My Greatest Challenge

The Tien Shan Mountains which separate Kyrgyzstan from China are known as the “Celestial Mountains” they are some of the most picturesque yet unforgiving and rugged mountains in the world. These mountains are home to a variety of wild animals including wolf, Lynx, fox, snow leopards and some of the world’s most sought after trophies, the Mid Asian Ibex and the majestic Marco Polo Sheep.

I hunted the Naryn Region of Kyrgyzstan where the mountain elevation runs from approximately 13,000 to 17,000 feet.

In early November when the snow begins to accumulate in the higher elevations Marco Polo ram’s start to move to lower elevations in search of receptive females with the breeding season usually beginning in early December.

My dream of hunting Marco Polo became a reality in November 2015 when I booked a Marco Polo hunt with outfitter Bighorn KG who I had hunted with for Ibex in 2012.

To be able to maneuver around the high and steep elevations necessary to be successful on a hunt like this I was fully aware that I needed to be diligent with an aggressive exercise program, particularly since I live at sea level and no longer considered to be a youngster at 67 years of age.

Hunting in extreme elevations with freezing temperatures and generally long distance shooting creates a whole new dynamic to having a successful hunt. You need to be in good shape, have quality equipment and know how to use it.

My firearm of choice for this hunt was a custom built H-S Precision rifle chambered in 300 Winchester Magnum, equipped with a Leupold VX-6 3X18 power scope with a fire dot.

Bullet drop is much less at extreme elevations so I had Leupold build a custom turret for my scope that was calibrated at 10,000 feet elevation and 23 degrees Fahrenheit.

To prepare for this trip I visited the rifle range many times and practiced shooting until I was reasonably proficient in hitting my target out to 850 yards. On a good day using Barnes 180 grain TTSXBT bullets with 71 grains of IMR 4831 powder I was shooting a group of less than 2 inches at 500 yards.

Everything was going well until the week that I was getting ready to leave for Kyrgyzstan, I was in a hurry, tried to sprint up a hill and tore a calf muscle in my left leg. I had previously torn this muscle before and knew immediately what had happened. I felt a snap and a sharp pain that just about rolled me over. My heart sank and I nearly felt like falling to the ground in despair. I have wanted to hunt Marco Polo for most of my life, being this close to making my dream a reality then tearing a leg muscle was just about as devastating a blow as one could imagine. I am not a person who accepts defeat but I could barely walk on level ground let alone navigate steep terrain. I realized from hunting these mountains before that it can be quite a challenge; with a torn leg muscle I felt the trip would be nearly impossible. I e-mailed my outfitter and told them about my unfortunate situation and said that I wasn’t sure if I should make the trip or not. They assured me they would do everything possible to help me and encouraged me to still come.

Admiring the view

During the week a physical therapist friend scheduled me in several times for some rigorous muscle therapy which relieved some of the pain and started the healing process.

Remembering the words of caution from my physical therapist about not over doing it and tearing the muscle worse than it already was. I decided that if I didn’t go on this trip I would always wonder if I could have been successful. I finished packing and with my wife’s help we got my 50 pound bags to the airline ticket counter and I was off to Kyrgyzstan.

It snowed pretty much the entire way from Bishkek to Naryn where we stayed the first night and was still snowing when we headed to camp the next morning. Seeing familiar land marks during the 5 hour drive put my mind in overdrive as I remembered the details of the successful adventure experienced in 2012. Arriving at camp, I was excited to learn that we would be hunting the same area as before.

I checked sight on my rifle and organized my gear. It was a bit foggy when we woke up the next morning but soon after breakfast the weather started to clear. With the horses saddled we climbed on their backs and headed for a mountain range where several Marco Polo had previously been spotted.

Crossing frozen streams

As the fog lifted, the peaks of the nearby snow covered mountains started to appear with all of their majestic glory. The view was spectacular in every direction. I just couldn’t quit looking at the magnificence of this winter wonderland.

After riding for about an hour the two horsemen, Jeke, Aiyp and my guide Jon got off their horses and started glassing the hillsides. Within minutes they located a small herd of Ibex with a very nice trophy billy and a small herd of Marco Polo with a pretty nice ram. This was the first big Marco Polo ram I had seen in the wild. My heart started pounding with excitement as discussion in a foreign language took place between Jon and the horsemen. I was just at the point of not being able to contain any more excitement when I heard a few very simple and broken English words. One of the horsemen said, “Trophy Ibex, very good but no shoot, scare Marco Polo” then after studying the big ram through my spotting scope said “Marco Polo average trophy, we go on”.

During the day we saw over 40 Marco Polo including five shooters with two or three of them being very nice trophies. We decided to go after one of the big rams. The elevation was close to 12,000 feet. Once I started trying to climb I quickly remembered how thin the air is at that altitude and realized that I was not in near as good a shape as I should have been. I also realized that the torn muscle in my leg was going to be quite a problem, climbing was definitely going to be more of a challenge.

Marco Polo on rock outcropping

Jon, my guide, was aware of the leg issue so he grabbed the end of my walking stick and helped me struggle up the steep hillsides. We got to different rock outcroppings where we thought we could see the big ram but couldn’t find him anywhere. We did however see another herd of about 12 Marco Polo with a really nice ram near the top of the drainage several hundred yards above us.

