Far Away On a Cold, Sunny Day

Far Away On a Cold, Sunny Day

Taking a Marco Polo ram with a Handgun was a Bucket-list Dream for this SCI Member

By Mark Hampton

This story originally appeared in the 2023 Awards Issue of SAFARI Magazine.

Between the heavy snow, altitude and inguinal hernia, I wasn’t exactly having a party. As we slowly trudged our way up to the peak, the guides motioned for me to load my gun. 

Quietly I slid a round in the chamber and checked to make sure the safety was on. Both local guides belly-crawled to the top and peeked over the rim. The ram previously spotted should be somewhere close, hopefully. 

I tried to catch my breath but at 14,420 feet elevation, it wasn’t happening. One of the local guides motioned for me to come up. Apparently, he had spotted the ram. 

Guide Nikolai Khokhlov of East-West Safaris went first, spotted the ram and took a reading from the Leupold rangefinder. I asked him the distance and was shocked at his reply: 125 yards. 

Surely, I misunderstood. I asked again and received the same answer. Not really believing Nikolai, I peeked over the ledge and saw this magnificent ram feeding unsuspectingly all by himself. He was pawing away in the snow apparently trying to find clumps of grass. 

I found a large flat boulder to make a rest for my backpack. Slowly the local guide slipped my pack on top of the rock, and I eased the handgun in position. At that moment the ram was facing directly away from us. I heard Nikolai whisper, 

“One hundred and thirty-two yards,” Nikolai whispered. “Wait until he turns.” 

The view through the scope is one I’ll never forget. The mature ram never knew we were on the same planet. He turned slightly broadside and offered a stunning picture in the scope. My heart rate increased as I moved the safety off.

A statue depicting an ibex proudly displays the region’s rugged mountain hunting culture.

When I grow up, I want to be a sheep hunter. I know sheep hunters. I have friends who are sheep hunters. This unique group of individuals endure more trials and tribulations than any other type of hunting. 

They encounter hardships most hunters won’t. Being cold, wet, uncomfortable, miserable and tired is par for the course. Your lungs burn climbing mountains for hours on end, day after day, hoping to find the right ram.

You sleep in small tents on cold ground with sometimes questionable food and little water. Sheep hunters know how to spell comfort; they just don’t get to experience the true meaning. These hunters are passionate, dedicated, resilient, mentally and physically tough, with unparalleled perseverance. And they are the most dedicated wildlife conservationists. 

They spend their hard-earned money enhancing conservation efforts while the anti-hunters spew-out rhetoric. Yes, someday I hope to be a sheep hunter. 

If you are ever inflicted with the “sheep bug,” sooner or later your thoughts and dreams will drift toward Marco Polo sheep. These magnificent animals live in the breath-taking Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. 

With more years behind me than in front, I decided it was time to seriously consider this adventure. With the help of two friends, Wade Derby of Crosshair Consulting and Nikolai Khokhlov of East-West Safaris, we organized and planned our hunt. 

Two good friends and SCI members Susan Touhy and Steve Letnes would be joining me. All of us were excited about the experience with the thought of a supreme mountain hunting adventure and a big ram in the crosshairs. 

Nikolai met us in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. After clearing customs, we waited for our flight to Osh, the second-largest city in the country. Here is where the fun began. 

The flight was delayed due to weather. It was early Monday morning and if things went according to plans, we’d be in sheep camp late Monday night. Since when do things go as planned? 

The flight to Osh didn’t take shape until late afternoon, which put us into Osh too late for any drive to camp. We spent the night in a hotel. The next morning, we woke up and expected to head out. Wrong. Roads were not passable to camp. 

Again, we stayed in the Osh hotel. Wednesday morning, you guessed it, overnight in a hotel. These are the snafus that make you pull your hair out. At 3:30 a.m., the phone rang, and Nikolai told us to pack our bags to leave in 30 minutes. We hurriedly packed our stuff and hit the road. 

We drove long stretches of road in wide open country. The wind had provided plenty of drifts. We shoveled out of a couple and continued. After about eight hours, we reached the point where we could not go farther. 

The guides at camp had loaded a snowmobile in a large transport truck and drove toward us. But they couldn’t get within a mile or so. They unloaded the snowmobile and started transporting hunters and luggage to the big truck. 

