A Project Upland Original Film Presented by BeAlive
The Himalayan Snowcock is considered to be one of the most obscure and difficult of the upland birds. In North America they are found only in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. This journey is more like a goat hunt than a bird hunt, for this rarely seen bird is found at elevations above 10,000 feet. On the tops of those mountains three men converge in this unforgiving land to pursue a dream. Set to achieve the impossible, they grapple with the reality of what they are trying to accomplish.
“When you pursue a bird that is considered the Holy Grail of upland, you are probably going to fail.”
With preparation, persistence, and large doses of physical stamina they struggle to find this elusive bird. Confronted with a harsh and dangerous environment starkly inhospitable to dogs, they are left with the mutual decision to leave their gun dogs at home. Well before the moment of truth, each had to individually consider the ethics of their pursuit. The question of what exactly determines an ethical shot takes center stage as the steep slopes prove impossible to navigate.
This film tackles head-on the question of wingshooting versus shooting a bird on the ground, particularly when it comes to a bird traditionally hunted with rifles overseas. We as upland hunters must often challenge ourselves to open our minds to consider compelling and sometimes complex questions. Although we acknowledge all legal methods of shooting birds, this film brings to light that even the question of what is “sporting” can be challenged.
To take an animal’s life we have initiated a chain of events that calls for us to utilize all available resources to recover our prey. Because of that, shooting a Himalayan Snowcock on the ground became the evident and most logical choice on the sometimes difficult path towards ethics we can live with.
“In the terrain where the Snowcock lives, if you let it fly, and you take that shot, the chances are its going to go 2000 feet down to the bottom of a canyon and you may not retrieve it. There is nothing ethical about shooting a bird you cannot retrieve.”
This story is a path of discovery, challenge, and eventual success in the quest for these hunters Holy Grail, the Himalayan Snowcock.
Special thanks to the uplanders who made this film come to life: Matt Hardinge, Travis Warren (UpChukar), and Terry Owens. This is a film by Wil Sensig.
Holy Grail – Film Transcript.
Matt Harding: My name’s Matt Harding, and the Himalayan Snowcocks seem to me like the ideal species to try and hunt. I’ve got a background in rock climbing and mountaineering. I love getting into that thin air, and the vulnerability that you feel when you’re up on a ridge. The Himalayan Snowcock, they’re living on peeks above 10,000 feet. You have to work really, really hard to even begin to learn about this bird. I was excited to find out that Travis had the same desire to go chase the Snowcock as I did.
Travis Warren: My name’s Travis Warren, and I wanted to pursue the Himalayan Snowcock because it was probably the hardest hunt, regardless of species, that you could possibly do in the lower 48. I wanted to blend my passions for hiking, being out in nature, and exploring with the pursuit of animals. And going out there and doing a scouting trip, and getting our boots on the ground, and experiencing that really made us take in the enormity of what we were trying to do. We were just racing the sunlight. We didn’t quite make it all the way to where we wanted to camp. We were just going to throw the sleeping bags and the pads out, sleeping next to a lake. It was actually really cool.
This really is a backpack hunt. You’re packing in a lot of stuff. You’re in the same country as mountain goats. It was a tough trip up. It was very humbling. And I think deep down inside of me there was a realization, or I’d just accept the fact that were probably not going to be successful in harvesting a bird.
Matt Harding: In the terrain where the Snowcock lives, if you let it fly, and you take that shot, the chances are it’s going to go 2,000 feet down to the bottom of a canyon, and you may not retrieve it. There’s nothing ethical about shooting a bird that you can’t retrieve. We came to the conclusion, from what everyone said, everyone said, “Take the shot. If you have it, take it. You’d be lucky to get an opportunity to shoot a Snowcock. So if you have that opportunity you take it however it comes.”
These birds move around the mountain range in huge distance. Just because you find droppings there one day doesn’t mean they’re there the next day.
Travis Warren: We woke up the next morning, we didn’t hear any calling. We packed our stuff up, we went and scouted around, and we really weren’t finding definitive information to develop the strategy. The only birds that we ended up finding were in the nastiest, steepest, scariest terrain. By the end of Friday I really didn’t know quite what we were going to do.
We had talked to some people earlier, solid guys. They had given us some really good information. Because that ultimately put us in a direction and a place where we ended up finding, ended up finding the birds.
We were actually cruising along a lower portion of a mountain face. I hear the birds first, and then I see three of them. So that kind of gave me the energy to start pushing in that direction. And Matt had actually seen the birds fly over our heads, and where they had landed.
Matt Harding: I was sitting down below the ridge, I saw the three birds fly over their heads and land. There was a single, up on a ledge, doing a locating call, trying to get the rest of the group to come join him. And I ducked down under a ridge, and I started making my way up to them as fast as I could. The three of us split up. I went to see where the birds had originally landed, in case they were still there. Travis and Terry started making their way uphill. And all of the sudden I heard these gunshots going. I started catching up to the guys, and then Travis peeks over the ridge holding a Snowcock, and I was like, “Oh my god, we’ve done it.”
So I ran up there, and both Terry and Travis got birds. I was so happy, and I didn’t even get a bird. And then Travis tells me, “Hey, there’s another one, and it ran up the ridge, and it’s somewhere up there.” So I said, “Hey, I’m going after it.” I was shaking, but I was so determined to get this bird. So I was creeping up the ridge, and on one side of me I can see Terry and Travis down in the basin. On the other side there’s maybe a 2,000 foot drop. So I’m just going along the edge of this cliff. I can hear the bird. I stand up over the boulder with my gun pointed, and I just took the shot through the tree. I heard the bird go down.
It’s a feeling that I don’t think I would ever get from any other bird in my life. I don’t think this could be felt.
Travis Warren: You know, in situations like this, choosing to chase a bird that is considered the Holy Grail of Upland, you’re going to probably fail. I don’t even know if we could ever replicate something like this ever again.
Project Upland is an editorial initiative to capture the cultures and traditions of upland bird hunting. We seek to inspire a future generation of upland bird hunters to understand the essence of hunting traditions and the critical cause for conservation.