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Mountain Hunting Systems

Craig Boddington shares some of his insight on his highest altitude hunts. The Mountain is ready, are you?

Mountain Hunting Systems

(Craig Boddington photo)

Anticipation is both a critical and joyful part of any hunt. All hunts are important, but mountain hunting looms large in effort, expectations and cost. Sheep and goat hunting is almost identical, but while many goats (not all) are comparative bargains, most sheep hunts are now pricey affairs. The availability of sheep hunts is not solely a financial issue, either. It took me 30 years of rejected applications to draw an Arizona desert sheep, for example. Lucky folks might draw sooner, but you have to be ready when opportunity calls. On any hunt, success can come on the first day or the last — or not at all. Whichever it is, you must give it your all for every day you have. With mountain hunts, know that no matter what, you will be tested.

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“The older Boddington gets the more he thinks,” said ProfessorJack O’Connor of the author. He was right all along. His beloved .270 Winchester remains perfectly adequate for mountain hunting.

I took my first wild sheep in 1973 when prices were laughable compared to 2023. Since then, while I’ve not been able to take on a serious mountain hunt every year, I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of it. As time marches on, I’m becoming aware that the mountains are feeling steeper. In 2015 and ’17, I strapped on knee braces and did backpack sheep hunts in Alaska. Even so, I recognize that my time for climbing in high country is growing shorter. The anticipation is heightened by the realization that the next mountain hunt might be my last. When I started writing this, I was in final preparation for an ultimate mountain hunt in Mongolia for the largest wild sheep in the world: Altai argali. It was an animal I never expected to pursue, and an experience that I’ll never forget.

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Craig Boddington and his wife Donna often train for hunts together. Here they crested Cerro Alto hiking trail in California. Constant attention to fitness is essential for mountain hunting, and hiking is likely the best prepartory exercise for it. (Craig Boddington photo)

Mind & Body

Mountain hunting is largely a mental game, usually not a footrace. Once a suitable animal is found, you often have all day to close for a shot. You can go at your own pace, but you have to get there. I have seen young, fit hunters give up, and older hunters who, like me, could stand to shed a few pounds, keep on going. You have to want to be there!

Once you’ve been up a sheep mountain a few times, you’ll start to know what to expect, though that won’t make it any easier. If you like it, you will keep doing it, and I hate to think about the coming time when I no longer can, but you must want it. Ninety days after a heart attack, I did a walkup tahr hunt in New Zealand — just to make sure I could. I needed to test myself, and I passed. Three months later, I climbed to the top of the steep Caucasus range for Kuban tur. I don’t push myself like I used to, but I can still get to the top.

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Joe Bishop and Boddington in tur country high up in the Caucasus Mountains. At this time, Bishop was 75 and Boddington had a heart attack 6 months prior. You don’t have to be an athlete to hunt the mountains, but you need to want to be there. (Craig Boddington photo)

Maintaining constant fitness is essential. When I’m home, I go to the gym and hike trails. I can’t run like I used to, but wherever I do I put on my knee braces and do the best jog I can. I could stand to shed 10 pounds, but I could also stand to lose 10 years. Mountains vary a lot; the mountains in Mongolia are neither especially high nor especially steep, and the Mongols are the original horse culture. If horses are to be used and you haven’t done much riding, do yourself a favor and find a horse to ride or take a few lessons.

Clothing, Boots & Gear

Everything depends on weather. Mongolia in September should be mild. Central Asia is brutally cold in November, while August in Alaska is normally mild. You never know, but with internet tools and phone apps available, you can check weather averages to make educated decisions. Good old wool is still sound, but these days I prefer to travel lighter. Modern synthetics save lots of weight and bulk.

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Sheep live on top, so you’ll have to climb. Good gear is important, including boots a supportive pack and outerwear, but don’t forget the hiking poles! These items will save wear and tear on the knees. (Craig Boddington photo)

The layered approach is the only way to go. Good raingear goes in the pack as a final layer when needed. I’ve started with Merino wool long johns these last few mountain hunts, and carried Kuiu outerwear, a vest and extra jersey in the pack. Here’s a trade secret: Your outer jacket must have a hood! I carry a big silk bandanna to wrap around my neck, plus a watch cap or balaclava and at least two pairs of waterproof gloves.

Boots need good ankle support, aggressive soles that grip rocks, and, above all, perfect fit. My twice-­frostbitten feet are sensitive, so on late hunts I wear Schnee’s Pacs, though on milder hunts I try to keep the weight down. Kennetrek and Meindl are popular, but I’m also a Danner fan.

