In the peaks of Spain’s Gredos Mountains, Steve Rawsthorne takes on the most challenging stalk of his life — for a trophy ibex
I have just returned from the most amazing, challenging, physically testing, at times frightening and most enjoyable hunting experience of my life, bar none.
Through a good friend, David Pantlin, I had been invited to hunt Iberian ibex on an estate in the Gredos Mountains, 200km west of Madrid in Spain. I have often flown over the mountains and they look spectacular, so it was wonderful to have a chance to be among them. Our flight to Madrid from Heathrow was reasonably priced and I was sharing a car with David, who had arranged the trip.
About 20 miles from Madrigal de la Vera, the nearest village to the estate, we could see the mountains rising up. There were some classic “dragons’ teeth” peaks with snow on them, which I commented on, not realising we would be on them the next day. From Madrigal we drove another five or so miles up an unmade track, climbing all the while. David had been there many times before, as he organises hunting trips for ibex from September through to April.
We parked near an old stable and were met by Angel, one of the guides, with a pony and panniers to carry our luggage over a river that had rocks the size of buses. Apparently, in a flood, the water rises over the little bridge and moves those same rocks, which you can hear from a kilometre away.
A stunning setting
We were staying in a beautifully converted farmhouse overlooking the river and mountains and you could see where boar had been digging up the lawns the night before. Things were looking promising.
The next morning, after a generous breakfast and a couple of shots to check the estate rifle, we set off in a 4×4 up into the mountains for a mile or so, to where the horses were tethered under trees by a bridge and small waterfall. It was an idyllic setting. Our two guides for the day, Angelito and Felipe, were waiting. I chose a grey horse and David a piebald one. One guide was kitted out on horseback with panniers, led by the other who was on foot the whole day. You would not want to be doing that. We set off.
The first 20 minutes of the track were over a grassy shoulder of the mountain. Then we turned and started riding along a rocky trail along the side of the mountain, climbing all the while. It was a barely discernible path of granite, never more than a few inches wide, and loose rocks would occasionally crash into the gorge below. We had a rock wall hard against our left shoulder and a 1,000ft drop a few inches to our right.
We eventually reached the bottom of the gorge, forded the river and started climbing towards where we were going to hunt. I could see the dragons’ teeth now and we zigzagged up the mountain on more invisible trails, at an altitude of some 4,000ft. The scenery was stunning: bright sunshine, hardly a cloud in the sky and Iberian vultures overhead. Vertiginous drops at the edge of the trail provided a constant adrenaline rush and the odd scary moment.
We began to spot ibex as we got higher, moving into the snow line. We were now approaching the dragons’ teeth and could see a group of around 15 a good way above us. We made our way towards them, still on horseback, stopping to glass them. The guides are very selective about what is shot. When you book a hunting trip you specify what you want to shoot — a gold, silver or bronze medal or a “representative”. Price varies accordingly, so for a representative male, three nights’ accommodation and two days’ hunting the cost is €4,500. No males are shot younger than 10 years and only barren females are shot, usually 16 years old or more.
We left the horses and started stalking on foot but, as we got closer, the group of ibex moved off over the next ridge and were lost from sight. We remounted (we had now spent four and a half hours in the saddle), and moved off into a rocky hollow where we tethered the horses and set off on foot. Lying on a flat rock, the size of a double- decker bus on its side with a 600ft drop off its edge, we could see the herd on the other side of a steep valley, 250 yards in a direct line. I was after a representative and we could not see one among them, so we retreated to the horses and stopped for a bite to eat. By now it was 2pm.
After the welcome rest, we set off on foot, climbing another 500ft or so. It was still a beautiful day, with snow-capped mountains all around and no traffic noise even in the distance. The only way up to where we were was on foot or by horse and we could look back through a light haze to see the river snaking away in the gorge far below. I was amazed at how far we had come and how high we had climbed.
We soon found another group of male ibex and followed them down a deep gorge with lichen-covered rocks, and up the other side, over the ridge and down again, only to find they had moved even farther. By now it was 4pm and we decided to call it a day and head back to the horses. We had a long trek back, a good hour to the horses and then a three-hour ride. Angelito led the horses in a string as it was easier to walk down the mountain than to ride. The lights of the lodge were very welcome, as was a long hot bath and a good dinner.
Next morning it was cool, about 3°C, cloudless and fairly still. I met José-Antonio, the head guide, by the same bridge with the horses and we headed off alone. It was agreed we would stay fairly low today, so we followed the river and gorge, climbing only gently. After about 45 minutes, Jose signalled for me to dismount and held his ngers to his lips. We left the horses and crept as quietly as possible through the rocks, along and up the side of the gorge. About 150 yards away, a barren female ibex was feeding in scrubby bushes. We edged closer and I rested my Holland & Holland .300 magnum on a large rock, took aim and fired. She dropped immediately to the shot. I had my first ibex!
After taking photographs, I took the head and we left the carcase out for the vultures. The Iberian vulture was threatened as a species and, following a conservation programme, the numbers are increasing, but they need food to maintain their breeding condition.
José went back to get the horses and we moved off. Around a mile up the valley was a little hunting lodge, perched precariously on the side, overlooking the mountains and river gorge. It looked brilliant in the sun. I would have loved to live in it, but every stick of furniture had to be brought up by horse, as well as any food and we were seeing it in 15°C of sun. I suspected that in different conditions, such as -10ºC and snow, it would be rather different.
A herd of male ibex were on rocks nearby above the roof and I was able to get some photographs. We lunched at the lodge and washed it down with icy cold water from a spring and had a short siesta.
Hunt for a trophy
We set off again on foot and had only been going for an hour when José motioned for me to stop. There was a large group of males in front of us, including a fantastic dark gold-medal ibex. José said, “Nego, no” to make sure I did not shoot it and then pointed out one that was thrashing its head on some bushes.
Half-kneeling and contorted on the rocks in a most uncomfortable position, I steadied the cross-hairs of my Holland bolt rifle and I had my trophy.
We brought up the horses, took some pictures and then also took some of the meat, the haunches and fillets, leaving the rest for the vultures again. I felt much happier on the hour-and-a-half trek back to the car. We had some of the fillet that night, it was disgusting — tough and rancid. The best thing to do with it is to leave it for the vultures.
My trip was physically demanding, but for those who wish to, there is the option to stay on the lower levels, where there is not so much riding involved. It is not a cheap hunt, but what you will get is great, knowledgeable guides and a truly wild hunting experience that you will never forget. You are not just paying for an ibex, you are buying a whole experience. You will have a brilliant time. I rate this as the best two days of my life and cannot thank my host enough for his kind invitation and generosity.
Saved from extinction
In 1925, the ibex was down to around 25 animals. King Alfonso XIII and the owner of the estate started a conservation programme and now there are about 8,000 of them, which qualifies as a real hunting and conservation success. Were it not for the hunting maintaining the quality of the herd and bringing in some revenue, the Gredos ibex would almost certainly have become extinct.
In 2000, the last known Pyrenean ibex — a subspecies of the Iberian version — was found dead. Scientists had preserved skin samples of it and used its DNA to produce a female clone.