The Ruby and east Humboldt ranges of northern Nevada give you no warning. They loom south of Interstate 80, large, purple and seemingly benign. But if you slip down a back road hoping for a closer look, they will swallow you, and you'll realize these mountains have no foothills advising you to use caution. Sagebrush flats have suddenly become canyons, their sheer walls covered with avalanche-stunted aspen. The canyon sides shoot up to 11,000-foot peaks that are separated by classic U-shaped glacial valleys and cirques, which are precipitous in the extreme.
While the creek bottoms permit aspen, curlleaf mahogany, willow and chokecherry to flourish with junglelike density, only the most tenacious vegetation can survive in the higher elevations, where the snowfall can exceed 20 feet. The inhabitants of the Rubies and East Humboldts include the usual cast of characters that favor isolated and treacherous terrain: mountain lions, mountain goats and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. But these mountains are also home to America's wiliest game bird—the Himalayan snowcock.
The snowcock is a three-to 10-pound member of the Galliformes, an order of fowl that includes grouse and pheasant and has been mesmerizing hunters for centuries. The snowcock was introduced as a game bird to Nevada from the northern Pakistani state of Hunza in 1963. Twenty birds were released by the Nevada Department of Wildlife into the Ruby Mountains. After several more releases, the snowcock population now numbers about 1,200. The bird, which resembles a chukar partridge on steroids, has the vision and vigilance of a wild turkey and flushes with the speed of a quail. It specializes in humiliating hunters: Fewer than 250 have been taken since a snowcock season was established 12 years ago. The bird's daily routine is to fly from its rimrock roost at daybreak to feed on grasses, sedges and other herbaceous plants or drink water on the hillsides of the cirques, then work its way back to its roost. When threatened, the snowcock runs uphill and hides among rocks or flies down the opposite side of the mountain.
But fly isn't really the right word. This bird wrote the book on advanced aviation tactics. A Russian scientist studying the snowcock noted that the primary component of its flight is "the force of gravity." Snowcocks hurl themselves off cliffs, give a few furious flaps and then, clamping their wings to their sides, plummet down the mountainside in a free fall, leaving anything that tries to catch them in their wake. Biologists conducting bird and sheep counts from helicopters have tried to pass snowcocks, only to give up after the birds hit 140 mph.
November 2, 1992
While snowcocks have my respect and admiration, I can personally testify that the birds are also delicious. The recollection of last year's snowcock dinner prompted me to try for another bird late this summer. My partners on this summer's hunt were Jim O'Neill, 38, a tireless, mountain-wise history professor at Casper (Wyo.) College with three Himalayan expeditions under his belt, and Tom Wendel, 35, a family practitioner in Burns, Ore. Tom is one of a handful of doctors in a 10,000-square-mile chunk of eastern Oregon. With equal aplomb he delivers babies and treats people suffering from gunshot wounds, logging accidents and bar-fight injuries. My partners' mountaineering and medical knowledge, as well as their sense of humor and fanaticism for bird hunting, made them ideal companions.
On the third day of our hunt we stood at the base of a mountain and looked up. It had not been a leisurely two days. On the first morning we had been beaten to a favorite spot; when we got out of the car at 4:30 a.m., I saw our energetic predecessor's flashlight bobbing on the hillside. Since that first morning we had climbed and descended a total of 25,000 vertical feet and seen precious few birds.
The mountain before us was covered with wispy, fast-moving banks of clouds; they looked as though they had come from the brush of a Chinese landscape artist. At about 9,000 feet we split up. Tom and Jim took the left side of the cirque, I the right. Within 500 feet I was balancing on a razorback ridge. Coffee-table-sized chunks of rimrock spotted with red and electric yellow lichen shifted under my feet. When I reached the highest part of the right side of the bowl, I was spotted by a covey of snowcocks farther up the cirque. Their shrill warning call, which sounds remarkably like a car alarm, echoed around the scree, or small, loose rocks. I groped my way down off the rimrock toward where I guessed the birds had landed, three quarters of the way up the cirque.
By the time I reached this area, the cloud cover had become heavy. In the surreal and spooky cocoon of the cirque, clouds would drift in, giving me 100-foot visibility, then float away, affording me a view of the world, at least for a minute. Through the mist I heard a faint whistling cluck coming from uphill. The terrain was becoming a little too sheer for comfort, but I put my head down and began making my way up. It is impossible to move quietly through talus, or rock debris; the solution is to walk about 20 paces, then stop and listen. Doing this. I paused in a steep talus field—a pitch of perhaps 30 degrees—with outcrops 40 yards away on either side. Suddenly there was a rush of wings, and a covey of perhaps five or six snowcocks took off just on the other side of the outcrop to my left. There were dips in this outcrop that permitted me to shoot. Nothing fell.
The birds circled behind me. On the other side of the outcrop, to my right, there was a clattering of rock and the flapping of wings. The image of a wounded bird immediately came to mind. I ran as fast as I dared and climbed over the outcrop. The rattling continued, but a dense cloud had wandered in. For one brief spell, I would guess about 20 seconds, the clouds cleared. There was no flopping, wounded snowcock. Instead, 35 yards away, perched on the edge of a cliff with its back to me, was the black silhouette of an enormous bird, its identity unknown to me. I put the bead of my shotgun on the back of its head and waited for it to turn. The bird didn't oblige. It was too big to be a snowcock. My mind reeled back to the month before, when I had peeked into a taxidermist's freezer and caught a glimpse of the carcass of one of the largest snowcock ever shot in Nevada—the bird had weighed 10 pounds. This bird was one quarter again as large. It had to be a golden eagle, one of the most opportunistic of all raptors, notorious for filching shot pheasants and ducks in front of a hunter's disbelieving eyes.
Another cloud blew in, and when it cleared again, I got a look at the bird just as it turned and walked casually out of sight along a narrow excuse for a ledge: It was a snowcock. I yelped at my hesitation, stripped off my pack and binoculars and went after it. This was no small task. I clambered, slowly but impatiently, over a cliff that merited the use of climbing gear. Raindrops began spattering the rock in front of my face. Immediate family members and monthly mortgage payments came to mind. When I reached the top of the cliff, I peeked over the edge just in time to sec the last of the covey disappear over a cliff. The rain turned to hail, and I turned back.
I heard Jim and Tom whistle. They had heard my shots and were coming to investigate. It was 38°, and the wind had picked up, driving hail into us. Moisture started sinking into the ground, lubricating the scree and making it treacherous. We reached the top of the cirque and, after a short conference, decided to follow the birds despite the weather. Great Basin storms are usually short-lived, we reasoned. That was before the lightning. A split second before the first strike, I felt a biting jolt in the arm that cradled my gun. Blue sparks of Saint Elmo's fire danced up the rib of Jim's Remington 870. Birds became a secondary issue. A millisecond before the second near strike, a powerful electric hum, like that heard from a transformer, resonated in my ears. Snapping blue and white bolts of electricity arched up and down my gun. Sparks flew off my metal-rimmed glasses, and a jolt of juice strong enough to temporarily halt my breathing surged through my chest. The static made the screw-in chokes on my shotgun buzz like a Geiger counter. In a crouched run, we stumbled down the mountain, scared, yet exhilarated.
First prize for the trip, a snowcock, was forgone for this hunt. Yet capturing second prize—making it off the mountain without being fricasseed—seemed reason enough for a trip to the Star, a Basque-run restaurant in Elko, Nev., that serves a garlic-laden steak of epic proportions. The trussed snowcock dinner will have to wait another year.
Samuel Western is a rancher and free-lance writer who lives in Big Horn, Wyo.