Hunting Marco Polo in The Pamir Mountains - A Hunting Journal
By Paul Hatzell
(Editor Note: If you have considered a Marco Polo hunt in Tajikistan, you must read Hunting Report subscriber Paul Hatzell's description of what to expect on this hunt.)
November 23, 2012
Since my mother gave me a book to read when I was 9, I have dreamed of hunting Marco Polo sheep, the magnificent argali of Asia. Now 56 years later I am in Khorog, Tajikistan, ready to drive the last seven hours to our hunting camp high in the Pamir Mountains. It has taken me five travel days to get this far. Our campsite sits at 13,500 feet. We will be hunting between 15,000 and 16,000 feet. I have been on Diamox for three days, hopeful it will help with the extreme elevation. There will be two other hunters besides myself, Ted, 60 from Houston and Jim, a 74-year-old dentist from Little Rock, AR. They are both good men, self-made, and Christian.
Yesterday we made a 360-mile drive from Dushanbe to Khorog. It was the rockiest, most horrible road to nowhere I have ever been on. We paralleled the Pyanj River separating Afghanistan and Tajikistan for 300 miles. I am told that we will be hunting in and out of both countries. At 15,000 feet in the snowbound Pamir's there are no other persons wandering around. My goal is a Marco Polo in the 58-inch range and a 40-inch ibex. Last night in the dark with a 100-foot drop off to the river, we came around a narrow rocky turn and were immediately blinded by thick dust in the headlights. The driver slammed on the brakes, and as the dust cleared there was a large yard rock slide 10 yards in front of us. One minute earlier and we would have possibly been pushed over the edge and into the river by the rocks. I have never seen country so steep, rocky and vertical as this part of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The people here are very friendly but the landscape is extremely foreboding and unforgiving. This is truly more an adventure than a hunt so far.
It's time to load the land cruiser and head for camp. I am excited to see what today has in store for us. Camp is at 13,500 feet, and we will be as high as 15,500 feet as we travel to camp. The country is like nothing I have ever seen. Very high mountains, long flat valleys and stunted vegetation. We see sheep, cattle, goat and yak herders until we pass 13,500 feet in elevation. After five hours we stop for lunch in Whitefish, Tajikistan. It consists of one two-room mud hut. Fried trout from the river, fresh baked flat bread and green tea. Of course there are two types of goat yogurt (horrible).
We arrive at camp just as it is getting dark. Camp is much better than I expected. We have running water, a shower, toilet, beds and it is clean.
November 28, 2012
Up at 6:30 still dark. A very restless night. You breathe better vertical than horizontal. Jim (my roommate) had a tough night.
We will sight in our guns soon and then be off. The Marco Polo are one to 1½ hours away from camp. We sight in and at 100 yards mine is one inch low. That concerns me as I had sighted it in before I left to be two inches high at 100 yards. I raise it five clicks and touch off another round. Now I am dead on at 100 yards. I leave it as it is, and off we go.
I have two guides, Tolibek and Mahmadi, plus a driver. We are in a Russian army jeep. 30 minutes into the drive I ask, "What are those off to our left?" "Marco Polo," says Mahmadi in a matter of fact tone. We pull off and glass the sheep. There are two rams and three ewes, nothing big enough to pursue. I feel pretty good about spotting the first bunch and establishing at least some hunting credentials. Another hour goes by, and we veer off of the road/trail. We drive slowly up a small hill for maybe 100 yards and in front of us and on both sides are herds of Marco Polo. There must be 500 sheep scattered about the valley and mountains in front of us. We glass for 15 minutes and then proceed up the valley. By now all of the sheep know we are there and are either watching us or moving off. We keep seeing more bands and stop to glass each time. This is a long three-mile valley surrounded by very high mountains. A mile or so into the valley Tolibek spots a really large ram. I made it clear to him earlier that I had plenty of time and wanted to hunt for a 58- to 60-inch sheep. He wanted to discuss the size of his tip, and I told him it would depend on the size of the sheep he could find. We all pile back into the jeep and go as fast as we can to get around the sheep.
