By Simon K. Barr
Two years ago, Steve Hornady and I booked to hunt mid Caucasian tur in Russia. It had long been an ambition to hunt with Steve. I’ve known him for some eight years and he has inspired many of my high-altitude adventures to date. This would be my first trip with him. We postponed. As Steve blithely put it: “I bought a new hip and had my orthopaedist fit it for me.” So, now with a new hip, Steve was keen to give his new hip a mountain work out – remarkable given he would be turning 69 in a few short weeks.
We were eager to get going once we arrived to Mineralnye Vody, just north of Georgia. No fewer than six checks had been performed on my rifle from home to my destination, with endless scrutiny and stamping of documents. Hoping to get some rest before what was sure to be a tough journey to camp, it was a relief to hear that we’d be spending a night in the town. We breathed a sigh of relief, and waited to be shown to our beds, only for a sudden change in plans to shatter our hopes.
Herded into a vehicle, it wasn’t entirely clear what was going on. We trundled away through the dark streets of the town, stopping once in a back alley to hand over our passports to a figure shrouded in darkness. It didn’t fill us with confidence, but Steve reassured me this was completely normal having hunted in Russia many times before. What choice did I have?
Through the night, we drove south towards the Caucasus, finally stopping at five am, when we were granted a few short hours of sleep, before zeroing rifles, sorting gear, and stripping our luggage for the steep climb ahead.
Under cover of darkness the following morning, we hoisted ourselves on to horses and headed out. The soft curves of the hills that had seemed benevolent the previous day soon turned steep, and the sheep’s wool that covered the saddle soon failed to cover the hard iron framework.
All day we rode – the only respite from the hard saddle came at points too steep for the horses, when we had to get off and lead them. Finally, towards the end of the afternoon, we stopped, pitched out tents among the clouds and collapsed.
After a restless night under canvas, the views of the mountains were refreshing, and the chill in the air better than any morning coffee hit. We didn’t hang about, our guides were determined to find us animals. As we climbed, I realised I wasn’t prepared for this – either physically or mentally and Steve developed near crippling leg cramp, but he soldiered on.
At lunchtime we stopped briefly, and the guides, had a master plan of nimbly walking around the other side of the mountain to see if they could push some animals towards us, but as we waited and watched, it wasn’t to be and ended up another unsuccessful day.
The following morning, we spotted our first group of tur, but the scout had seen a more promising prospect in another group, so we decided to try to catch up to them. Cliffs and boulders scattered the area, but underfoot we were still struggling with small, loose sharp stones and shale.
Unfortunately, the group had starburst, and we were heading towards nothing, so it was back to the first group. Suddenly we were staring at a group of around 17 tur, not 80 metres away. They’d been in dead ground but we’d startled them and they were moving fast.
I saw the male, a large, mature animal, running on a line slightly higher than the rest of the group. “It’s good, it’s good, shoot, shoot!” the guide urged. I had no time to range the shot myself so called for a range. As I lowered myself, I could feel the ground under me shift, and my body sliding about on the scree. I grabbed my pack, slid myself down, and found the animal in the scope. “Range, range!” I said, trying to keep my breathing calm.
The answer wasn’t forthcoming. “How far?!” I asked again. Finally they answered: 240, no, 260m. I adjusted my aim to compensate for the distance, breathed, and fired. Stones exploded above the moving animal, and it continued in its path, speeding up having been showered with supersonic rock fragments from my shot. Text book mountain shooting error – I had overcompensated. Using the integrated ballistic calculator of the Leica Geovid binos would have told me this, but time had not been on my side to dial or even range the target myself.
I kept tracking the now twice as fast tur, hoping he might stop. It paused for a split second, giving me the chance I needed at 300m. Peering through the crosshairs of my Leica Magnus i 1.8-12×50 scope, I squeezed the trigger and the animal disappeared over the ridge and out of our sight. Had I or hadn’t I?
I was sure I’d hit it, but, after the first missed shot and with no visual confirmation from the guide, I started to worry. We had an agonising wait, watching the scout clamber his way to the cliff top to see if there was any sign. We could see him peering down over the rocks, finally, straightening his arm in the air, giving the signal, found.
Steve shared in my joy, and we spent the evening in a jollier frame of mind, spurred on by success. The deprivations and discomforts of the previous days were soon forgotten and sleep came more easily that night.