In 1972 the dream started with my autographed copy of “Trophy Hunter in Asia.” The author wrote “To Keith Bates, with best personal regards. Elgin T. Gates 2/2/72.” It’s last chapter, The Rams of Shangri-La put the Marco Polo (ovis poli) sheep at the top of my “bucket list,” where it stayed for 40 years. And the bucket list hadn’t even been invented yet! Even today the Marco Polo is still the most coveted trophy animal on earth and the biggest, highest living sheep there is.
It was a frustrating 40 years with my first attempt in 1974. I made a deposit on the hunt, which was on the market at that time for $5,000, but was told there was a year’s waiting list. However, after a month I got a call and was informed of a cancellation — which meant I could go that year. Except that I was also informed that the price had gone up to $10,000. I had to cancel, as I didn’t have the money.
Eventually I tried again however, by now the cost had gone up to $25,000. I flew to Safari Outfitters in Cody, Wyoming and offered my check, but the Tajikistan government had just put a hold on Marco Polo sheep hunting with no indication as to when they might reopen. So I took the check home and spent it on something else.
In 2000, to celebrate the turn of the century, I decided to try again. So sent a deposit to Safari Outfitters. Everything looked fine…until I was forced to stay in Mayo Clinic struggling for three months to stay alive. Needless to say the hunt got cancelled. Strike three.
Thirteen more years went by and my 80th birthday was approaching. The cost was now pushing $40,000 but my attitude was “now or never,” so I booked the hunt for 2014 as a birthday present to myself. And I departed October 8, accompanied by my daughter Cindy, who was a surgical nurse practitioner specializing in open heart surgery…just in case I needed help since my heart had been misbehaving.
After a day to acclimate (plus the two days of driving at high altitude) we were ready to sight-in our guns and go hunting. Base camp was at about 13,500 feet above sea level, while the hunting most took place between 15,000 and 17,000 feet. I believe some of the peaks around us reached 20,000 feet. The view was spectacular and home to ibex, snow leopards and wolves in addition to the sheep.
Sighting-in the guns wasn’t much of a problem for those using rifles but my choice of a handgun complicated things a little. I was using a T/C Encore chambered for .338WM and had done a lot of practice at home up to 300 yards. However, I cautioned my guides that I didn’t want to exceed 300 yards as the bullet started dropping dramatically beyond that. At 400 yards it was down 14 inches and 500 yards out of sight. I was hoping for 200 yards, which I was told might be done.
Unfortunately the only close target in camp was 350 yards, so I gave it my best and hit the target…and off we went into the mountains.
The first day out was beautiful with sunshine and a blue sky. However, there are no roads for the jeeps so travel was brutal, hitting rocks, dropping into small holes, crossing little rivers and climbing and descending embankments that defied gravity.
By late midmorning the first day we spotted a couple of rams and quite a few ewes. However, trying to get within range of the rams proved pretty frustrating and we never got close enough for a shot. Later that day we spotted a few more and tried to skirt some hills and get within range, but they outsmarted us, too.
The distances were incredible and the sheep spotted us miles away. While there were a few small hills to sneak up behind, the sheep seemed aware of them and kept their distance, staying out in the open in huge plateaus. I’m not surprised that many of my friends have taken their sheep at 500 and 600 yards. That appeared to be the norm.
The second day wasn’t quite so cheery as there was now an overcast and blowing snow as we approached the foothills.
Mid morning we spotted a small group of rams way out in a field, with steep hills and peaks surrounding them. Guides Shoudi and Atobek decided we might try ascending a really steep hill (peak was 16, 400 feet according to an altimeter).
In the meantime our driver, started crossing the open plateau, hoping the sheep would go up the opposite side of the hill we were on. Which they did, and which would have given me a shot at 250 yards. It almost worked. The sheep were approaching a couple of small twin peaks from which they would have emerged right into my sights. Alas, the fickle finger of fate stepped in and sent four wolves down the slope to my left, headed for the sheep…which saw them in time, and headed back down the hill! End of that stalk.
It was mid-afternoon, But we were not giving up. Many, many more miles of rocky terrain to cross and we entered a new valley. This one had more hills but they were a little lower than where we had just left. We parked the jeep, got out and started walking the low peaks, hoping to catch sight of some rams as we topped out. After several hours of employing this strategy, we got lucky and spotted a small group heading up a small incline behind some rocks. They were only about 250 yards away, but they were moving.
Unfortunately we couldn’t reach them before they disappeared behind the rocks, eventually reappearing behind the rocks and headed up a small slope, 400-plus yards away, according to our rangefinders. Shoudi suggested that I take a shot since they were walking slowly.
Because they were about five hundred feet above us, I had to reposition my backpack and get down on one knee. The big one kept changing position from being the leader to bringing up the rear. At 400 and some yards my vision was a little blurry, but I decided to give it a chance. I squeezed the trigger and the ram fell, and Shoudi yelled out: “great shot, he’s down.”
Unfortunately it was late in the day and the sheep had fallen into a little ravine that looked too difficult to manage. Shoudi tried it but came back after a while and suggested that they return in the morning when there would be more time to find the sheep and drag him out.
We returned to camp, feeling a little concerned that the sheep might have survived the shot and hoping that morning would come quickly.
The next morning my team got up early and left camp to find the sheep. They suggested I stay behind as I couldn’t climb very fast and would slow down the search. So reluctantly, I stayed behind.
Shortly after noon they returned with my sheep, a beautiful 55-inch trophy and my dream was now realized.–Keith Bates