Heaven’s Hunting Ground, By Kristoffer Griffith

I’ve always felt a deep connection with mountain hunting; you may even call it a love. The mountains provide the perfect environment for the adventurous hunter, as some of the most incredible big game species call them home. Few places embody the spirit of mountain hunting like that of the Tian Shan Mountains of Central Asia.

This adventure started a year ago when myself and a friend decided we were going to embark on the holy grail of mountain hunting; mid-Asian ibex in Kyrgyzstan. The excitement throughout the year was almost unbearable, often my mind drifted to those steep high slopes in search of the large ungulates with sweeping scimitar horns. Our preparation was key as the brutal terrain has no mercy on those that show no respect, and many hours were spent researching and training, trying to replicate our journey at home on our own hunting grounds. Finally, we settled on our equipment choosing Leica optics for their incredible optical performance and durability and Fjallraven clothing which kept us safe and comfortable in the unforgiving climate.

At last, the time had come. Jacob and I found ourselves boarding our Turkish Airlines flight to Bishkek. The journey went surprisingly quick, partly due to daydreaming of huge ibex and argali wandering the endless peaks. After arriving at Bishkek, we were not only incredibly relieved to see our rifles and gear but also warmly welcomed by our outfitter, who helped process our equipment and firearms into Kyrgyzstan.

Our journey to camp began with a thirteen-hour 4×4 drive. As we drove along the snaking roads the landscape morphed into mountains that grew higher with every passing mile. We swapped tales of hunting and stopped periodically to sample the superb local cuisine, allowing our tired drivers to rest.

It was dark when we eventually arrived at camp, our home for the next eleven days, at an elevation of 10,000 feet. We were greeted by our guides and shook their hands enthusiastically, each one telling us their names as best they could in English. We were led into the small hut, it was warm and comfortable. The hospitality was immediately apparent as plates of food and cups of warm tea were brought to us until we could eat no more. We feasted that evening like kings. I barely slept that night in anticipation of the hunt ahead. I awoke the next morning full of energy, and we dined on eggs, bread and more tea.

After breakfast we checked the zero on our rifles, I’d chose to bring my lovely lightweight custom 7×64 Brenneke built on a BAT Machine Co. action and Jacob opted for his custom 300 win mag. A few clicks were required on both rifles to get them dead nuts — even though they were on track before the flights it’s always best to double check. I shot all three Noslers out of my 7×64 into a nice 1/2 inch cluster at 200 yards. Our guides were most intrigued by our top end rifles and optics, particularly the Leica HD-B with the ballistic program built-in. I even gave my guide a couple of shots to break the ice and he was ecstatic when he hit a bottle of water at 300 yards.

With the pleasantries and rifle sight-in out of the way, it was now time to hunt. After packing the horses we were waved off by the staff as we rode into the mountains. The terrain in Krygystan is jaw dropping, I was totally in awe of the dramatic and vast mountainous landscape. Snow covered peaks towered into the heavens well over 20,000 feet with steep slopes and vertical cliffs bowing before them. We gradually ascended higher and higher on horseback, driving into the heart of ibex territory. Only stopping at strategic locations to glass for our quarry, we spotted over twenty ibex with a single billy amongst them. We stalked closer, crawling over the ridge 300 yards from them while hugging the rocks to avoid detection. We watched them for twenty minutes, fascinated. They are amazing animals perfectly adapted to their environment, skipping and hopping on faces that would have lesser beasts trapped. The billy was the most majestic thing I’d ever seen — a master of his domain. He stood proudly over his harem, his coat black and his horns impressive. After peering at him in the binos for ten minutes we decided to pass as it was still the first day. We left the ibex in peace to feed and bed down opting to go find a camp for ourselves.

Eventually, we found a camp, the only flat area we could find off the ridges and out the frigid wind. We pitched our tents in the snow before settling down to feast and swap hunting tales, through a mix of broken English and animated hand gestures. Sleep that night was dreadful; I was damp and the cold ground snatched any warmth I had. I was glad to see morning and packing my gear gave me some much-needed warmth. Breakfast was interesting to say the least, a small tear of frozen bread which I defrosted between my legs. The scalding sweet tea, however, was most welcome. We packed camp onto our horses and set off to the south, moving deeper into the mountains.

For the next five days, we hunted, moving to high vantage points to glass below for ibex. Often going above 16,500 feet, I found hiking in that altitude brutal — each step is painful and your body gasps for the little oxygen available. We had spotted and stalked many ibex by this point. Some were impossible to get to without killing ourselves due to the terrain, whilst others had spooked at our approach with their supernatural senses. By the fifth night in camp, we were all exhausted. I was tired, hungry and burnt, blisters on my nose and lips throbbed with pain and my right knee ached from a tumble on the horse. We ate the last of our food that night, only a pack of small noodles and two tea bags to share between three of us. The temperature plummeted to eighteen below that night but I slept rather well, likely due to exhaustion. With no food left, breakfast consisted of a warm cup of sweet tea, which warmed my bones and was one of the best cups of tea I’ve tasted.