A good pack is essential, but choice depends on how much you need to carry. A true backpack hunt is different from a horseback hunt. I’ve used Crooked Horn a lot, but recently I’ve been carrying an Alps’ internal frame pack; it isn’t heavy, is well-­organized, and has a good system for hands-­free rifle carry.




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Such can be an August day in Alaska: The previous day was warm and sunny, but weather can turn quickly when you’re on a mountain. Carry extra layers, good raingear, a watch cap, and spare gloves. (Craig Boddington photo)

Don’t forget essentials such as a headlamp, knife sharpener, camera, water bottle with filtration system, and some parachute cord. Always take a walking stick or, better, hiking poles. Aside from safety in steep stuff, poles really save your knees. I wish I’d started using them sooner than I did.

Rifles

I’ve taken a few sheep/goat critters with single-­shot rifles. Otherwise all of my mountain game has been taken with bolt actions. This is not absolute. All action types are chambered to suitable cartridges, but semiautomatics aren’t allowed at many destinations. The bolt-­action is chambered to the greatest number of cartridge options, plus is the most likely to be offered in the other two key attributes in an ideal mountain rifle: Relatively lightweight and having a weatherproof finish. Mountain hunting is hard on rifles, too. This is the place for synthetic stocks and stainless steel or rustproof finishes.

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The argalis are the largest-­bodied wild sheep. This is the Marco Polo argali, taken with a .270 WSM after an 8-­hour stalk. The hunt was in November 2003 in Tajikistan. Elevations were high and temperatures very cold. (Craig Boddington photo)

Confidence is a huge factor. Thus, I’ve hauled a lot of blued metal up mountainsides, and I’ve scratched up some gorgeous walnut doing so. I’ve used many rifles, but for years a perennial favorite has been my left-­hand stainless Model 70 action with synthetic stock by Rifle’s Inc. Since 2010, I’ve often used a Blaser R8, which still has blued metal but a near-­ruined walnut stock. More recently I’ve been using a Jarrett Ridge Walker  in stainless and finished with Cerakote. My wife, Donna, has a really light rifle from MG Arms that she loves, but she also hunts with a Blaser.

Recommended


Of course, any mountain rifle must be accurate and consistent. It doesn’t have to shoot like a benchrest competitor, but I’d say 1 MOA is minimum. You’re going to work hard to get your shot, and it may come down to just one press of the trigger. Confidence in both yourself and your equipment counts.

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The big Asian ibex are the largest-­bodied of the wild goats. This big billy was taken in eastern Turkey with a .26 Nosler. Most 6.5mms are adequate, but fast 6.5mm cartridges are best for both flatter trajectories and higher energy yield. (Craig Boddington photo)

Cartridges 

What to chamber does not have to be rocket science. Wild sheep are not especially tough, nor large. The smallest wild sheep, Pakistan’s Blanford urial, barely weighs 100 pounds. The world’s largest wild sheep could possibly weigh 400 pounds. Wild goats are much tougher than sheep, but the little chamois run some 75 pounds, and even the huge-­bodied Himalayan ibex is no bigger than the largest sheep. Therefore, cannons are not necessary for this type of hunting.

For small-­bodied sheep, an argument could be made for the .243 Winchester. Many are taken with archery tackle, and I once read that a gentleman took an entire Grand Slam (i.e., one each of four North American wild sheep) with a .30-­30. 

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This is a Kuban tur, taken in the steep western Caucasus mounting range in 2011. Boddington had a heart attack six months before this hunt, so he looks plenty pleased to be there. He used a Blaser R8 in .300 Weatherby to take the animal from 450 yards. (Craig Boddington photo)

Let’s debunk another myth while we’re at it: Mountain game is not necessarily taken at long range! Mountains vary. While that may seem obvious, it can result in some different shooting conditions. Some of the big mountains in Asia are open and shots can average longer; most North American sheep mountains offer some cover but, regardless of the situation, get as close as you can. My Brooks Range Dall in 2017 was taken at 120 yards, and I’ve taken sheep and goats much closer than that. My average shot has probably been in the mid-­200s. There have been a couple of “long” shots, but sheep hunting is not the place for so-called “extreme range” shooting. First, given the difficulty of getting a shot — and the cost of taking that shot — why risk so much on anything that’s less-than-certain? Mountains are rarely calm, and wind is almost impossible to read in rough terrain. That said, it’s best to be prepared for a 400-yard shot. 