We are successful and spot the small band coming down one mountain and wanting to cross a small valley. We get into position and the herd breaks into the clear broadside at 250 yards. The three rams all look big to me. "Just wait," says Tolibek, "I will tell you which one." I have never seen such a magnificent animal. It is awesome to witness how these 400-pound-plus animals carry themselves as they trot across the valley. The horns are so large that the rams draw their necks down closer to their shoulders, bunching up the neck muscles in order to carry the weight of their horns. This is a visual that I will remember for a long time. By now we have lost the broadside advantage and the sheep start heading up the opposite mountain. They are not travelling in a straight line, but moving constantly, changing positions. Tolibek is trying to tell me which one he is, but it keeps changing. I keep asking which one as I follow them in my scope. They get to the crest of the mountain and look back at us. "He is the last one," Tolibek says. Then immediately says, "No, he is the second one." I am totally confused and refuse to take a chance and shoot the wrong one. "Is he the one standing broadside?" I ask. "Yes, yes." But it is too late, the ram turns and heads over the mountain.
I am not disappointed and neither are they. They know the communication was not the best, and I did not want to make a mistake. We hunt to the end of the valley, see lots of sheep, but nothing we want. Tolibek decides we will go around these mountains and see if we can find him again. It really doesn't take very long because we can travel cross country. In 30 minutes we are on the other side and see sheep. No shooters, so we continue. As we drop down into the flat, Tolibek yells, "Wolf!" Sure enough there is a good wolf about 150 yards away. I jump out and the wolf only moves another 25 yards. It looks injured. Just then it starts to run parallel to me. I can see that it has a limp, but is moving pretty well. I acquire the wolf in my sight and boom the wolf is down. Then it is right back up and trying to keep going. Another shot slams it to the ground. I start walking toward the wolf and hear Mahmadi yelling, "Paul, Paul come on! Big ram!" I run back to the jeep, and we all scramble in. Mahmadi saw a band of rams spook nearby when I shot the wolf. They say one of them is 58 inches.
We go as fast as we can in the jeep. The rams are above us on our left and will most likely cross a small open area and then up another mountain. Our driver is pushing the four cylinder Russian jeep as hard as he can. We are just barely able to hold on. We reach the cut in the mountain and the rams are already crossing. Both guides glass again and confirm that we want this ram. We make our way up the cut as fast as possible in the jeep - when we are as far as we can go, we jump out and get in position for a shot. I have a rest on my back pack and will shoot off of the hood. "He is the first one" Tolibek says. The range is 380 yards. It is difficult to acquire the ram in my scope because of the extreme angle. The mountain goes almost straight up, and the steep incline is the only reason the rams are still on our side. I acquire the ram and he is standing looking back right at the top of the mountain. He is quartering slightly to the right. I mentally say to myself high/high, low/low. So I aim about 8 inches high and squeeze off the round.
The 150 grain corelok strikes and we hear a loud whap! The ram stumbles over the top trying to go to his left. "It was a good hit," Tolibek exclaims. Both guides walk further up the cut we are in and spot the ram. He is lying down about 100 yards from where I hit him. Then he is up and moves a few more yards before stopping again. The ram is in very deep snow and very steep rocky terrain. Our guides decide we should have lunch before following up the ram. Let him lay down and bleed out. We have hot tea, salami, cheese, onion, and bread. Thirty minutes and we are ready to go see what we have. Seeing what I have left in my 65-year-old-tank would become the real question.
I give my rifle to Mahmadi, and I take my walking sticks and my camera. I just saw how long it took the Marco Polo sheep to go up that mountain. We are over 15,500 feet in elevation and going higher. The climb/walk is absolutely torturous. The guides have to wait for me all the time. The walking sticks work great. With them I can use both arms and legs. A lot of the movements are very similar to the elliptical machine I have been working out on. I am having no problem at all with muscle strength. However, I am having major issues getting enough oxygen. I have been taking Diamox for four days and am thankful for that. I start setting incremental goals to reach before I stop again. This works and I slowly make my way up the mountain.
We get to where I hit the ram and there is a lot of blood. This gives me an energy boost and I try to push harder. Another 300 yards and I catch up to the guides who are waiting for me. We take a few minutes to discuss the situation. They want to go up and over the mountain. Considering his condition, I think the ram will take an easier route through a saddle to our left. We discuss this for a few minutes and decide on a course that will take us up and over the mountain. I am exhausted and consider handing them the gun and telling them to go on without me. That is short-lived as I am immediately disgusted with the idea. We forge on another 250 yards and suddenly Tolibek is speaking rapidly and pointing to the left. The ram took the easier course I wanted to take anyway and is stumbling up a side mountain.
