In 2002 we tried again, riding horses up to about 7,000 feet and camping in a basin. There were good numbers of snowcock in that basin, but all up around 10,000 feet. For three days we tried. The birds were gone almost as soon as we started up the remaining 3,000 feet. But at least we got to see them.
In 2004 we were back with a plan. Last time, I’d noticed that the birds were roosting on the top of a sheer cliff. I decided that Marge and I needed to spend the night as close to the cliff as possible, in hopes of climbing up to the base just at daylight. One of Bill’s guides took us up on horses as far as they could go; then we climbed higher, making camp at about 8,500 feet. That didn’t work either. It took us too long to climb the remaining distance, even though we started early with flashlights.
We did get to hear for the first time the snowcock’s intense, musical wake-up calls. The birds would join together in a wide range of totally different calls, markedly increasing in volume, then suddenly ending after a minute or two. Those calls were truly a wilderness voice, unequaled by anything else I’ve ever heard, including a wolf’s howl. Marge felt the chorus was worth the entire trip. I didn’t fully agree, as when the song ended, the flock saw us and flew out of the basin. They did that for two more mornings, even though we moved our camp higher.
In 2006 I came up with yet another plan. This one involved actually spending the night on a narrow goat trail above the roost cliff. Bill Gibson didn’t have horses available, so I walked the entire distance upward from the trailhead. Marge decided she’d had enough of snowcocks, and so stayed home.
I went as light as possible—no tent, no cooking stove, one canteen of water, some rolls and packaged meat, and my sleeping bag. While I didn’t weigh my pack, it couldn’t have been more than 25 pounds. However, 10 of those pounds were my old Ithaca 3½-inch 10-bore side-by-side, with 32-inch full–full barrels. For shells I had a box of 3½-inch copper-plated #6s, a special turkey load. With that gun and those shells, I felt certain I could take a shot out to 70 yards.
For a few seconds my heart was in my throat, because it appeared they were flying to my cliff. But they passed me like rockets and disappeared into the next basin over.
The plan worked, to a degree. While I didn’t make it all the way to the goat trail above the cliff, I did manage to get through the worst of the boulder slide before nearly collapsing in exhaustion. I was able to wedge myself between two boulders and get a few hours’ sleep.
Up again, and with a flashlight and all the stealth I could manage, I was in place well before daylight. To be honest, I have never felt more certain of a totally wonderful outcome. It wasn’t. As dawn broke, the snowcocks began their morning song—on a cliff face on the other side of the basin, about a half mile from where I sat. About an hour later I saw a hunter making his way upward toward the cliff. While he was still a ridiculous distance away, they flushed, seven or eight birds. For a few seconds my heart was in my throat, because it appeared they were flying to my cliff. But they passed me like rockets and disappeared into the next basin over.
I sat for three more hours. I was on a sharp bend in the trail, with a blind corner on my right. After a couple of hours I heard rocks being dislodgedbehind that corner. I swiveled around, got my Ithaca on my knee, and prepared to blast the first bird that came into view. The distance was less than 15 yards. Had it been a snowcock, I would have had to pick it up in various pieces for photographs.
But it wasn’t. What came around the corner was a large billy—so close, I could smell him. We had a brief stare-down; then he turned and retraced his steps. Soon afterwards, I followed him.
I should have stayed another night, of course. Or at least been on the cliff that evening, when it was entirely possible the snowcock might return to roost. But I climbed down, got my pack, and left for the return trip to Oregon. I was totally defeated. I still am, almost.
In January 2013, I came up with a final plan. The snowcock is a bird of major interest to bird-watchers. For many of them, the best way to add one to their life list is to book a helicopter at Elko. The helicopter flies the basins and rims of the Rubies, flushing the snowcock for the birders to see.
The favored roost cliff I found is at about 10,500 feet. Above it, at 11,000, is a somewhat level plateau. I found renewed hope in the idea of having a helicopter drop me off on the plateau and return for me several days later. By doing so, I would be able to make the relatively short walk down to the cliff trail.
I was poised to start making arrangements in September 2013. But a friend informed me that since the Ruby Mountains is a wilderness area, it would be illegal for a helicopter to land.
And that is very likely the end of it.
I came close. For consolation I can turn my attention to getting all the waterfowl. I’m pretty close to that. While I have read that bagging a king eider involves some hardships, I feel certain it would be a walk in the park compared to hunting snowcock.
Worth Mathewson is field editor for Delta Waterfowl.