It was late afternoon and the sun had almost gone behind the mountain. We were planning on staying at a spike camp that night and had a long ride to get back to where the camp was. Since it was getting late I assumed that we would leave for camp then come back the next morning. We started heading back down the steep hillside toward the horses. Jon saw that I was struggling with my leg and suggested that I slide downhill on my butt which made it much easier than trying to walk down the slippery slope, I felt kind of silly but it worked well.

We continued downhill with the horses then to my surprise, when we got to an area where we could cross a rock slide Jeke started to head up the mountain again. The terrain in these mountains at high elevations is a myriad of huge rock slides and jagged rock outcroppings that we had to navigate around. The ground was frozen and covered with several inches to as much as a couple feet of snow. For safety sake I barely kept my toes in the stirrups in case my horse slipped and I had to jump off. There were several times when there was quite a bit of “pucker factor” as I looked down rock chutes that were hundreds of feet deep and nothing to stop you if a horse should slip and fall. I soon found out however that my horsemen and the horses were used to these mountains and knew what they were doing so I tried to relax and let my horsemen lead the way and just let my horse pick his way through the rugged terrain.

Glassing for Marco Polo rams

After the sun disappeared over the mountain the temperature quickly started to plummet and darkness rapidly started approaching. I was hoping that my two cowboys could find our spike camp in the dark and had to reassure myself that they knew what they were doing. We continued to work our way up the steep canyon with only a few minutes of shooting light left when Jeke finally tied up his horse by a big rock outcropping and motioned for Jon and I to get off our horses. Jeke climbed to the next outcropping and within moments reappeared and motioned for us to hurry up and join him. With the impending darkness there was absolutely no time to waste. Jon grabbed the end of my walking stick and tried as hard as he could to help me climb the slippery slope but every few steps I would run out of breath, we were well over 12,000 feet at this point and my lungs screamed for more oxygen. Jeke saw that I was struggling and realized that I would not make it to where we needed to be before we were out of shooting light. All of a sudden Jeke came scrambling down the steep rock slide and had me put my left arm over his shoulder. Between Jon and Jeke they practically carried me up the hill.

Once we were at the outcropping Jeke motioned for me to crawl to the edge of the rocky cliff with my binoculars and made a drawing in the snow to show me where the big ram was. I kept crawling forward but couldn’t see the sheep on the dark valley floor. I continued to inch forward several times until I was almost hanging over the cliff before I finally saw the herd, they were almost directly below the rock outcropping about 280 meters away. The big ram was lying down and quartering towards me with his right horn blocking his shoulder which made for a difficult shot. I motioned for Jeke to slide my rifle to me. I kept inching forward again until I was pretty much right on the edge of the cliff. I was gasping for oxygen and trying to hold my breath long enough to keep my rifle steady with nothing to rest the bipods of my rifle on except soft snow that kept falling off the cliff and air. With my erratic breathing my cross hairs seemed to be moving enough to cover the entire valley. After several attempts I was finally able to hold my breath long enough to center the cross hairs of my scope on the top of the big rams back, I gently squeezed the trigger and the big ram collapsed.

Gary Christensen and his Marco Polo

I was still trying to catch my breath when Jon yelled Marco Polo and was slapping me on the back saying congratulations. I looked at the big ram again through my scope, I couldn’t believe it, he was standing up, had moved a few feet and was somewhat broadside, I shot again, this time I hit the big ram squarely in the shoulders and he was down for good.

Even though my first shot did not hit any vitals the Barnes 180 grain TTSXBT bullets did some serious damage. The second shot would not have been necessary but I did not want to risk losing an animal, particularly this close to dark.

I rolled over onto my back still trying to catch my breath while the last few moments of excitement kept running through my mind. I was thankful for the many things that come together, literally at the 11th hour that allowed me to take a trophy of a life time, one of which was the light gathering qualities of my Leupold scope with a fire dot. As dark as it was I really don’t think I could have made the shot with a scope of lessor quality. The fire dot really helped me find my point of aim quickly with a difficult shot situation.

Author and Kyrgh Warrior

I assumed that Aiyp, my other horseman had gone to our spike camp since he had our sleeping bags and the rest of our gear but he was watching the herd of sheep from the other hillside and had been signaling Jeke on where the herd was. As soon as the big ram went down Aiyp came off the other hillside, located the ram then turned his flash light on to signal us where the big ram was. It was well past dark by the time we were able to work our way around the rock slides and rock outcroppings to Aiyp and the big Marco Polo. I cannot remember when I was so excited about hunting a trophy animal. Harvesting a Marco Polo had been on the top of my bucket list for many years. The humble feeling that I felt standing in front of one of the most magnificent trophies on the face of the earth was unbelievable.

The way that Jeke, Aiyp and Jon worked as a team to get me in position to take such a trophy under the circumstances that I faced with my leg was very impressive and quite a feat.

Everything from our meet and greet at the airport, the food, accommodations, hunting and overall level of service with Bighorn was very special and will remain in my memory as one of my greatest adventures ever.–Gary Christensen

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Safari Magazine

3 thoughts on “My Greatest Challenge”

  1. Congratulations, Hope to be having that same feeling soon. Will be doing this hunt in the next 5 years.

Leave a Reply to Dave Mattausch Cancel reply