Hanging with the Goats
As a wildlife photographer who specializes in wildlife of high latitudes and high altitudes, I enjoy photographing mountain goats. They have an unbelievable ability to survive in a cold, harsh, unforgiving environment at or above treeline.
Although I have photographed mountain goats a lot, I had never photographed them in the winter. Most of the locations I know where to find them in Colorado are inaccessible in winter because of the closure of roads or trail heads or both. Where do the goats go when the temperatures drop and snow levels increase? Do they stay at 14,000 feet? Do they come down into the trees to be protected from the strong winds of high altitude? What do they eat? How do the babies survive? How thick do their coats get? What is their rut season like? Do the males fight each other? Do the mountain goats gather in large numbers in winter and during the rut?
These were just a few of the questions I had about my white, furry friends of the high country.
In 2013, I started a new project of climbing 14ers - the peaks in Colorado that rise to or above 14,000 feet. Now I don't know if I will ever climb all of the 50-plus 14ers in Colorado (I have "bagged" 6 so far), but I hope to see over the peak of a good chunk of them. As someone who loves the high country, the endless views I am awarded standing on top of these peaks, and the wildlife I encounter along the way, brings me peace and happiness. And mountain goats live on some of these peaks.
In late summer 2014 I was reading a few posts on a facebook group about the 14ers in Colorado. One particular comment caught my eye - a hiker mentioned seeing mountain goats on Quandary Peak near Breckenridge, Colorado. So I quickly added it to my list of 14ers to climb and reached its summit just a few weeks later. And I too saw the mountain goats along the way - at about 12,000 feet.
This 14er is unique because it is one of the few where the parking lot for the trail head sits next to a state highway that is plowed all winter. I had found my mountain to photograph mountain goats in the winter.
To see the mountain goat rut activity, which is typically mid-November to mid-December, I hiked up one November afternoon and found the goats at about the same elevation I saw them in the summer. There wasn't much rut activity, and I later found out that I was a little early for the rutting season. There also wasn't much snow, but that changed over the next few weeks.
Since I was a newbie to climbing 14ers in winter, I was a little hesitant to climb a snow-covered mountain. I am not well versed in reading snow for avalanche dangers or knowing how to self-arrest should I slip and fall. But the more I read about Quandary Peak, the more I realized this was a pretty frequently climbed mountain in winter.
So I picked a warm, winter day in February to climb it again to find the goats in their thick winter coats on Quandary Peak in the White River National Forest.
The day I went - February 13, 2015 - had a predicted high of almost 60 degrees in Breckenridge, the closest town to Quandary Peak, and a forecast of full sun. It was a gorgeous day. I headed up about 1 p.m. with my winter coat tied around my waist. I was sure I would need it eventually as I reached the top but for now a shirt and fleece was more than enough warmth.
The previous two times I saw the goats was at about 12,000 feet. From the trail head this took me about two hours to climb. This would put me at the goats right about 3 p.m., just in time for the gorgeous, warm afternoon light.
Well, animals will do what animals want to do. And I didn't know what to expect in regards to what or where goats went in winter.
I ran into eight people on the trail that afternoon. The first two guys and their dog told me they had not seen any goats but they only went up to treeline. The second couple with their two dogs told me they saw 20 goats at the last ridge before the push up to the summit of Quandary. A single female hiker didn't say much of anything. The next couple said they saw 19 goats at the same ridge as the previous couple. And a single female backcountry skier with her herding dog said there were about 50 goats in the saddle just below the summit.
This news gave me mixed feelings. I was elated to hear there were possibly 50 goats. I had never seen more than maybe two dozen at one time. But this saddle was at about 13,200 feet. That was at least another hour up the trail and I would be fighting getting there to have enough time to photograph the goats before the shadows started moving down the mountain.
So I pushed on. But my body fights me at this elevation - no matter how much climbing I do - and I had to take it slow. I made it to the saddle at about 4:15 p.m. where I was greeted by my first goat. I snapped as many photos as I could as quickly as possible - verticals, horizontals, close ups, wide angles. The light was gorgeous but the wind was strong. I don't carry a tripod with me to these elevations so I make sure I bump up my ISO as high as I am comfortable doing without creating noise in the files but to get as fast a shutter speed as possible. Photographing white animals on a snowy landscape against mountains starting to fall into shadows can also be tricky to not blow out the white in the fur and snow while still getting detail in those mountains.
A second goat came over the ridge, and a third. I kept capturing photos. I peeked over the ridge. The shadows had already descended into the high valley below, but I could clearly make out 30 mountain goats. I kept snapping.
I had about 30 minutes of nice light and took 273 photos. It is a good thing mountain goats don't do too much that is different - lick some rocks, walk along a ridge, butt heads every once in a while if another goat gets too close, dig a little in the snow. But I had many of my answers. And I also now know that the next time I need to leave earlier just in case those goats are higher. Apparently mountain goats don't come down to lower elevations in winter like many other ungulates such as bighorn and elk - or at least not on this day. If anything they went higher where the winds were exposing the lichens, rocks and grassy remnants on the high ridges.
Any photographer will tell you morning and afternoon light is best. It is warm, soft, colorful and lacks the contrast of highlights and shadows found in the middle of the day. I have only - so far - climbed one mountain before sunrise to get that morning light so if I want the nice light I climb in the afternoon and then hike down in the fading light. Often I can be back at my car before it is really dark because the hike down takes half the time as the hike up (and I always carry a headlamp and enough food and water in case I get stuck out in the dark). But it limits me on how much time I can have to photograph wildlife once I do find them. That was the case with these mountain goats.
So I will be back up there to photograph these white, furry beauties in the snow on the windy ridges of Quandary Peak this winter and winters to come. I still have the question: where do the pikas go in the winter? But I will save that for another hike and another post.
Feel free to email me at Dawn@DawnWilsonPhotography.com with any questions about photographing wildlife at high elevations.