The rough warm coat of the fallen tur felt like the most comfortable pillow I could imagine. It had been a torturous week of climbing and waiting for a break in the weather, but my perseverance had paid off. Now all I had to do was make it back down the mountain alive.
I had dreamed of this hunt since January, when I attended the Reno SCI convention and was the winning bidder for a unique hunting experience donated by Sergei Shushunov and Oleg Potechkin of Russian Hunting Agency.
It was enjoyable telling my friends that I was going to North Ossetia to hunt for an East Dagestan tur.
“A what?” my friends asked. “A goat,” I answered. “In Russia. Near Chechnya, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?” they asked. “Isn’t there a war going on there? Aren’t there terrorists there?”
I had well-rehearsed answers to all of their questions, but as the hunting dates came closer, I began to wonder just what I might be in for. I had lain awake many nights worrying about the expedition. It is supposed to be pretty tough. Will my guides meet me at the airport? Will the Russians let me in? How about my rifle?
I met my guide, Oleg Potechkin, in Moscow, where he negotiated the red tape flawlessly. As we flew to Vladikavkaz I could see massive mountains rising from the steppes. Perhaps the tur I was after was looking back at me. At the airport, we were met by a bodyguard who loaded our bags into a Mercedes SUV with blacked-out windows.
At the hunting camp, we met the boss, Serra, a short, solid fellow in his mid-fifties with close-cropped hair and a Makarov on his belt. He is the chief director of hunting in North Ossetia. He explained the plan and issued the proper paperwork. Oleg and I were to share a suite in the luxurious lodge. From there we would head out to hunt a couple days at a time. Because we had not yet received authorization to enter the border area where the tur were, we decided to try first for Caucasus chamois.
Serra arrived early in the morning and took us to a small village an hour away where we met our guides. The rough-looking men shook hands with us and introduced themselves. Aslan was the leader and Saslan was the assistant leader. The group also included Alec, Yuri and two others. They wore mismatched uniforms and carried old and battered weapons, but they looked like they could run up and down the mountains all day long. We piled into a big truck along with some soldiers.
Chamois had been spotted in the next valley past some abandoned fortifications from the Georgian conflict the previous fall. I got out with two soldiers to climb a slope and get into position while the truck driver dropped off men with radios and binoculars along the road to glass for goats.
A group of chamois was spotted and I was vectored into position. With an audience of soldiers watching every move from below, we scrambled on the shale and boulders, edging slowly up and over ridges to try and get a glimpse of our quarry.
After six hard hours, we saw a group of 35 chamois in a valley below us. Attempts at asking the soldiers which ones to shoot were fruitless. I quickly picked what I thought was the best one and set up for a 340-yard shot.
Squeeze, squeeze — BANG!
The soldiers jabbered excitedly and pounded me on the back. We rushed to the crash site and carried the 85-pound goat a couple of thousand feet down the mountain to the men who had watched from below.
After photos and handshakes, we had another two-hour hike back to the truck. I worked pretty darn hard for my fourth chamois, a beautiful female with long, thick horns.
Rain and mist shrouded the landscape for the next few days, which I spent reading, napping and enjoying the outstanding food at banquets hosted nightly by Serra for local VIPs. I also visited a couple of local sites of interest, including the site of the Beslan school massacre, where from September 1-3, 2004, a dozen Chechnyan terrorists held more than a thousand children and teachers hostage. Several hundred were killed.
Finally, it was time to hunt for tur. My small Kelty pack was stuffed with enough gear for a two- or three-day assault on the Caucasus Mountains. We would climb to 13,000 feet up a 60-degree incline over loose shale and ice-covered boulders.
We reported to the guard detachment responsible for patrolling the mountainous border. After receiving authorization to enter the frontier zone, we wound our way up a narrow dirt track that ended at a bunker with a machine gun and two soldiers. From there we proceeded on foot. The rough and tangled path was once a road, but after countless washouts and rockslides, it was now a treacherous obstacle course. But I enjoyed the hike, which ended at a hot springs near the face of a large glacier. It was sunny and about 60 degrees.
Then came the hard part. The climb was easily the most strenuous physical activity I have ever undertaken. The mountain was rough, with rolling rocks, slippery moss and hidden crevasses. As we climbed higher, it got colder and windier, and the path became steeper. Ice and snow covered the hellish terrain. As we continued to ascend, I could feel the effects of reduced oxygen in the air. We eventually came to a cave where some meager supplies were stashed and we collapsed into our sleeping bags. It was terribly uncomfortable and I slept very little.
In the very early morning, we ascended another 1,500 feet, rushing to get into position before sunrise, when the tur usually arrive. Right on schedule, Aslan and Saslan spotted a group of tur making their way toward us. I hoped and prayed that I would get a shot.
Aslan motioned for me to get ready. Suddenly, I saw a small band of tur moving rapidly up the next peak. I picked the largest horns in the group and got ready to shoot. The distance was 380 yards, with a 15 mph cross wind. The down angle was 25 degrees, and we were at an elevation of 13,000 feet.
I concentrated and gently squeezed the trigger. The massive report surprised me, and I saw big, burly goats running everywhere. I lost sight of my target, but Aslan was hollering and pointing. I aimed again and tried to get the right animal in the crosshairs. There was my tur! He was 450 yards away, bleeding from a hit a bit far back and limping badly.
Another two shots followed, but I was almost certain they were off the mark. Aslan scrambled off with his rifle. He covered more ground in 20 minutes than I could have in an hour. I heard him speak excitedly over the radio, but Saslan, who does not speak English, couldn’t tell me what was going on. Then Oleg made his way to me and translated. Aslan had found my tur dead. We shook hands and worked our way over to the fallen tur.
I was extremely excited, and thanked God for helping me to be strong enough to do this hunt. I lay down on the animal, hugging his 250-pound body. What a magnificent beast! Aslan slapped me with his hat and then slapped the tur, as a show of respect for the hunter and for the sacrifice of the ram. Oleg took pictures and we got ready to leave.
The going was so treacherous that I soon had a headache from the stress of picking foot positions and taking chances as I descended. I made slow but steady progress, and relished the thought of a drink from the icy streams below. For 10 hours I struggled to stay focused so I did not end up hurt or dead. When I finally reached the bottom, I was spent. And I also was concerned about Oleg, who had to be carried down by the others because he had fallen into a ravine and injured both legs.
Alec and Yuri stayed with Oleg to keep him as comfortable as possible while the rest of us hiked out, loaded down with several hundred pounds of meat, trophies and supplies. Aslan raced ahead to get a horse for Oleg. Several hours later, Aslan returned with Oleg and we clambered into the truck to get him to a hospital.
I returned to the lodge to pack my things. I was glad the hunt worked out but I worried about Oleg, who I was counting on to get me safely out of the country. I thanked the guides, who although eager to get home, joined in one last vodka toast.
Several hours later, Oleg and I were riding to the airport in an ambulance. The gun paperwork and customs forms were a horror show of red tape, but eventually all the officials got their rubber stamps in the correct locations and I was free to leave Russia.
On the way home, I realized that I was in no hurry to repeat my Caucasus adventure. But there will come a time when I have forgotten about all the hardships and can remember only the glory of the Caucasus Mountains and my magnificent East Dagestan tur.– John F. Cedarberg IV