My chest is heaving. I take a kneeling position and touch off a prayer, no result. I tell Mahmadi to lie down and let me get a steady rest. The ram has stopped again and is at 150 yards. I have more oxygen now and acquire the ram in my scope. He is standing straight away and looks about as worn out as I feel. At the shot we hear the familiar whap and the ram is rolling down the mountain. He comes to a stop and starts rolling again. What a sight to behold. Mahmadi makes his way quickly to the ram. He kneels down in front of the ram and makes a sign similar to the sign of the cross and bows his head in prayer. He is thanking Mohammad for the gift for the animal. This is a ritual that he follows after every kill. I am elated that I was able to complete the follow up.
The ram is beautiful. He broke off a small piece of his horn as he was rolling but I don't care. He is also not 58 inches, but 56 inches, and I still don't care. We take a few pictures but not as many as we should. The wind is howling, and I am exhausted. We make our way down the mountain to the jeep. We pick a narrow snow chute, and the ram is fairly easy to slide on his back. What took two hours to ascend takes 30 minutes to descend. We load the ram and head back to retrieve the wolf. There is already a crow pecking at the wolf. The wolf is a mature female. I was hoping for a male but that was not to be. Sure enough she had a bad wound on her lower left front leg. It was most likely a bullet wound from the group before us because she is in very good shape. My first wolf turns out to be an Asian wolf. Interesting. Well, back to base camp with our first day's catch of two wonderful trophies. Tomorrow we will go after mid-Asian ibex.
November 29, 2013
We are out at 7:30, and it is still dark. The sun will be up soon, and it will be dark again around 6:15. I am excited to hunt ibex, as they have always intrigued me. It snowed a little last night, which kept the temperature at 10º. The wind is blowing 30 mph and gusting to 40 mph. Eldor is going to accompany us. Eldor is in charge of the camp and is a good guy. Ibex are in the steepest, rockiest terrain imaginable. Country so difficult that at the first sign of danger they are quickly up and into the rock cliffs to avoid any predator. We hunt mostly from the jeep locating a viable trophy. Once located we will try a stalk if possible and if not make a full frontal charge with the jeep. In this case the shot will be long and most likely at a moving target. I will have two shooting opportunities like this today. I could have and should have made the one at 440 yards. The wind was blowing 30 mph in our face and I hit five inches low, according to Tolibek.
We found another ram in an inaccessible place. He was at least 40 inches, and I watched him use those long horns to scratch his back twice. This was through a spotting scope. We also saw several ibex squaring off and bashing horns. They would rise all the way up on their back legs then charge at close range. It was quite a sight. We located four very good rams bedded under a rock ledge and decided to make a stalk. The wind was still howling, and the higher we climbed the more the wind swirled and blew in all directions. We had the vehicle below watching the ibex so that if they moved we could abort our stalk. The climb was grueling even though Mahmadi carried my gun and I only had a walking stick. We were almost to the top where we would be in position to shoot when the radio crackled that the ibex must have gotten our wind and were running. I tried to get to the top as fast as I could, but by then they were at 550 yards and walking. The sun was setting over the mountain top; the wind was blowing snow in our face and all over the mountain. I picked the largest ram, tried to make the necessary windage adjustments and touched off the shot. At the same moment a big gust of wind kicked up the snow between us and the ibex. We could not even tell if I lucked out. I didn't, and a couple of minutes later we could see him still moving up the mountain with the others. If the wind had not given them our scent I would have had an easy 200-yard shot. Such is hunting. Tolibek called for the jeep and we made our way down the mountain.
When I got back to camp Jim was there. He had wounded a nice Marco Polo, and the guide came back to camp for the tracking dog. Jim could never make the climb necessary, so he is waiting in camp. A little later, Ted gets back and he too has wounded a Marco Polo. As Ted is telling Jim and me his story the guides break in to give Jim the good news. They were successful, and Jim runs out to see his trophy. Hopefully, they will be able to locate Ted's animal tomorrow. Tomorrow I will be after ibex again.
Friday, November 29
Tolibek wants to leave earlier, but I want to check the zero on my rifle before we head out. One bench rest shot at 400 yards, and there is no problem with the rifle. We are heading for Tolibek's special ibex place. The day is sunny and clear with only a 10-15 mph winds. The temperature is 20º below zero. The special place holds just one herd of 20 ibex with no shooters. We travel about 45 minutes to another area, and Mahmadi sees a herd up on a slope. They glass quickly and we move closer in the jeep. All the time the ibex are watching us. As the jeep moves forward the ibex take off into the high rock chutes.
