from the Romanian as ‘black goat’. This is how the Rupricapra rupricapra, or chamois as we know it, is known in the Carpathian mountains. I can’t think of a better name, as we can see a group of black dots moving over the snow in the distance.

We set the spotting scope for a better look; alas, the buck doesn’t look mature, but with no other chamois in sight, and with more bad weather moving in, my cousin decides to take a closer look and inspect the animal in more detail, just in case. We keep hiking. Carpathian chamois is the biggest subspecies of chamois in the world, and their trophies can be significantly larger than in any other place. As a reference, the record Carpathian chamois scored 141.1 CIC points and was shot nearby in Fagaras in 1937.

On our way up, we cross some huge bear tracks. Romania has a large population of brown bears, but hunting them has been forbidden for the last couple of years. Their population has increased so much that it’s interfering with the local people, and attacks are happening more and more often. There are special permits for conflictive bears who are causing trouble, and hopefully bear hunting may open again in the near future.

It is surprising that despite hunting playing such a major role in Romanian culture, since they have lot of animals and different species, the ‘green’ political parties have extensive power in the country, which allows them to protect emblematic species such as the bear, regardless of their impact on the ground. Now they are trying to incorporate new species in their expanding protection ban, with the Carpathian chamois next on the list.

The weather in the mountains changes really quickly and before we can continue our search, snow starts falling hard... another day that comes to an end way too early and without any opportunities. As we hike down, I can tell that the team is worried about how things are playing out.

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Day three

We need to make something happen on the last day, so we head out at 3am to be at the top with the first light. The temperatures have dropped a lot and the car thermometer reports -13ºC at the bottom, so it’s best not to think about how cold it is going to be at the summit!

Even with really cold temperatures, it is important when you are facing a strong continuous vertical climb to wear the mínimum number of layers possible. One of the mistakes hunters often make is to start the hike with too many layers because they’re feeling the early morning cold. As they start hiking, their body quickly overheats after only walking for a few minutes.

Then, instead of stopping and taking the layers off, they keep hiking. By the time they finally stop for a break, the sweat has built up in their base layers and will remain with them all day. As they stop and rest, that humidity will then freeze them from the inside, and it will be hard, if not impossible, to dry out and warm up again. A potentially very dangerous situation in the high mountains.

After three hours of continuous hiking in the darkness, with only our headlamps, the daylight finally starts to appear, revealing the hunting ground in front of us. Today, we are hunting on very steep terrain covered in snow with a lot of ice that has built up during the night. There is no room for error, every step needs to be solid.

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An opportunity at last

After covering so much ground over these last three days, we finally spot a beautiful buck on the skyline! We can’t believe our eyes – and sure enough, a few seconds later, the fog returns, our quarry vanishes, and the goal of our trip has again disappeared.

In hunting, it is important to be one step ahead, so I set up the rifle in the hope that the chamois will still be there if the fog decides to clear. The buck is at 350m at a very steep angle on the other side of the valley.

Both sides of the valley are very steep so there is no way to find a rock or put enough backpacks down to get the rifle high enough for the shot. Shooting from the knees is not possible, especially at that distance on such a small target.

Luckily, I have come prepared and have an adaptor that fits to my bipod mount, allowing me to use a tripod to completely lock down the rifle; it makes for an incredible shooting platform that can provide any angle I require. I lie completely flat on the ground, and bury my elbow into the ground as best I can. I feel confident that I can make this shot; we just need the fog to clear.

As a small opening in the fog comes, we are ready and without hesitation I squeeze the trigger. The capra neagra drops in its tracks without ever knowing what happened. We make our way to its location and drop down the rock face to recover this gorgeous Carpathian chamois.

These are the largest animals of any of the largest chamois subspecies in the world, and they are truly magnificent. I couldn’t be more thankful for these three days of hard work, which made this moment even more special. I have travelled all over the world chasing chamois and I think I will never get tired of doing it; I really love hunting this elusive animal.

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Essential hardware

Hiking down is always harder than hiking up, and with the chamois loaded on my back and tired legs, we stop to secure things and put on the crampons. Temperatures are way below zero, and every single rock is covered with ice and snow. Stupid mistakes or falls can lead to serious trouble, and the confidence provided by the good solid grip the crampons provide is awesome.

Some people think that this equipment is only for extreme mountaineering, but I disagree. Good crampons will make any hike in slippery terrain, no matter if it’s snow, ice or wet grass, way more relaxing as you do not need to think about every step. Mountaineers have a plan and a trail, hunters on the other hand follow wherever the animals lead, so we are often exposed to higher risks. The same applies to a 15m length of rope – it all adds to the weight of your pack, but I would often be lost without it.

This trip was a good lesson for my cousin, who was hunting in the same area, regarding the importance of packing the right equipment on a hunt. He was laughing about all the things we were carrying on our packs, but in the end it was this kit that made the difference between how his hunt ended and mine.

He did not carry enough layers, so he was not comfortable during the hunt due to the harsh temperatures, and he also got frostbite on three fingers. He couldn’t have taken the chamois I took, because he wasn’t carrying a tripod and the bipod adaptor. Finally, the chamois he finally shot, later on the third day, could not be reached because of the risky slippery terrain, something that wouldn’t have been a problem with a pair of crampons.

I am not saying you should overload yourself with equipment, but would stress the importance of preparing for a hunt properly. Good equipment will allow you to hunt farther, lighter, safer and more comfortably, which often makes a huge difference when it comes to the end results.

Stay safe in the mountains.

Pictures by: Slots Media

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