I started drawing wildlife when I was 13-years-old but it wasn’t until I was 15 before I considered myself any good.
I remember opening a magazine and spotting a photograph of an ibex, a wild Alpine goat, with huge horns sweeping over its back in two great arching curls.
I couldn’t resist drawing it and spent hours replicating every twist of those impressive horns in pen and ink.
Little did I know it would be 30 years before I caught up with a real ibex. Last month I visited the French Alps with my family. We were staying in Les Houches, near Chamonix, at the foot of the impressive 4,810m high Mont Blanc.
While my wife took our two daughters skiing, I met up with a local wildlife guide named Fred. He asked what I would like to see. I reeled off a list that included ibex, chamois, golden eagle and bearded vulture.
He looked worried when I added lynx and wolf to my wish list. But I was only joking. Although these predators inhabit the Alps, they are rare and almost impossible to spot.
We set off to a mountain pass named Col des Montets, situated in the protected Reserve des Aiguilles Rouges, to look for chamois. After half an hour walking across deep snow using snow shoes and walking poles, we spotted our first chamois high above us on the edge of a forest.
Chamois are a small, buff-coloured goat-like creature closely related to antelope with short, curved horns. Nimble, fast and remarkably sure-footed, the species is exclusive to Europe’s highest mountains. In winter they live lower down in the forests, but they are very wary and difficult to study.
We headed towards them, crossing dangerously unstable ground where avalanches had spilled boulders of snow and ice across our path. The avalanche risk factor was at level four out of five so we had to tread very carefully.
It started to snow and a mist rolled in. The herd disappeared like ghosts. Unfortunately, the whiteout didn’t clear before it was time to head back.
The next day we planned to look for ibex. Ibex are nearly double the weight of chamois and over 20cm taller. They live much higher up the mountain and so our tour involved a 1,000m climb to rocky mountainous terrain where they spend winter.
We set off from Servoz, a small village at 700m above sea level, where there was little snow. The first signs of spring were already showing, violet and primrose flowers peeking through the leaf litter.
After a steep hour’s climb we were back in the snow zone. Pine marten, fox and chamois tracks crisscrossed the ground. Fred, my mountain guide, was a slim, wiry man all of 10 stone. He seemed unstoppable as he scrambled up the mountainside, battling through the undergrowth and striding across rocky streams with barely a pause.
By contrast, my 6ft 2-inch 13-stone frame with an extra stone and a half worth of cameras on my back was hindering progress.
The only thing that kept me going was the thought of seeing ibex. Eventually a wide expanse of sky opened in front of us.
From here the view of the Alpine peaks was amazing. I regained my breath and scanned the landscape with my binoculars. High above us was a flock of birds. I expected Alpine chuffs, but it turned out to be a flock of woodpigeons migrating through a mountain pass.
A bird of prey called in the distance. I scanned the rock face above us and there was the unmistakable silhouette of a golden eagle, swooping by.
It was calling which meant that there was more than one. It circled round before flying right over our heads. Its mate appeared and followed it, effortlessly soaring across the valley and out of sight without using a single wing beat.
Suddenly there was the sound of a crack of thunder. Snow avalanched down from the rock face, reminding us of the dangers hidden in this beautiful landscape.
I scanned again and then I spotted it: my first ibex. It was a huge bearded male with sweeping horns and darkish brown coat standing about half a mile away on the other side of a gorge.
The sight of it was rejuvenating, even though we couldn’t reach this one. We climbed on for another 40 minutes and reached La Chorde, the ibex’s wintering grounds. I spotted three impressive males, weighing over 100kg each and measuring 3ft high at the shoulder, standing on a windswept rock face above us.
There had been an avalanche on the slope below them so it was too dangerous to cross. Instead we planned to approach from above. This involved climbing a nearby ridge and walking underneath a cliff face where a few small trees would provide handholds. From a distance it looked feasible – it was only 400 yards away. But once we were there everything was steeper, bigger, harder and more dangerous.
With just 30 yards to go I stumbled and started sliding downhill fast. I grasped at nearby branches, but they tore the skin from my hands so I let go. Then I looked down. There was a drop of hundreds of feet down into a rocky stream below. I grabbed the last branch in sight and held on. I was relieved it didn’t give way.
I regained my composure and climbed back up. There was now just a steep gorge between the ibex and myself. But I was at eye level and close enough to photograph them.
I edged forward, afraid of disturbing them. But Fred assured me that unlike the chamois, ibex are fairly relaxed around people. The males barely acknowledged me as I clicked off a series of photographs.
We stayed for over an hour and a half watching the ibex, before deciding it was time to head home. But focused on our quest to find ibex, we hadn’t realised what a dangerous spot we were now in. There was a gorge on one side, a cliff on the other.
We set off, climbing up and curving around the top of the cliff. The snow was seriously deep and kept collapsing beneath me as I reached the pinnacle of the ridge.
I remember telling my wife that skiing was far too dangerous for me. In hindsight skiing would have been a much safer option!