“Bow bullet go right through?” Sanjar, my friend and guide, whispered while we watched the big sweeping horned billie stumble off his rocky throne, across the snow into the cliffs. Sanjar always referred to arrows as “bow bullets.” “Yes. Right though,” I replied. Puzzled and bewildered, he tapped me on the shoulder again, “Bow bullet go right through!?” I was trying to contain my excitement, “Right through!” I whispered back. His eyes were glued to my binoculars, “Ahhhhhhh,” he replied, stunned.
Stunned as well, I set down my bow and pulled down my facemask. The blowing ice crystals and cold, thin air felt refreshing, a relief from the chaos just moments before. High in the Tien Shan Mountains, well above 15,000 feet and mere steps from the Chinese border, I had just arrowed a big Mid-Asian Ibex. But let’s start from the beginning…
Thirty-two year-old Sanjar has been guiding Mid-Asian Ibex and Marco Polo sheep hunts for 17 years just as his father, a legendary guide, did in the same area for many years. To date, he has successfully guided over 160 Marco Polo rams, 75 wolves and many more Mid-Asian Ibex hunts. However, he had never guided a bowhunter before. Until I showed up with my bow, he had never even seen or held a bow and arrow. Earlier in the hunt we spotted a giant billie on the highest point in the entire mountain range. The mountain towered over all the other peaks and pressed up against the Chinese border. Sanjar pulled away from the spotting scope pointing to the booming mountain.
“Bin Laden!!” he exclaimed in broken English, “You know??? You know Bin Laden???” gesturing to a beard. We laughed. The name was fitting. This grumpy old bearded billie wouldn’t leave the safety of his lair and anxiously paced the cliffs. For the next couple days we watched a band of billies feeding on the steep slopes below Bin Laden’s bunker. In the mornings they filtered up the mountain, seeking safety in the cliffs where they would bed for the day. As the evening rolled around, they would shake off the afternoon slumber and move again. Our ibex, Bin Laden as he became known, almost always stayed unreachable, high and safe in the nastiest cliffs. His movements were rare and methodical and he remained impossible to pin down.
On the sixth morning we awoke in cold darkness, had tea and I shot a few practice arrows in the predawn haze. After some horse riding, hiking and glassing, we located the band of billies. In the darkness they had fed across the mountain farther than we had expected, well away from their cliffy hideout. Busted! Bin Laden and his crew had been caught out in the daylight away from the safety of their lair. It was obvious they felt uncomfortable on the exposed slope and Sanjar and I knew there wouldn’t be many chances to catch these ibex away from their unapproachable hideout. Our slim window of opportunity was upon us, but it would close fast.
As the sun was coming over the mountains, the billies started moving back to the cliffs. We charged for the top to a spot we thought would intercept them, and although the air was thin, we moved fast. His experience navigating the cliffs and boulders was truly incredible. Out of breath, we cautiously picked our way across the rolling moon rock summit where the steep valley walls met. Suddenly, the unmistakable crashing and slashing of hooves came blaring over the edge of the mountain. We hunkered down, anticipating where the billies would cross.
My heart was no longer racing from the thin air and steep climb. It was now pounding from what was surely to happen. Shaking, I nocked an arrow and ranged some possible rocks the band would cross.
Suddenly, horns crested the steep rock walls as a parade of sweeping horned billies nervously trotted up and over the exposed mountaintop. Still shaking, I gripped my bow and started to range. “107, 110, 113” I was out of range. All we could do was watch as the billies scurried to safety. I didn’t want to admit it, but in a way I was relieved there was no shot opportunity. I couldn’t stop shaking with excitement. We lay hidden in the shale, the ibex none the wiser to our presence. Sanjar looked back with a huge grin “BOWHUNTING!!” he exclaimed, “This bowhunting is very exciting!!” We were close, very close. As the last ibex moved out of sight, we jumped to our feet and ran to the cover of a nearby boulder in case a paranoid billie came back over the ridge to check his back trail. We devised a plan for the rest of the afternoon and a route that would lead up a high glacier pass to the backside of the mountain where Bin Laden dwelled.
