Pursuing goats in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan is one of the world’s most grueling hunts.
By Jon R. Sundra
Have you ever been on a stalk that was so physically exhausting that you actually wished the critter you were after would spook so you didn’t have to continue?
I was almost at that point this past October hunting mid-Asian ibex in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan.
My two guides, Asan Ali and Danier, and I had left our horses somewhere around the 13,000-foot level a half-hour before and had been slowly climbing ever since. When I say slowly, I mean stopping to catch my breath every 25 yards or so if the going was fairly level. If it was up any incline at all, I’d have to stop after the equivalent of one flight of stairs.
I knew this hunt would be challenging, but I can’t begin to describe just how difficult moving around at 13,000-plus feet is, especially when you’re 67. I’m in pretty good shape for a man my age, but there were times I thought I’d die if I took another step.
The seeds of this adventure that took me to the opposite side of the world were sown many years ago. Like most hunters, there were certain animals I wanted to hunt more than others. It’s very personal and arbitrary, and sometimes it has more to do with how or where an animal is hunted than the trophy itself. Take the Rusa deer, for example. It’s one of the most beautiful deer in the world, but what really put it high on my wish list was that it could be hunted on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia.
Other species on my wish list were jaguar, leopard, sitatunga and the Siberian Ibex. Actually, I initially set my sights on hunting the Bezoar Ibex, which is found in Turkey. But when all the pieces finally fell in place last February, it was for this hunt in Kyrgyzstan where the larger, mid-Asian ibex is found. It is one of several subspecies found also in Siberia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China.
I booked the hunt through my old friend, Sergei Shushunov, who heads up the Russian Hunting Agency (www.russianhunting.com). Booking through Sergei in years past, I hunted European brown bear in the St. Petersburg region, and maral stag in Siberia.
Anyway, the major reason it took so long for this hunt to materialize was that I couldn’t find anyone to go with me. There was no way I was going to travel 20 hours in airplanes and 12 hours by car by myself.
Fortunately, my old college buddy Ed Notebaert came to the rescue. After having gone our separate ways 40 years ago, we recently reconnected and have since made a couple of hunting trips together to Mexico and Argentina. Ed’s 64, so he’s a little younger than me, but just as crazy. We set the dates for Oct. 5-15, which according to Sergei, was perhaps the very best time because it should have snowed by then and hopefully driven the ibex down to lower altitudes.
Now, there’s no better excuse for buying a new rifle than when you’ve booked a hunt of this significance, so I took full advantage. I settled on an H-S Precision Pro-Series 2000 SPL (Sporter Lightweight) in 7mm Win Short Magnum. H-S (www.hsprecision.com) is unique among semi-custom rifle makers in that they design and manufacture every component that goes into their rifles — actions, barrels and stocks — along with all tooling and gauges. Because they control every aspect of the manufacture and assembly of their rifles, they offer a 1/2 MOA accuracy guarantee for all calibers of .30 or less, and 1 MOA in calibers over .30. All components are of stainless steel.
H-S is one of the few companies to cut-rifle their barrels. Unlike hammer forging or button rifling, which hammer or iron-in the grooves, respectively, H-S cuts each groove one at a time with multiple passes of a single cutting tool. All three methods can produce highly accurate barrels, but with cut rifling no strains are induced and there’s no need to stress-relieve them afterward. The advantage claimed for cut-rifling is that there’s no tendency to string shots as the barrel heats up.
Another feature for which H-S Precision is highly noted is the aluminum bedding block system, which they incorporate into their Pro-Series fiberglass stocks. Originally developed by them for the U.S. Army’s M-24 sniper rifle, this same bedding platform is in all Pro-Series accessory stocks and complete rifles.
The action on which the Pro-Series 2000 rifle is based is a hybrid that incorporates some of the best features of the Winchester Model 70 and the Remington 700. The receiver is tubular like the Model 700, and it shares the same washer-type recoil lug that’s sandwiched between it and the barrel shoulder. The bolt face is recessed, and its annular rim is uninterrupted. In other words, it completely encircles the rim of the cartridge.
The safety system is basically Model 70 Winchester in that a three-position lever is mounted on the bolt shroud. All Pro-Series 2000 rifles come standard with a detachable box magazine. While purists still prefer a fixed box with a hinged floorplate, there’s a lot to be said for the convenience this type magazine provides. And this one works very well; it snaps into place with a positive click, and it doesn’t rattle.
Other features of note on the Pro-Series rifle are that fluted barrels are standard, and the metal finish is black Teflon, which is more corrosion- and abrasion-resistant than conventional bluing. Also, they tap the receiver for the larger 8-40 base screws, which are twice as strong as the 6-48 screws that are standard throughout the industry.
