Mission: Impossible

By Jon R. Sundra, Safari Magazine July/August 2008

At least that’s what it seemed at the time – impossible, I mean. Here I was, 67 years old, chasing Mid-Asian Ibex at 13,000 feet in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan. My old friend, Sergei Shushunov, who heads up Russian Hunting, LLC through whom I booked this hunt didn’t paint any rosy pictures for me when I first told him what I wanted to do.

“It will be very strenuous,” Sergei cautioned, even though it was a horse-back hunt. I’ve made enough of ’em to know that a horse can get you there, but you still have to rely on your own legs to get you in position for a shot, and that can mean a stalk of 500 yards – or 5,000.

You know, it’s funny how as hunters we all have our “wanted” list that for one reason or another turns us on more than others. It’s all so arbitrary. For some, it might be a yellow back duiker or a mountain nyala; a polar bear or a tur. For me there were several animals that emitted a siren call – sitatunga, leopard, jaguar, rusa stag on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, and of course the Siberian Ibex, the only one on that foregoing list that I had not taken.

I was encouraged when Sergei mentioned that he had booked a few hunts for men in their 50s, and one in his early 60s – and they all survived. He quickly added, however, that all of them were in great physical shape and lived in places like Denver, Butte or Cheyenne that were 5 to 6,000 feet above sea level. Me, I’ve lived all my life at 600 feet or less, and my exertion is limited to doing 800 calories on an elliptical machine every day. That’s not the best preparation for hunting in the ionosphere, but I am pretty good physical shape for an old coot. I wasn’t kidding myself though. I knew that if I didn’t do it soon, I never would. I mean, you can fight the aging process with all your might, and if I must say so myself, I’ve done a pretty good job of it. But sooner or later you lose the battle.

Actually, I had wanted to book this hunt for several years, but I had not been able to find anyone crazy enough to go with me. I had long since made up my mind that there was no way I was going on an 11-day odyssey that would take me 10 time zones from home all by my myself. Fortunately my old college chum and hunting companion, Ed Notebaert, and I had recently re-connected after having gone our separate ways some 40 years ago. Ed, who is 64, surprised the hell out of me, when he said he’d go. We booked our hunt for October 5-15, which allowed for 5 days of hunting, even though it is actually a seven-day hunt. Sergei suggested that we spend at least the first day in camp getting used to the altitude. Yeah, right.

Now there’s no better excuse for buying a new rifle than having booked a hunt of this significance, so I took full advantage. I settled on an H-S Precision Pro-Series 2000 SPL (Sport Lightweight). For caliber I chose the 7mm Winchester Short Magnum, as it is my favorite cartridge for all but dangerous game. H-S Precision is well known among Safari Club members, and with good reason. The company is unique among American semi-custom rifle builders in that they are truly self-sufficient. They make their own barrels, stocks, actions and tooling. Because they have absolute control over every manufacturing phase of every component, as well as how they’re all put together, they offer a 1/2 MOA accuracy guarantee for all calibers of .30 or less, and 1 MOA for calibers over .30.

H-S is one of the few companies to rifle their barrels the old-fashioned way – by cutting one groove at a time with multiple passes of a single cutting tool. It takes about an hour to cut-rifle a barrel, as opposed to a couple of minutes for hammer forging or button rifling. All three methods can result in very accurate barrels, but the one advantage cut rifling offers is that it puts no strain on the barrel. Therefore, no stress-relieving is necessary after the rifling process. Bottom line – there’s no tendency for shots to string after the barrel heats up.

Another unique feature about H-S Precision rifles is that their Pro-Series fiberglass shocks are laid up around an aluminum bedding block, the very same platform as they developed for the U.S. Army’s M-24 sniper rifle. It allows the gun to be taken down and transported in a handy 36-inch gun case and reassembled without losing zero. It sure makes traveling a lot easier when you don’t have to schlep a coffin-size gun case around.

My gun finally arrived about 2 months prior to our scheduled departure, complete with the handloading data used to achieve the company’s 1/2 MOA guarantee. It was based on Nosler’s 150-grain Ballistic Tip. I, however, wanted to use a bullet that held together better for deeper penetration, so I went to the shooting range for the first time with the intention of just getting the gun on paper and shooting a couple boxes of factory ammo to get the brass I needed for handload development. My first three-shot group using Winchester’s Supreme 150-grain Fail Safe factory load measured .575 inches. A helluva start, I thought. I let the barrel cool and fired another three-shot group; it measured an unbelievable .280 inches. Three more three-shot groups averaged .655 inches – amazing.

I could have stopped right there and simply used that factory load for my ibex hunt, but that would have been too easy. I eventually settled on a handload using Reloder 19 and the Barnes 140 grain TSX bullet, a combination that consistently grouped between 1/2 inch and 3/4 inches.