While breaking down camp after breakfast the unthinkable happened. A small group of ibex with one billy broke the skyline above us. We all froze, literally. Three sets of binos all raised in sync to assess our quarry. He was a beautiful ibex, maybe not the biggest we had seen all week but a great representative. I removed my rifle from the Vorn pack and cycled a round into the chamber, relieved to find my action not frozen solid. The BAT action locked the carefully hand loaded round up like a bank vault, ready to speed its way to our prey. I raised the Leica’s to get a range. Within the sight picture, they read back 441 yards c13. I dialed my scope up thirteen clicks, concurrently monitoring the wind. The wind was five-to-six miles per hour at two o’clock. Holding steady, I made the relevant wind correction and settled behind the rifle.

Cold hands gripped the stock and a numb trembling finger rested on the trigger with a feathers touch. The ibex wandered up and finally turned broadside for a shot. This was it, a year of planning, preparation and dreaming all hinges on this moment. Success determined by the touch of a trigger. I settled my breathing and hovered the crosshairs over the heavily muscular shoulder. I squeezed the trigger slowly, the rifle’s report caught me by surprise as my frozen fingers couldn’t feel the trigger break. Losing sight of my target briefly the report echoed around the steep-sided valley. The reassuring smacking sound of the bullet against flesh and bone followed, a sound familiar to experienced rifle hunters. The ibex dropped onto his chest and lurched forward with his hind legs cresting the ridge and out of sight. I quickly reloaded, mostly from muscle memory and instinct, and fixated my attention down range. Silence ensued only for a few seconds but it felt like a lifetime. The muzzle report rolled its way down the valley before dying in the distance. The guides jumped up and down with gold-toothed smiles beaming across their weathered faces, shouting and chanting with praise. I was elated, I knew I’d made a good shot from the reaction but as every big game hunter knows it’s not over until you have recovered the animal. I unloaded the rifle and climbed on top of the horse so we could make our way across the valley to recover our prize.

Our horses traversed the mountain, panting their way uphill to the shot site. The ibex’s blood was a great contrast in the snow and easily read as not only lung blood but that unmistakably bright blood that comes from a heart shot. The blood trail lead down an incredibly steep slope indicating the ibex slid as opposed to ran, and I became more optimistic that the animal was dead. Our guide shook his head, “bad, bad place”. He was, of course, referring to the ridiculously steep slope we were facing. We dismounted the horses and went down on foot, though it would be more accurate to describe it as controlled falling instead of descending. Several times I fell, sliding twenty yards in some cases, before getting purchase in the scree or snow with panicky flailing limbs. The horses tumbled, somersaulted and skidded, loose rocks dangerously bounced past us. We eventually found our trophy, with help from the eagles that had got to it first.

After an hour of descending, I finally put my hands on it. His gorgeous cracked and heavily broomed horns told tales with every age ring, his beard was long and black his coat soft. At that moment I felt that wave of emotion, an emotion only privileged to hunters, an indescribable mixture of feelings that bombards your senses. Till the day I die, I will remember the feeling of my cold hands running through his coat and the feeling of the cracks and chips in his horns. The smell of his lifeless body and the sound of the horses panting as they stood above him looking down. I can still hear the wind blow with icy intent and the stream trickling below us. Eagles and ravens circled overhead unable to contain their excitement for the coming meal. This is the moment all hunters seek; the coming together of the beast, mountain, and man. This was the magical moment, and I gazed upon the ibex with utter admiration. He gave us an incredible journey, he leaves us his flesh to feed and his trophy to tell of his legacy. Thank you, my old friend.

We then began to process both trophy and meat. Nothing is wasted out here, not even the bones which are gratefully received by wolves and foxes. We drank tea as we cut and packed the meat, cape, and horns onto horses. The heart was even cooked at the kill site for lunch. This was the first bit of meat in several days and to this date, it is the most well-deserved meal of my life. It was deliciously cooked with onion and some spices from an empty noodle packet. With the processing done, we were back on the horses for basecamp. I peered over my shoulder to look back on where it all happened. A sense of sadness then took hold, this is the moment I’d dreamed of for years and it was now over. I didn’t want it to be done,  I wanted to experience it again. This feeling is what keeps us coming back to hunt remote and far-off lands, share hunting cultures and immerse ourselves in nature.

We arrived back at camp. The day was long, I was aching from riding and cold to my bones. The sight of smoke from the hut signaled much-needed warmth and my mouth watered at the thought of food. Congratulations were the theme of our welcome and we were whisked inside to the comfort of sheltered accommodation. I pigged out and slept like a princess that night — feeling completely at ease and content — amplified by success. Jacob arrived the following day, he too had been successful and had his own tale to tell. We left camp the next day to head back home but this time with farewells steeped in regret that such an adventure had come to close. Thirteen hours later we sat in a restaurant in Bishkek and told our stories over good food and drink, trying to recuperate our tired malnourished bodies. We left Bishkek without a hitch and collected our gear at Heathrow before heading home to loved ones eager to hear about our trips. I showed my wife photos and told tales of our exploits — it’s an experience I would love her to do soon.

As for me, the Tien Shan mountains call for me, I hear it in my dreams, my name carries on the wind as it howls around the peaks. I will be back, likely sooner than I think.

Posted by Adam Janke