My rifle arrived about two months prior to our scheduled departure, so I had time to work up handloads. What I ultimately settled on was a load consisting of Reloder 19 powder and a 140-grain Barnes Triple Shock X-Bullet.
Finally came the big day Ed and I boarded our Turkish Airlines flight from JFK to Istanbul, and from there another non-stop flight to Bishkek, the largest city and capital of Kyrgyzstan. All told, we were in the air for nearly 18 hours. After being met and eased through the paperwork by our outfitter, Ashim, it was another grueling 12 hours by car to our base camp at 9,600 feet in the south-central area of the country.
I was hoping to hunt out of the base camp, which was a comfortable little cottage in the middle of a broad floodplain 2 miles from the base of the mountains. Snow had fallen, but according to Asan Ali, not enough to drive the ibex down. The way Ashim explained it, hunting away from camp meant we’d be spending 90 percent of each day on horseback getting into and out of ibex country, leaving us little time to actually hunt. To have a reasonable chance at a good ibex, he told us, we would have to stay in the mountains. It was not what I wanted to hear, but both Ed and I were prepared; we had excellent sleeping bags and plenty of warm clothing.
We spent the better part of our first day in camp hoping to get just a little acclimated to the altitude. If it helped, I couldn’t tell. I was panting after walking 50 yards or so to where we checked the zero on targets set out at 200 yards. As expected, both our rifles were shooting a little higher than they were back home. Ed was also shooting a 7mm WSM and the 140-grain Barnes TSX bullet.
Upon reaching the base of the mountains the next morning, Ed and his two guides went one direction and we in another. It took about 4 1/2 hours in the saddle to get high enough that Asan and Danier began glassing in earnest.
Every time we came to a ridge, we’d dismount below the brow and work our way to where we could peer over the crest. The terrain was so rugged, remote and vast that it made me think how utterly dependent I was on these two men and our three horses. The previous year, my horse was attacked by wolves while he was hobbled for the night at a fly camp. He carried some serious scars on his right flank as a memento.
The guides spotted several small bands of ibex, but they were all on neighboring mountains, and there was no way we could get to them. We even saw a few Marco Polo sheep, as they inhabit this same country.
I was feeling pretty good, for we had done very little walking thus far. That soon changed, however, when Asan spotted what he said was a very good ibex bedded down on our side of the valley. When he pointed out the location, I couldn’t for the life of me figure how we could approach without being seen.
Upon remounting our horses, I figured Asan agreed with my silent assessment of the situation because we started out in almost the opposite direction. After an hour, though, I could see we had made a large circle and had closed the distance to 1,000 yards away. But what a thousand yards it was — steep ravines with loose, snow-covered rocks and sheer drop-offs.
To save me unnecessary exertion in case the critter buggered off, my guys went on ahead. If “my” ibex was still there, they would motion me to catch up. When I did, we’d repeat the process. Only when the climbs and descents began did I realize how inadequate a 67-year-old man who’s lived all his life a few hundred feet above sea level is in such thin air. Like I said, I’m in pretty good shape, and am not overweight, but any exertion at all had me stopping every minute or two to catch my breath. My progress was agonizingly slow, but my guides had the good sense not to hurry me. After all, nothing was going to happen until I got there.
It took maybe an hour to negotiate about 600 linear yards, and there were times I thought I was going to croak. I was now also fighting the clock, as daylight was fading fast. I don’t think I could have crossed another ravine, when upon reaching Asan and Danier, I realized we were as far as we could go — the last cover between us and our quarry. And they were excited. As it turned out, my guys had gotten me within 180 lazered yards of the still-bedded ibex. It was incredible luck. Once I caught my breath, I eased to the crest. It was an easy shot off a Harris bipod rest. I was never so glad a hunt was over!
After the caping and field-dressing chores by flashlight, we descended about a thousand feet in the dark where we pitched a tent, hobbled the horses and spent the night. On arrival at base camp around 3 p.m. the next day, every bone in my body ached, and I was so weak I could barely stand.
That night, we were fortunate enough to witness the fiery launch of a Russian satellite from nearby Kazakhstan as it streaked across the jet-black sky. And the following morning as we were driving back to civilization, we interrupted a pack of wolves as they were closing in on a herd of yaks, which, like muskox, were already formed in a protective circle. It was quite a sight. All in all, we saw about 20 wolves.
Would I do it again? No way. As incredible an experience as it was — the fulfillment of a lifelong dream and one I wouldn’t trade for anything — a quote from “Dirty Harry” comes to mind: “A man has to know his limitations.” If I hadn’t gotten my ibex on that first day, I don’t think I could have survived a second.
Reprinted from the December 2007 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.