I practice and set my data so, under ideal conditions, I could take a 600-­yard shot. However, with more than 150 sheep and goats under my belt, I’ve never had to! I have pushed rounds beyond 500 yards a few times, but not many. It’s just too risky. Once located, mountain animals can often be re-­located, so if you can’t get close enough it’s often better to back off and try again.

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Kaan Karakaya, Joe Bishop and Boddington with Bishop’s huge Bezoar goat (Persian ibex) from Turkey. Bishop has taken most of the world’s mountain game, almost always with a SAKO rifle chambered in 7mm Remington Magnum. It was a good choice, but confidence matters. (Craig Boddington photo)

Still, you must be prepared for a long shot, and you must contend with wind. So, I like high velocity and adequate power in my cartridges. Mild 6.5mm, 7mm and smaller calibers are out. For me, adequate cartridges start with fast 6.5mm rounds and go up through the .270s and fast 7mms. I’ve used the .264, .26 Nosler and the 6.5x68mm. I haven’t used the 6.5mm-­300 Weatherby yet, but I have used all three .270s: Winchester, WSM and Weatherby Magnum. Yes, I’ve used the .280 Winchester, and several fast 7mms, including the Remington and Weatherby Magnums, and the Shooting Times Westerner.

I have also used larger calibers, but there is no strong argument for using any cartridge larger than .30. However, there is always justification for using a versatile and fast .30. The power is rarely needed, but a fast .30 with an aerodynamic bullet is pretty hard to beat.

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Fleming and Boddington witnessed a fine Rocky Mountain goat taken from northern B.C. by Craig’s daughter, Brittany, with a .280 Remington. Goats can be large-­bodied and tough, so they must be hit hard and well to avoid a difficult recovery. (Craig Boddington photo)

I’ve taken sheep and goats with the .30-­’06 and several of the fast .30s, including the H&H, Winchester, Weatherby and Lazzeroni Warbird, but I’ve never found the .270 Winchester wanting. Ultimately, it’s all about confidence. After much soul-­searching, Donna and I took our Blaser R8s to Mongolia; me with a .300 Weatherby Magnum barrel and her with a .270 Winchester barrel. Both were perfectly adequate, and these are well-­used rifles we have great confidence in.

Bullets

Sheep are slab-­sided, thin through the body. Goats are blockier and tougher. Even when hit well, goats drive for the steepest, roughest escape. 

For both sheep and goats, we want bullets that combine good aerodynamics with fairly rapid expansion. Shots must be taken with an eye toward recovery, so you want the animal down on the spot and not hung up in an inaccessible cliff. Therefore, I prefer bullets that open quickly, do damage, and put the animal down.

Quick-­expanding bullets such as Hornady’s SST, Nosler’s Ballistic Tip and good old Sierra GameKings are good choices, but newer bullets intended for optimal long-­range performance are excellent. These include Barnes’ LRX, Berger’s VLD, Hornady’s ELD-­X and Nosler’s AccuBond Long Range (ABLR). Provided adequate caliber and at least medium weight for caliber, the sheep/goat class isn’t big enough to require deep-­penetrating bullet designs. Accuracy in your rifle plus confidence matter the most. In Mongolia, we used Hornady’s 200-­grain ELD-­X for the .300, and a 130-­grain SST for the .270.

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Donna Boddington took this big Himalayan tahr on a walkup hunt in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Tahr are strong, thick-­bodied goats, but her .270 with 130-­grain bullet proved plenty. It’s still a winning combo for the sheep/goat class of game. (Craig Boddington photo)

Optics

In mountain hunting, good optics are of equal importance to the rifle, and you’re probably going to use a full suite. A rangefinder is an essential tool, and it should be one that is able to adjust for angles. Leupold pioneered this technology with True Ballistic Range (TBR), but most newer rangefinders also give the angle and the corrected reading. Is it better to have a separate rangefinder or a binocular that incorporates a rangefinder? Most shots in mountain hunting are deliberate, so I’m not sure it matters much. Both tools in one unit is handier, but binocular rangefinders are heavier and more expensive. I go both ways. The current generation of binocular rangefinders are more compact, but they’re still heavier than stand-alone binos and expensive. So, I often carry a separate rangefinder.