The weather created many delays. Vehicles got stuck often in heavy snow. Several days were lost to snowstorms or fog. But in the end, it was worth it. 

It took a couple of hours, but when we all made it to the transport vehicle, the guides loaded the snowmobile in the back, and we headed for camp. Crunched in the truck like sardines, we made it to camp after 14 hours. 

Outfitter Yuri Mattison’s camp was at 12,685 feet near Lake Karakul in Tajikistan. Jena, our camp cook, welcomed us to our home away from home.

It was Thursday night — three days behind schedule. Yuri Mattison’s camp was located near Lake Karakul in Tajikistan at 12,685 feet elevation, and we were darn glad to be there. 

The next morning, we all shot our firearms to make sure everything was still intact. Afterward, we were ready to go hunting but the guides insisted we relax and get acclimated. Probably not a bad idea, except the next two days brought heavy fog and a snowstorm, so we sat in camp. I don’t have a lot of hair, so I tried to avoid pulling any more out. 

The first morning, there was heavy fog. The guides took me to an area an hour or more away from camp where there was less fog. Susan and Steve would hunt closer to camp and planned to wait until it lifted. 

I saw several sheep during the day but no mature rams. When we returned to camp, Susan and Steve had never left! The fog there had remained constant all day. Now they were pulling their hair out! 

Nikolai searching for rams through his Leupold spotting scope.

We awoke the following morning to a beautiful, sunny day — our first. All three of us left camp in search of rams. I probably saw more than 300 sheep that day but nothing big enough to spark interest. Upon returning to camp, it was a real treat to find Susan had taken a dandy ram with one shot at about 500 meters. It lifted everyone’s spirits. 

The clock was ticking away at our hunting days. Steve and I didn’t have a lot of time remaining, and I was beginning to get a little nervous. Early the next morning, the local guides spotted a ram with some females up on the mountain. We studied the ram through the spotting scope and determined he was worth going after. 

At first, it didn’t look like too terrible of a climb. Two hours later with my lungs burning and struggling to get enough oxygen, we found ourselves on top of the mountain, searching for the sheep. When we finally found them, two decent rams were now 500 yards away. 

Both sheep were feeding and heading in the opposite direction. Before we knew it, they were 600 yards away. We sat next to a huge boulder and glassed the vast desolate, frozen lunar landscape around us. It looked like a scene from a “Star Wars” movie. 

I’m not sure why we sat there the rest of the day — but we did. It was later in the afternoon when the guides spotted the lone ram on top of the adjacent mountain. 

We made our physically demanding climb, relocated the ram, and now with the H-S Precision pistol resting on my backpack, I took the safety off. I could feel my heart racing while admiring this beautiful ram through the scope. 

When he offered that textbook, slightly quartering-away shot, I slowly tugged the trigger. The loud report of the pistol shattered the solitude on the mountain. Flinching at the shot, our ram didn’t go 15 steps and dropped. It was a moment of euphoria. Taking a Marco Polo with a handgun completed a bucket-list dream for this country boy. 

Taking a Marco Polo with a handgun completed a bucket-list dream for this country boy. 

Getting off the mountain in darkness and back to the vehicle was challenging — and freezing cold. We had to walk across a frozen riverbed, slicker than an ice-skating rink, for over an hour. It was a friendly reminder I was headed for hernia repair as soon as possible. Back at camp we learned Steve had connected, so it was time to celebrate. 

Before we departed the next morning, everyone had a few last-minute chores to attend. As I started to measure the horns of my ram — it provided a quiet moment to reflect. After two weeks in Tajikistan, the relevance of time and events seem less important compared to home. 

I had missed Valentine’s Day with Karen. No quiet dinner and movie spent with my wife of 38 years. My 61st birthday had come and passed — and I didn’t tell anyone. There was no celebration or get together with family and friends. Here I sat on a cold, lonely hut, in the middle of nowhere, measuring a set of ram horns. 

The past two weeks had been full of obstacles, emotional, physical and mental challenges yielding one remarkable reward. At this rate, I may be a sheep hunter someday. In my brief, microcosm existence — it would be an honor. 

Mark Hampton is a Life member, Record Book Committee Vice Chairman, Asia Subchair, and Record Book Handgun Consultant.