The stove is burning strong inside the “ger” and I have to unzip my sleeping bag a little. I am trying to catch some sleep listening to the burning sound of some yak shit. There are more yaks than trees in this country, but honestly I am really surprised by the fuel power they have. I have been the last three days laying in a wooden mattress covered with a horse saddle blanket, high fever is the only reason to be in a tent and not hiking the mountains that surround us.
I have never been so sick on a hunt before and what hurts more than the pain and weakness,is the frustration of not being able to get out hunting after dreaming of this hunt for so long. I keep telling to myself that in hunting patience can be presented in many ways, so I keep myself distracted reading a book and drinking some tea. I got a throat gland infection the day I arrived to Ulan Bator and it looks like I am finally recovering. I can not afford more days in bed anyways, when you come to bow hunt ibex you need as much time as you can. It is not how you start but how you end.
The truth is that I do not know why I complain, I am in the middle of the Mongolian Altai Mountains living with some nomads. We tend to forget what is the real reason for this type of trips, and bringing an ibex home it is just a bonus.
Nomadic hunting and gathering, following seasonally available wild plants and game, is by far the oldest human subsistence method, and the current way of living of our local guides. We are sleeping in their “ger” (mongolian word) or “yurt” (turkic word), surrounded by their cattle, ridding their horses, sharing their food and doing what we all like the most, hunting. No matter the huge cultural differences, one of the most special things about hunting is how people no mater where you go, can understand each other and connect to work as a “pack” amongst a common goal. Just like that there we were, a bunch of Mongolian shepherds, a kiwi cameraman and a spanish bowhunter understanding each other. I am sure we could not understand or agree in any other field but hunting.
Feeling weak and tired, but highly motivated we finally hit the mountains. The Altai Mountains are rugged and hostile, vast open rolled tops combined with steep deep valleys where the sun rays barely hit. You need to look close to the rocky formations to find sparse blades of grass or water, which try to break through the mantle of rocks that cover the whole ground. Winters are freezing cold and gnarly, while summers are really warm and dry. Every step in this terrain makes you wonder why an animal would like to live in there, but ibex are different. They find comfort in hell, tending to always be on the highest more gnarliest spots, anywhere between 2500m to 3500m. The unique beauty of the Altai doesn’t disappoints though, it is really amazing place to experience.
We ride horses every day straight from camp down the the river to get inside the different canyons where our valley diverges. Horses are pretty small but tough as nails, like everything in this country, it is the only way to survive in this place. We thrive the valley bottoms looking left and right the steep rocky faces with a big smile on the face, dreaming of that old billy to put a stalk on.
Bowhunters are a very special breed of hunters, that no matter the situation, we keep dreaming of achieving the impossible. You have to be inmune to discouragement, as reality hits you every day that pass by without being able to draw the bow back, or without even seeing a single animal.
Days pass by and we got a close call on day five but the billy didn’t look like big enough. We got to 50 meters but when we picked over it didn’t look like an old one to me, but of course every animal that goes away its always a monster afterwards according to the guides. I have hunted ibex many times, but never on the Altai. They are a bit smaller horn and body wise than their cousins, the mid-asian ibex that you can find in kyrgyzstan, kazakhstan or Tajikistan etc. I have never been interested in measurements but more in old mature animals, and the best way to judge that is by their body. Here as the animals get older, they will get a whiter neck, darker chest and silver back. Body size and structure is more solid, and they have longer beards. It is important to get these details to be sure that if we get close to a group we can identify the oldest billy quickly. Once you see a “silver back” it is hard to get attracted by a younger billy.
A part from that opportunity we could not get under a 100 meters of any other billy during the 10 days of the hunt. The last two days were tough for the whole team, since we didn’t spot a single old billy, something hard to believe having in mind the amount of ground we covered by foot, on horse and with our optics. We just saw a group of younger ones the last day that I decided they didn’t worth a stalk, and you could just see the face of the guides already giving up, but I kept dreaming..
Feeling helpless, there was not much we could do a part of keep covering ground, glassing every corner, and praying for a miracle as the sun was slowly setting down following its course, and our time was slowly vanishing. The miracle never happened and we had to say goodbye to the Altai. The hardest part for me is not coming empty handed, I don’t care much about that, since what drives me to those places is way more than just a kill. I just feel bad for all the people involved that put all their time, effort and enthusiasm just to help me out. From the guides, to the helpers and also the cameraman. Super thankful for all their help and feeling bad that we couldn’t do more. You always see that transition during the bow hunts with first timers, where they are intrigued at the beginning, excited to make something happen after, but all end up frustrated a few days later.
The real beauty of bowhunting is that allows you to spend enough days in the mountains to really merge deep in to the culture and get to know their people and how they live. It allows you to have time to understand the animals and gain the respect and appreciation for them. It allows you to disconnect from the busy world, and gives you a chance to discover yourself, and to think about the difference between the urgent things, and the real important ones.
Two weeks later and before the season ended, I travel back to the Altai to give it a second chance, in hunting it is better to be persistent than skilled. Same area, same camp, same guides and same hunter, all with the energy charged to give our best for another ten days…
It takes us 4 hours to get above the group of billies that we saw bed down earlier this morning. We are at 3500 meters, after a 700 meter elevation gain straight up. Air is thin and wind is blowing, thermals though are constant and hitting us on the face. At this point it is only Otgonshar and I, Galkhu couldn’t keep up with us. We don’t have much time before they change as we see the sun slowly going down.
We can see the billies bedded down around 200 meters below us, and the only way is to get right above them climbing straight down the cliff. Every step is calculated meticulously, and we pass the bow between each other to be able to use both hands and feet. The risk of the climb is a little over my comfort zone, and I try to keep focused to don’t make a bad movement between the excitement and the exhaustion.
We try to get as close as posible to one of the biggest billies until we get to an end point. I take the range finder to confirm that the billy is bedded down at 85 yards from us. It is straight down and the cut the rangefinder is calling for is to aim with the 55 yard pin. At this point all comes down to self confidence built in all the hours of training, you can not doubt. I know I can do this, so I try to get the best feet position to be stable between rocks and get myself ready.
I have to wait until the billy stands up. Every animal changes typically his bedding position every half an hour. Sometimes they just stand up for a few seconds and rotate on themselves, so it is important to be focused and ready. The time slows down, and I try to don’t think on all the effort that has taken me to get to this point. Bad thoughts of all the amount of things that can go wrong can not get in your head.
Around fifteen minutes later I notice a change in his look, he is going to move. As the billy stands up I draw my bow, get to my anchor, level the bubble, bend my waist, level the bubble again and set my pin. He is facing away but slowly turns to give me his side, I put the finger on the release, and pull the shot as I have done so many times…
We went to the Mongolia to discover the Altai, but we discover much more.
PD: Dedicated to Cam Hardeson, that hunted like a beast for ten days with his camera, but that couldn’t make it for the second trip. Wish you could have been there, because you deserved to have experienced the emotions of laying hands on that billy.