On the glacier the elements were raw. Sharp needles of ice propelled by a harsh wind took no mercy, stinging our exposed skin and blowing us back on the slippery ice floor. Luckily, we were only an hour on the glacier. At the mountain’s base we reconfirmed our route, discussed the wind, put our heads down and started climbing. Our excitement building, Sanjar and I climbed hard and fast through the steep jagged shale, through the treacherous cliffs to the top of the ridge. Our stops were brief and few to check the wind and route. At the top, I unstrapped my bow, double checked my rangefinder and cinched up my release. It was about to get rowdy. I slung on my pack and pulled down my facemask. Sanjar gestured to a beard and pointed up the ridge smiling and excited, but focused. Go time! Not a word was said. We bumped fists and started our stalk.
The ridge was tricky to navigate and technical, but in short order we spotted four guard billies on the skyline 125 yards ahead. We expected Bin Laden to be just on the other side. At the highest point in the mountain range, over 15,000 feet above sea level and steps from the Chinese border, we had the billies cornered. We were within striking distance. It was only a matter of time before the guard billies would stand and feed over the edge into the cliffs, allowing us to make our move. To have any chance we had to close the distance by at least half, however we couldn’t advance without being exposed. Stuck in a cliffy chute, we found footing and waited before continuing the stalk. For the time being the steep chute was our only available hiding spot. The footing was terrible. There was barely enough rock along the edges to get our toes on. I latched my fingertips into tiny cracks that were hardly big enough for my fingernails. I alternated hands to shake out some of the soreness. On our tiptoes we could see just enough to keep track of the watchful guard billies. It was a true mental and physical test.
Finally, one by one the guard billies stood, but they did not move. They stood motionless, staring. Staring up, down, north, south, they just stood and stared. They stood for so long I was beginning to think they had turned to stone. My fingers, feet and legs were numb and the billies just continued to stare. After 45 intense minutes, the guard billies must have felt satisfied they were secure, safe enough to move down into the cliffs on the other side. One after another all four crested the ridge and disappeared out of sight.
I took one last look towards where the ibex had been and turned to Sanjar, “Down?” I motioned to an 8-foot drop into a “pool” of shale rock at the bottom of the cliffs. We let go, falling straight down and splashing into the shale like a pair of ungraceful drivers. The fall spat us out and away from the ridge but regained our bearings and ran back for the ridge, closing the distance fast. Now above 15,000 feet, we ran to the last spot we had seen the guard billies. The last 20 yards required a rowdy cliff jump. We were now steps from peaking over. I dropped my pack, handed Sanjar my binoculars and released the lock on my sight. “Pick a spot,” I told myself.
Like two wolves we moved slowly to the edge. Just then, Sanjar grabbed my shoulder, “Ibex!” I slid up his way to the edge for a better look, “Very big! Big! Very big!” Sanjar whispered, still grasping my shoulder. Bin Laden stood motionless and dominant on a rocky pinnacle. His sweeping, deep grooved horns were unmistakably big amongst the other billies in the herd. I slid up to get a range. I’d made this shot a 1,000 times in my dreams and 1,000 more times in practice. I dialled in my sight, “Ready?” I whispered to Sanjar, lying motionless on the ridge. He didn’t even take his eyes away from the binoculars. Confidently he whispered back “DO IT!”
In one motion I drew my bow, leaned out on the edge of the cliff and settled my pin on the big billie. His attention shifted, he swung his massive horns in my direction, locking onto my location. Too late! My arrow went speeding through the blowing wind and snow. The big billie kicked and turned for the cliffs. Sanjar yelped, “Good! Good!” Like ants that just had their nest penetrated and raided, the other billies scrambled in and out of cliffs, looking for an escape. It was utter chaos. Ibex scrambled in every direction. Horns and bodies bumping each other, while rocks and snow tumbled and crashed. Our ibex didn’t go 30 yards. Sanjar sat shocked. For 15 minutes he tried to replay and re-live the events that had just unfolded. Then, as though he solved a puzzle, he shot his fist in the air shouting, “Champion!”
Through Sanjar, at that very moment, I was experiencing bowhunting for the first time. There was no doubt that he felt, like me, the unmistakable and intangible exhilaration of stalking into bow range and the sight of an arrow connecting with a big, mature mountain animal. I was incredibly lucky to have shared that moment and bowhunting with Sanjar. We live worlds apart, hunt in different countries for different animals with different weapons. Yet despite all our differences, at that very moment, Sanjar and I shared the unrivalled thrill and closeness with nature and the indescribable appreciation that only bowhunting can provide.