Came October 5. Ed and I were just getting to Bishkek, the largest city and the capital of Kyrgyzstan. It was an ordeal. From JFK it was an 11-hour flight on Turkish Airlines to Istanbul, then another five-hour flight to Bishkek where we were met my our outfitter, Ashim. It was then a 12-hour journey by SUV to our base camp at 9,600 feet, traveling along stretches of the ancient Silk Road that date back more than 3,500 years. On the way, we passed a check station that was within five miles of the Chinese border. The last 50 kilometers from there to camp was a study in absolute desolation.

As planned, we spent the first day in camp to acclimate to the altitude, but if it was any help at all, I couldn’t tell. Just walking the 25 yards to a place where we could check our rifles on targets that had been placed 200 yards away had me breathing hard.

Initially, we thought we’d be hunting out of the base camp, but that notion was quickly dispelled when Sergei told us to bring sleeping bags rated down to zero – just in case. As it turned out, what every little snow had fallen up to the time we arrived was above 14,000 feet, so that’s where the ibex would probably be. It’s only when the snow gets too deep that they come down to lower altitudes.

The way Ashim explained it, getting into ibex country from base camp would take about four hours on horseback, which meant eight hours a day in the saddle and very little actual hunting time. Bottom line was our guides were to set up a fly camp for each of us so we could stay in hunting country until we either scored or cried uncle.

Aside from the sheer physical challenge of moving around at those altitudes, there is the threat of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema), a life-threatening issue that occurs at altitudes above 8,500 ft. and affects about one percent of normally healthy people. Above 12,000 feet the incidence is quite a bit higher, so it is more prevalent among mountaineers and ibex/sheep hunters. The only cure – if it can be called that – is to get down to a lower altitude quickly – something that is not always possible. Symptoms are one’s inability to catch one’s breath, even after resting for long periods. Ed and I took a prophylactic called Acetazolamide that is supposed to help fend off the illness. Both of us damn near died up there, but it wasn’t because of HAPE. So maybe it works.

The first day my guides and I, Asan Ali and Danier, spent about nine hours in the saddle, stopping before cresting every ridge to glass some of the most breathtaking vistas I’ve ever seen. We saw about 30 ibexes, but only a few were males and none were good enough to take. With about three hours of daylight, Asan Ali, who was my chief guide, spotted about two stags bedded down in the shade of a steep slope about a mile away. There was no way I could see a viable route that would bring us within shooting range, but then that’s why he’s the guide and I’m the dude.

We remounted and set off in such an obtuse direction that I figured they felt the same way – that there was no way we could get to those animals. But there’s no such thing as straight lines of movement in the Tien Shan. Getting from A to B could mean starting out the opposite direction, so long as you know the country. And these guys sure did.

Two hours later we had closed the distance to about a thousand yards to the general area where Asan thought the stags to be. At that point he motioned me to stay put while he and Danier went on ahead. The idea was too save me the exertion of climbing up and down the several steep ravines between us and the ibex if they were no longer there. I didn’t argue. At 13,000 feet the simple act of getting on and off the horse had me panting, so for the life of me I couldn’t see how I’d be able to negotiate the thousand yards of steep terrain.

But every time Asan crested a ridge and glassed, he motioned for me to come ahead, indicating the critters were still there. Each time I complied, but after about 600 linear yards – three times that in actual distance – I was so exhausted I actually hoped the ibexes would bugger off so I wouldn’t have to go any farther.

Finally, both my guys motioned me to cross the last ravine that separated us. I could tell they were excited. Up or down, it didn’t matter. I could only go 8 or 10 yards at a time before having to catch my breath, but eventually I gasped my way to where I was just behind them but still below the crest. I just laid there until I caught my breath; no sense trying to make a shot when your heart and lungs are heaving.

I worked a round into the chamber, pulled down the legs of my short Harris bipod, and slowly crawled forward on my belly until my line of sight cleared the ridge. I slowly raised my head to get my bearings and see what it was that had my guides so excited.

It didn’t take long. There he was, on the opposite side of a small but deep ravine, still bedded in the same spot Asan first saw him three hours earlier. It’s horns looked almost ridiculous, like they belonged on a creature twice its size. What incredible luck, I thought. I quickly took a laser reading – 180 yards. Piece a’ cake. Even though I had rested enough to catch my breath, seeing that magnificent creature in the scope sent my pulse racing.

At the shot, the ram never got to his feet, but simply rolled over a couple of times, then slid some 500 yards down the rock-strewn 50-degree slope where he came to rest on a precarious shelf. It took us a half hour to reach him, traversing some very steep slopes that ended in vertical drop-offs. On his wild downhill ride, my prize broke the tip off his left horn, and lost a chunk out of his right horn. Nevertheless, he looked beautiful to me!

If I had to sum up what ibex hunting is all about, I’d say it was like banging your head against a brick wall. It feels so good when you stop.

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