High Mountain Handgunners

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A Rare, Dedicated Breed.

The 30 mph gusting wind was peppering our face with gritty particles of snow. It was brutal. My lungs were feeling the effects of altitude while climbing. My feet were frozen. The final stalk took us over snow covered jagged rocks until we crested the ridge. Then, belly-crawling like a snake, we eased forward the last few yards. It was tough going. My eyes were watering like a flooded river. I was trying hard to catch my breath. Nineteen Marco Polo sheep were lying down on the snowy landscape in front of us, including two rams. Malabek, my local guide, peeked over a rock and took a reading with the rangefinder. With his fingers he motioned 220 yards. I couldn’t believe we were this close. I eased the handgun on top of the backpack for a steady rest.

We continued to glass and could see every sheep except the biggest ram. Some of the females got nervous and started to get up. I still couldn’t find the big ram. The fierce wind is blowing snow sideways. I’m getting edgy and anxious. Where is the big ram? All the sheep started to mix, mingle and meander away. When I finally spotted our ram, immediately the crosshairs of the Leupold scope came up behind his shoulder. I squeezed and the recoil caused me to lose the sight picture on the ram. The whole herd took off. I quickly loaded a round and somehow managed to find the ram in the scope and get another shot off before the herd disappeared. Malabek, who didn’t speak English, had a disgusted look on his face. I tried desperately to ask him where I hit the sheep. He just slowly shook his head. Had I just blown the ideal opportunity on a very nice ram?

This adventure was unfolding slightly north of the China border in the country of Kyrgyzstan. The Asian country is one of America’s closest allies in this part of the world. I didn’t realize just how important the location was to US interest until I noticed the military aircraft on the tarmac. There were many more US military planes at the airport than commercial aircraft. We traveled from Bishkek, to our hunting area south of the Naryn River about seven hours. We changed vehicles, graduating to a 4-wheel drive van. I had hunted in Kyrgyzstan twice previously and always found the people friendly and hunting incredible. There are primarily two species of mountain game enticing hunters to travel to this seemingly end-of-the world former Soviet bloc — ibex and Marco Polo sheep. I had taken a beautiful mid-Asian ibex on previous hunts. On this trip I was hoping to connect with a mature Marco Polo ram.

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Base camp where the hunt begins.

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Harsh winters take their toll on game, especially
the older animals like this ibex.

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Shepherds hut served as spike camp for one evening.

Long-Range Pistol

During this hunt I was using an H-S Precision Model 2000P pistol in 270 WSM. This is an extremely accurate bolt-action handgun. I had acquired a permit to hunt with this particular gun even though it would add another layer of challenge to the adventure. Darrell Holland’s Radial Baffle muzzle brake was installed and really helped tame the recoil. You can actually shoot this pistol one-handed. Leupold’s VX 3 riflescope, 4.5-14X with B&C reticle, was mounted in Leupold’s dual-ring system for the long-range shooting opportunity commonly encountered in the Tien Shan Mountains.

During the summer I had tested a variety of factory ammunition. There are a lot of good options available for this cartridge. Most all of the ammo with 130-grain bullets produced more than respectable groups. I settled on Federal Premium ammo with the Nosler 130-grain BT bullet. This ammunition shot less than MOA from distances out to 400 yards. Yes, I was expecting the possibility of shooting a ram at this distance. I certainly didn’t want to shoot a ram at this range, but after talking to many other hunters who experienced sheep hunting in Kyrgyzstan, it was a real possibility. Providing you know the exact range, Leupold’s B&C reticle affords the ability to shoot at extended ranges without a lot of guesswork.

Early the first day, four of us left base camp and rode horses up the Atbashi River. To access sheep habitat in this rugged mountain range, horses are the best and only option. Incidentally, the horses are well adept in this harsh environment, precipitous terrain, and are capable of going places most of us think of as impossible. Malabek, our head guide, was followed by his 22-year-old assistant Cherro, and both of these guys knew the area well. Malabek not only knew every inch of the country, but also knew the habits of these animals.

My Russian outfitter — Nikolai Khokhlov of East-West Safari’s — had organized this hunt and would be guide, interrupter, story-teller, and hopefully, a good luck charm. Luckily for me, Nikolai had actually been on many trips to Kyrgyzstan and knew everything about the details and hunting strategy for Marco Polo. Plus, he was a very pleasant chap and spoke English. We rode approximately five hours through beautiful mountain scenery and set up camp in a shepherd’s hut for the night.

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Hunting at higher elevations is part of sheep hunting.

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A well-deserved lunch break is always a special time.

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Even the horses deserve a break from climbing mountains.

Extreme Altitude

Early the next morning we rode horses up the mountain and started glassing for sheep around 12,500′. It wasn’t long until Malabek spotted seven rams feeding. The sheep were located slightly below us about a mile away. It was a perfect setup as we could hike down the long, knife-life ridge concealing our presence as we closed the distance. The last few yards we crawled up behind a huge rock. The huge boulder provided a great hiding place as we watched the seven rams feed directly below us at 200 yards. I couldn’t believe we were this close as you can see for miles in this terrain. There is not a tree in sight.

Malabek and Nikolai were whispering back and forth, trying to decide which ram was the biggest. I made sure the gun was loaded and ready. As I checked the setting on the scope and put my earmuffs on, I thought about how lucky we were to get an opportunity this early in the hunt. Well, I shouldn’t have thought about this as the next thing I knew the sheep were off and running. They didn’t see us but the swirling winds may have spoiled our stalk. Whatever made them nervous put them out of range in seconds. With a healthy population of wolves in the area, once these sheep suspect danger they flat out leave. Not for just a few yards and turn around to look back — they disappear! We hunted the rest of the day and didn’t see as many sheep as Malabek was expecting.