We check another area and a herd is spotted about a mile away. After glassing with the spotting scope, we confirm that there are two shooters (38-inch ibex) in the herd. We do not want to spook them so we swing away from them and head up the valley. All the time Mahmadi and Tolibek are discussing strategy. What they have decided is that we will hike to a point ¾ of the way up the mountain, to get above the herd. I ask Tolibek how far we will hike, and he says 750 meters. I check with my rangefinder and it is more like 1,100 yards. Big difference at this altitude. We put on our white camo and head out. This is another difficult climb due to the very steep terrain and snow covered rocks. We are in no hurry as the ibex should be lying down taking a nap. Our driver has taken up a position about a mile and a half away and is supposed to keep us informed of any movement the ibex make. It takes us a very strenuous hour to get to the place Tolibek has identified. As usual, the mountain does not give us a view of the canyon below. We hike higher into the vertical cliffs and try to obtain a position from which we can see the Ibex in the canyon below.
Tolibek tries the radio to confirm the ibex position relative to our position on the mountain. The driver is either asleep or his radio isn't working. We make our way through the spires and about 30 ibex are 400 yards above us on the opposite side wondering what we are. We glass them, but the two big rams are not with them. We climb higher and the herd scatters up and over the nastiest spires imaginable. Tolibek is furious. We hiked all this way when the driver could have contacted us and saved us the climb. Back at the truck the driver receives an earful. After they settle down we drive to a spot for lunch. My stomach has been bothering me, so I just have a slice of cheese, a chocolate bar and hot tea.
We are off again and come across three wild yaks. Tolibek asks if I want to shoot one. I decline. We move on and Mahmadi spots some ibex close to us. Both he and Tolibek jabber excitedly and we move forward quickly with the jeep. "Big ram, big ram!" exclaims Tolibek. The ibex are only 300 yards away. The jeep stops, and we all bail out. Tolibek throws my backpack on the hood and I settle in to shoot. Tolibek calls out the yardage and tries to tell me which ram is the biggest. The ibex are moving parallel to us at 330 yards now, but I cannot find the Big One in my scope. I see a nice one but not a 38- to 4-inch ram. Tolibek is getting frustrated because I am not shooting. I am frustrated because I cannot locate the Big Ram. The last ibex is now gone from sight. "Why no shoot?" Tolibek exclaims. "Because I could not find the big ram in the scope, and I did not want to shoot the wrong one," I counter. I unload and we get back in the jeep. The mountain takes a sharp left turn in front of us. "Maybe we can find them again" I remark. "We will try" says Tolibek.
We move around the mountain and there the herd is travelling in single file. They are on the side hill about 525 yards. We bail out, and I set up for the shot. "He is third one, big black one," whispers Tolibek. "The third one?" I repeat. "Yes, yes, shoot him, shoot him!" shouts Tolibek. The ibex are in the snow running parallel at 525 yards. "I can make this shot," I tell myself. I know my bullet drop at that range and there is very little wind. I lead the ibex as you would an antelope, elevate a foot above his head and squeeze off the shot. Whap! The 150 grain corelok has found its target. The ibex is tumbling down the steep snow-covered mountainside. Mahmadi is on his back making snow angels, screaming and laughing. Tolibek is jumping up and down saying over and over again, "What a shot, great shot." I can hardly believe it myself. I know the ram is either spine shot or head shot to just fold immediately on impact. He is hit high in the back just in line with the shoulder. Tolibek and Mahmadi climb the mountain and roll the trophy down through the snow. As I watch through the binocs and I can see that the ram is much smaller than the 38-inch minimum I spent so much time discussing with my guides. In fact I saw this ram the first time and easily could have killed him at 300 yards. I tell Tolibek this and explain why I did not shoot earlier. Enough of that, the ibex is a fine trophy at 34 inches. I made a tremendous shot, and now I can start the five-day journey home.
This is a rugged, magnificent part of God's creation. The people are happy and eager to please. I have fulfilled a lifelong dream in hunting the truly magnificent Marco Polo. I have met new friends, James and Ted. I know that at 65 I will never attempt a hunt like this again. The terrain and altitude combine to make this more of an endurance test than a normal hunt. Like Vietnam, I would not trade the experience for anything. But at the same time I have no desire to repeat them.