Testing times

Called upon to test a new tripod, Will O’Meara comes up with the toughest test conditions you can imagine: a snowbound hill stalk in Wicklow

So it’s all arranged. Rob Gearing, aka Mr G, was coming to Wicklow to hunt sika. As that early December date approaches, I keep a close eye on the weather forecast. Storms, sleet and snow… perfect conditions.

I bet a lot of people look at my daily transport and think, ‘how impractical.’ They probably look at the oversize mud-terrain tyres, the raised suspension, locking diffs, rock sliders, underbody armour and winch as overkill – but as we head for snowy forest tracks deep in the Wicklow Mountains I am glad of every ‘impracticality’ I have. As it turns out, the snow isn’t that deep and I don’t get to employ any of my gadgets. But it is cold, bitterly cold, with a north-easterly wind blowing strong. That wind, however, is going to work in our favour for the day’s hunting. The light on a snowy mountain morning is unlike any other morning – it illuminates the hills with a surreal glow, and as we hike our way up the mountain I admire the dawn skyline around us.

The wide open space and snow meant sika were easily spotted… but so were the hunters

I am armed with two trekking poles that are actually the legs of a tripod Rob has brought. This is his new prototype Spartan tripod and he wants me to test it. I smile and think, “I’ll test it for you all right lad…” I’ve used trekking poles frequently in the past for all kinds of missions, from multi-day trekking in the Alps to packing out caribou on remote Norwegian expeditions. I do find that any time I have weight in the pack or if I am doing big all-day hikes back to back, then poles are just the job.

As we move out on the mountain, I am careful to glass the forest edge. In these hard winds and snowy conditions you will often find animals in sheltered spots, sometimes bedded or sometimes feeding where the snow is less deep – but not today. We push on to the mountain and it strikes me how this snow will make animals very easy to see… and how easy it will be for them to see us.

 

Glassing regularly allows for an early test of the tripod as a bino rest

As we crest the first climb I spy animals out to our right. It’s wide open between us and them. Rob is on the ball and has frozen (not literally). I edge backward and move slightly to glass the sika. As the trekking pole is in my hand, I pop my binos on top to steady my view, soon clocking a nice-looking stag.

We drop down and to the right, cutting the wind 90 degrees and making use of some ground that is dead to our stags. As we move forward I spot a young stag to our left. We stop and wait, seeking cover from view behind a small peat hag. I’m not sure if you are familiar with the term ‘peat hag’, but we use it to describe a bank that has been eroded out of the peat or bog that you find on mountains in this part of the world. The peat is actually an accumulation of partly decayed forests and vegetation that once covered these mountains many thousands of years ago. These hags can form energy-sapping mazes that many a hill walker has cursed, but also offer great cover for stalking. So as I sat there behind the little hag, pretending not to be cold, I looked around at the mountain views, I turned to point it out to Mr G, but he was already taking it in with a smile on his face.

Once the young stag has moved on, we edge forward in a low crouch and then into a crawl as we close the distance to around 40 yards. I peer over the bank we are hidden behind and smile at what is before us. I motion to G to ask if he wants to take one of the stags, perhaps the particularly nice one. He whispers back that he is happy to keep going and maybe find a yearling for the freezer. I am sure he is being the thoughtful guest and also possibly doesn’t want the adventure to be over. I take a few moments to pop my camera on to the magnetic spigot of the tripod and snap a few photos of the Japanese stags as they dig out the snow with their hooves to find the mountain grasses.

The new tripod was put through its paces in these trying weather conditions

Once the photo session is over, we back out and retrace our steps, leaving the stags undisturbed. We hike on up the mountain towards a hidden basin that I guess might be holding some deer. I’m already finding some small issues with adjusting the prototype legs of the tripod. I point it out to G – he’s in full receive mode and we discuss some possible solutions.

After some hiking, we stop to glass the hidden basin. There are deer on the far face. I set up my camera, using the hiking poles as a monopod, and zoom in to 130x magnification to see exactly what we are dealing with. There are hind, calf, and yearling on the hill with a six-point stag between us and them. They are at the head of the basin, and there’s a stream with steep banks on either side that flows down the middle of the basin. That stream branches into several little gullies at the head of the basin, and by my reckoning, we should be able to get within about 100 yards of the stag and 200 yards of the other group.

We slip down from our glassing perch and contour around the hill to get to the cover the small mountain stream will offer us. It is perfect cover, and we make good progress. I stop periodically to ensure there are no unseen deer between us and the group, which could potentially foil our plan. In places, the banks of the mountain stream are above our heads and offer a textbook approach. We get to within 70 yards of the stag, but he is not the right animal to take. Our focus is on the group that is now feeding only 180 yards from us. I edge forward out of the gully; there is a rising bank of short grass that offers a perfect bipod shooting position. I clear a little spot for the bipod to sit and indicate the firing position to Rob.

Before Rob moves from the cover of the gully, he has the sense to check his muzzle. It’s just as well because the moderator is blocked with snow. He takes a moment to clean it out and I give him a pull-through that I keep in my kit for such occasions.

There’s an unexpected benefit to the gralloch as it provides some warmth

Blockage dealt with, Rob deploys the Spartan 300 bipod and uses my bumbag as a rear rest – rock solid. As we lie there in the snow, neither of us feel the cold – we are laser focused on the task. I talk G on to the yearling and he is on it before I finish my sentence. I edge rearwards to get a photo of the scene before me. The wind is dead in our face and I ask G to put it right on the shoulder blade.

As the shot reports, I think how quiet it is. The snow must act like a sound damper of sorts. The sika yearling is dead on her feet and I can see the short blood trail clearly in the snow. The nearby stag runs towards us in confusion before tagging along with the hind and calf that head to the next valley.

Rob smiles as he grallochs the yearling. The heat of the task is most welcome in this cold. With the preparation of the animal and the obligatory photos complete, we head for home. As we descend the mountain, the leg lock on my trekking pole fails. I show it to Rob. I can tell he’s not happy, but he immediately dives into how it can be improved. As we descend, we chat at length about the improvements needed for the tripod as well as some other ideas. Since that first day of testing in the snow, the Spartan team have worked relentlessly to produce an exceedingly strong tripod leg lock system, and I think they have succeeded. The Sentinel tripod we see on the market today is the product of many hours of labour, lots of tester feedback, and most importantly, a desire to make kit for hunters that is as good as it can be.

Testing conditions such as snow can immediately reveal weaknesses in our equipment and systems, so keep an eye on the kit. To finish, here are some helpful hints for success in snow. Keep your bolt and muzzle clear of snow and take the time to check before set up. Bring a pull through to clear any blockages, and in deeper snow, be prepared to shoot from a higher support system or from your pack, as shorter bipods won’t always work.

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