So, a Hungarian, a Russian and an American were cramped up in a small tent one evening. Sounds like the beginning of some corny joke–it isn’t. The wind was howling and the heavy downpour was relentless. Everything was soaking wet, including our guns, boots and packs, not to mention our spirits.
My hunting partner, SCI Life-Member Tony Antal Beck, and I had endured a full day of rain and heavy fog. Our Russian guide and interpreter, Alex, half-heartedly told us tomorrow would be a better day. In a failed attempt we tried to organize our soaked stuff under the canopy of the tent. Weather can play havoc on hunters while pursuing bighorns on the Kamchatka Peninsula–it’s not really any different from hunting rams in Alaska–it’s just part of sheep hunting. My two previous hunts in Russia were nothing short of remarkable adventures. But anytime you hunt Kuban and mid-Caucasian tur you can almost bet the farm it’s going to be an experience you’ll remember and this hunt was shaping up to be another dandy!
It all started when we got stuck in Petropavlovsk due to inclement weather. For five long, boring, frustrating days we waited for the weather to break so we could fly to the hunting area. It was a hair-pulling, painful wait. I mentioned to Tony that if we were having trouble getting to the hunting area, what’s the chance of having the same problems when we try and return? Tony just shrugged it off.
When we did finally reach Palano, by both plane and helicopter, we loaded our gear into a Russian tank for a memorable twelve-hour ride to camp. That was a new experience for sure. Once we reached base camp, some much needed caffeine and breakfast gave us our second wind. All of our gear was transferred and loaded on horses as we took off for the mountains, following a small stream. Along the way, we saw lynx and bear meandering across the mountain splendor. After a two-hour picturesque horse ride, we assembled our tents and immediately began glassing. The two local guides, Victor and Anatoli, had spotted a band of sheep on the mountainside above our spike camp a couple of days prior to our arrival.
Despite sleep deprivation, we decided to hike up the mountain and look for those sheep. After losing five precious days of hunting, time was not on our side. It was a beautiful day and you could see for miles. The guides wanted Tony and me hunting together instead of going separate directions. Having an English speaking hunting partner was enjoyable. Even with a lot of glassing in a huge chunk of real estate, we couldn’t come up with any rams. The mountains were magnificent nonetheless.
In the days ahead we continued searching for the group of rams. Each day started with a steep climb to the top, then glassing for a while before hiking over the next ridgeline. It was classic sheep hunting at its best. Altitude on the Kamchatka Peninsula is not a factor, but steep climbs over broken shale slopes with jagged rocks that would make a great obstacle course for iron man competition are both common and challenging. The terrain was just plain nasty in certain places. No different than many sheep hunts I have experienced. Plus, there were a lot of bears!
A typical day can start with picture perfect sunny skies then, a few hours later, turn into a cold, bone-chilling rain with strong winds that choke the warmth right out of your soul. We were covering as much ground as humanly possible. There are times such as then when I wish I were thirty years younger. The rams were being most elusive and we couldn’t locate them in spite of our ongoing efforts. I have to hand it to Victor and Anatoli; they could flat out climb like goats. At times I felt like a snail in comparison. Victor would fire up a smoke while waiting for us to catch up. There is just something wrong with that picture!
I was definitely appreciating the Kimber Mountain Ascent rifle, weighing less than seven pounds mounted with the Leupold scope. Whoever designed this rifle must have been a mountain hunter. The barrel and action are stainless steel with a Kevlar/carbon fiber stock in a cool looking optifade camo pattern. The Mountain Ascent has skeletonizing everywhere you can possibly shave off a few ounces. The barrel is fluted, along with the bolt and even the bolt handle. This elite mountain rifle was accurate with factory Winchester 130-grain Ballistic Supreme ammo in an iconic sheep cartridge, the .270 Winchester. Before the hunt, I practiced at the range out to four hundred yards. There was no doubt in my mind that if I could do my part, the Kimber would keep up its end of the deal. It was a joy to carry, compared to heavier irons.
On day four we spotted six sheep, all ewes and young ones, but it was our first encounter. They were feeding a few hundred yards from our tents and entertained us while the guides prepared a meal of caribou and salmon. It’s not a bad way to end a day.
Early morning on day five we got the bright idea to hike up a steep incline on the opposite side of camp and be on top when the fog cleared. That way we could look over an area not hunted beforehand, plus be in an ideal position early in the morning. It sounded like a good plan. We climbed and climbed, and then we climbed some more. The fog-shrouded drainage with near vertical shale face seemed to go forever. Once on top we were greeted with more fog and rain.
A large boulder helped break the wind but the rain continued, and then it rained some more. All we could do was try and stay warm, hoping for a break in the weather. After about eight hours we decided the intemperate weather was not going to let up. It was a long, uneventful hike back to our tent. The uninterrupted rain continued through the night.
After not seeing a ram in five days, Tony and I agreed that if we ever did find a group, we should both try to take our rams together. We were running out of hunting days and we were just hoping that one group of rams could be located before the clock ran out. Tony was even kind enough to offer me first shot.
The following morning brought clear, sunny skies that brightened our spirits. Around noon we finally spotted three rams feeding on a distant mountainside. It was uplifting to say the least and gave us a little bounce in our steps. For the next three hours we climbed. I really didn’t believe the sheep were that far away but they were. The challenge of reaching those rams was overshadowed by the anticipation of seeing them within shooting distance.
Late in the afternoon we made it to a peak overlooking the rams where we could see five mature rams. It was an impressive sight, watching them totally unaware of our presence; feeding leisurely on a crest of the mountain. Tony whispered, “Two hundred meters.” After belly crawling for twenty yards or so, I placed the Kimber on my pack and found the biggest ram on the right side of the group. I told Tony, since I was to his right, I would shoot the ram on the far right. It took both of us a few tense moments to get set-up. By then, two of the rams had spotted our movement. I tugged the trigger, breaking the high mountain solitude. A quick follow-up shot dropped my ram as I could feel blast of Tony’s .30-378 Weatherby make the ground tremble. In a few short moments it was over. We had both our sheep. For a brief moment, I couldn’t believe it. This truly was a mountain hunter’s dream come true. The ten- and eleven-year-old rams made all the hunting party extremely jubilant.
Before we finished with the photo session, the rain came in. We caped out the rams and carried the horns, capes and as much meat as possible. Even in the pouring rain, the long descent back to camp didn’t seem that bad. We loaded our gear on the horses in pitch dark. In an attempt to make our connecting flights, we arrived at base camp around 1 a.m. The tank ride out took fifteen hours, due to a couple of breakdowns, but luckily for us, these guys are competent mechanics.
As luck would have it, the weather kept us from returning to Petropavlovsk and I missed the once-a-week flight back to Anchorage, so I had the pleasure of spending three weeks in Russia on another adventure. Believe it or not, I can’t wait to go back. There are other species of snow sheep out there and this mountain hunter would just love to see more of those majestic rams.–Mark Hampton