The next morning we loaded all of our gear and headed up the river for new territory. After about three hours of riding we spotted two groups of sheep. There were two males working toward our position close to the river. On the snow-covered mountainside directly above them were approximately 20 sheep with one very good ram in the mix.

We unloaded all of our gear off the horses. Whatever happens in the next few hours, we would come back and set up camp here for the night. Using ditches that feed in to the river, we could stay out of sight, cross the river and position ourselves to intercept the two lone rams. This worked like a charm but as it turned out; neither ram was big enough to gain our interest. The rest of the day we spent trying to get within range of the herd but things just didn’t come together. We made it back to our gear, setup two small tents and enjoyed dinner by the river.

The following days provided magnificent scenery with beautiful clear skies and cold weather. It was the first part of November and not a lot of snow had blanketed the mountains yet. The guides were actually hoping for more snow in order to drive the sheep to lower elevations. We spotted several groups of ibex including some big males. Some days we located several sheep although the big, mature rams were eluding us. Looking for a big ram sometimes entails a lot of glassing and covering as much real estate as humanly possible. This is classic sheep hunting. After 15 wild sheep hunts in various parts of the world, I’m still trying to figure out if I’m a sheep hunter.

Unlike some dedicated, passionate, purists seeking whitetail deer or wild turkey, or perhaps elk — sheep hunters are a different group. These hardcore hunters endure trials and tribulations many hunters simply would not tolerate. Sleeping in small tents in freezing weather, making difficult climbs in lung-burning altitude, under harsh conditions, with little food and zero comforts for days are just a part of the game. Sheep hunting makes grown men do things ordinary folks just don’t comprehend. As crazy as it sounds, it’s these extreme conditions that make the hunt all that more memorable and rewarding. If you’re lucky, a big ram will be in your pack at the end of the hunt. Then, you start planning your next sheep hunt. I was continually optimistic during this hunt. Good guides, good area and good company go a long way in making a successful hunting adventure.

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Spending time behind optics in search of rams is a big part of the day.

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Getting a solid rest from a backpack is essential for long-range shooting.

Hard Hunting

We hunted hard every day. The guides worked very hard and were bound and determined to find sheep. This is no cakewalk for hunters or guides. And absolutely nothing happens quickly. We searched a lot of different mountain ranges; sometimes we would spot sheep and work in closer for a better look. Some days we couldn’t find any rams. By the end of the eighth day we had hunted a large portion of the mountains up the river. Malabek and Nikolai decided to return to base camp for a day or two in a different area. A change of scenery, sauna and home-cooked meal didn’t sound bad either.

Early on the ninth day we decided to take one more look in an area not previously hunted. We crossed the raging river in front of our tents and slowly made our way to the top of the mountain. We glassed a lot of territory. It was around mid-day and we hadn’t located any sheep so we headed back to camp, loaded all of our gear, and rode back to base camp arriving just before dark. The sauna and hot meal were worth the trip.

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Everyone was thrilled when this dandy ram was taken on the last day.

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Back at base camp, the guides and staff enjoy luxury and a hot meal.

The Last Day

After a good night’s rest we hit the trail early on our tenth and final day of hunting. Before we reached the top of the mountain several sets of fresh tracks could be seen in the snow. We followed them for quite some time and then spotted 19 sheep with one nice ram in the bunch. As they walked over the crest of the mountain, we all thought it would be ideal to sneak over the ridge and be within range. Ah, that would be too perfect! Before we made it to the top of the ridge the sheep were spotted running to our left, over the adjacent mountain. We spent most of the day trying to get on these sheep. As we climbed to the top of one mountain, they would be going over the next peak. This cat and mouse game went on for several hours.

Luckily, the snow-covered terrain allowed us to follow their tracks. They finally bedded down in some rocks on the upper side of a long, huge valley. There wasn’t any good way to approach these sheep. After much discussion, we decided it was best if Malabek and I tried to sneak up the valley and approach the herd alone. It was getting late in the day and we needed to execute a plan pretty quick. At least the wind was in our favor even though it was blasting us in the face.

After my two shots mentioned earlier, all the sheep had disappeared. I told Malabek we must look for blood even though he thought I cleanly missed the ram. I couldn’t believe I had botched both shots! Not that I never miss but everything looked and felt good when I pressed the trigger. After we searched the area and never found any sign of a hit, my heart began to sink in despair. I replayed the shots over and over again in my head. Maybe I rushed the shot and didn’t get a good squeeze of the trigger. I thought the wind might have been a factor but at that range it couldn’t have been an issue. I just didn’t want to believe I had missed and I didn’t have any excuse.

It’s a horrible feeling when you think you’ve just blown a fairly easy shot at a magnificent animal, after 10 days of hunting! Malabek said we would ride the horses further up the valley and then look back up the mountainside where the sheep disappeared. When we reached a spot where we could see the entire area, part of the mountainside not visible from where I shot, Malabek began glassing. A moment later he turned to me with a big grin on his face. He had spotted the ram lying next to a big rock. My disposition turned from an all-time low to ecstatic. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. We were all jubilant. Taking a nice ram on the last day of the hunt was incalculably rewarding. It was genuinely an experience I’ll never forget.

This adventure had been well organized by friend Wade Derby of Crosshair Consulting and I am very grateful for all of his organizational skills. There were no unpleasant surprises. Just like my previous hunts in Kyrgyzstan, the people were friendly and the hunting remained incredible. Mountain hunts like this may not be for everyone but I can sincerely tell you they provide special memories. I can’t wait to return! 
By Mark Hampton

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