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The Blanford urial sheep is found in southwestern Pakistan. It is the smallest ­bodied of the wild sheep at about 100 pounds. Power isn’t important, but you’ll need accuracy and some reach. This ram was taken with a .264 Winchester Magnum. (Craig Boddington photo)

A good set of binoculars will be used almost constantly in mountain hunting. Tripod-­mounted high-­magnification binoculars are incredibly effective, but there’s a limit to how much weight you can carry. I usually stick with a good 10x42mm binocular. Somebody must have a spotting scope, and a spotting scope requires a tripod to be effective. These get into weight issues. For final trophy judgment, such as counting annular rings on horns, a full-­size spotting scope is useful, but they’re big and heavy. I compromise, sometimes carrying a compact Leupold 10-­30x50mm spotting scope with a short Leupold tripod. Its clarity is superb for its size and weight.

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In the mountains, somebody must carry a spotting scope for distant viewing and judging. Leupold’s Gold Ring (GR) 10-­30x50mm is extremely light and compact. While it can’t replace a full-­sized 60X scope, it’s a great compromise and saves weight. (Craig Boddington photo)

While rifles, cartridges and sheep mountains haven’t changed much, riflescopes have improved a lot. As with everything else in mountain hunting, one must consider weight and bulk. While you should be prepared for longer shots, last-­light situations are unusual as, typically, when the light starts to go, you need to get safely down off the mountain. You need reliability and optical clarity, plus enough magnification for whatever shooting distances you’re comfortable considering. You don’t need the biggest, heaviest and brightest scopes with the largest objectives.

Time and again I’ve been perfectly comfortable with a good old American-­standard 3.5-­10x40mm scope. That said, most scopes feature a 30mm maintube and higher magnification. All else being equal, modern scopes are brighter and have more internal adjustment. Just don’t overdo it. Remind yourself that you have to carry the scope up the mountain along with the rifle.

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If you plan to take technology afield, be sure to set aside multiple range sessions to verify that you know how to enter correct environmental data and confirm that it provides a usable solution. Learn to use it correctly and it can ensure a good shot. (Craig Boddington photo)

Spurred by the interest in extreme-range shooting, much of the new scope technology features trajectory ­compensating systems. It is assumed that a rangefinder is on hand, so range is not a variable. Just remember that laser rangefinders work poorly in fog and precipitation. Until the last 10 years, the primary methods for trajectory compensation have been additional aiming points in the reticle and needing to dial the adjustment using the elevation turret. It can be a confusing mess because there are many options, and optics manufacturers often have their own proprietary reticles and turret arrangements. I am convinced that dialing is the most precise method, but using a reticle with additional aiming points is faster and perhaps less goof-­proof. The main thing is to practice with the system you choose and verify your data by shooting at actual distances!

More magic is coming fast. In-­scope laser rangefinders are not new: Swarovski, Burris, Zeiss, and SIG Sauer are a few sources for these products. Now, thanks to Bluetooth sorcery, there are new solutions. SIG ­Sauer’s Ballistic Data eXchange (BDX) system links a rangefinder with a smartphone app to the riflescope. Then, the scope adjusts the point of aim. I’ve tried it on the range and it works fast. Zeiss’ system also uses the Zeiss Hunting app on a smartphone, which collects inputted ballistic data and factors in environmental factors. Zeiss’ latest generation of rangefinding binoculars can also link to a smartphone, which feeds you a trajectory adjustment for a given range. Leica’s brand-new system has a ballistic computer within the rangefinding binocular, collecting atmospherics and offering corrections on the binocular.

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Mongolia’s Altai argali is the world’s largest wild sheep with the heaviest — not longest — horns. This ram stands as Boddington’s best. It was taken with a Blaser R8 having a barrel in .300 Wby. Mag. using Hornady 200-grain ELD-X and a Zeiss Conquest V4 4-16x50mm scope. The 200-yard shot was a good one. (Craig Boddington photo)

In recent years, I’ve become very comfortable with using Leupold’s Custom Dial System (CDS). Leupold calibrates marks on the elevation turret to the load information I send them. My Mongolian shikar adventure was lengthy, featuring multiple sheep, plus ibex, on the menu. I hedged my bets. I took a Leupold VX-6 2-­12x42mm with CDS turret. I also took a Zeiss Conquest V4 4-­16x50mm scope also set in a mount, along with a new 10x42 RF that interfaced with the smartphone app. On a long, tough hunt such as this was, it’s good to have an extra scope set in a detachable mount for backup. 

Start getting ready for your mountain adventure. Though you will invest a lot in preparation, and struggle with anticipation, your efforts will bring you to the mountain and remind you that you’re still alive.

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