Mongolian High

Mongolian High

When you're bowhunting halfway around the world, you'd better have confidence in your gear -- and yourself.

At 9 p.m. on September 21, 2009, five months to the day after I'd had my left shoulder surgically repaired so I could again draw a compound bow, my son dropped me off at the Los Angeles International Airport. From there I would fly to Beijing, China, the first leg of my 18-day adventure to bowhunt for Gobi ibex in Mongolia.

We estimated my Gobi ibex at 10 years of age. Pursuit of this animal took me on a fantastic adventure.

I would spend the first five days in China. After reading Neil Summers' article "The Mountain Gives" (Oct/Nov 2005), I, too, wanted to walk on the Great Wall of China and to see some of China's other cultural wonders. I also wanted time for my body to adjust to the 15-hour time difference between my home in San Diego and Asia.

My time in China was full of wonder and amazement, but, with images of big ibex in my mind, I was glad to board my flight to Ulaan Baatar, the capital city of Mongolia, on September 27. After clearing Customs, I met Ariunbold Anand, my Mongolian guide and interpreter, who would turn the next 13 days into some of the most enjoyable days I've ever spent bowhunting.

Because our flight to Dalanzadgad in the Gobi Desert didn't leave until the next day, Ari had a full afternoon planned for us, including sightseeing throughout Ulaan Baatar, a trip through the Natural History Museum, and an amazing traditional Mongolian cultural show in the evening. We ended the day at a restaurant where we enjoyed delicious traditional Mongolian dishes.

The next day we flew to Dalanzadgad, and then we drove four hours to hunting camp.

Having hunted the Southwest U.S. most of my adult life, I couldn't help but notice similarities between the Gobi and the deserts of California and Arizona. At first glance, the Gobi resembles the Forbidden Zone from the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes!

The main hunting camp comprised traditional gers [yurts], circular felt tents used by nomadic Mongolian peoples.

However, hiking in the mountains, you soon learn it is teaming with many bird and mammal species including ibex, argali, and even domesticated Bactrian (two-humped) camels.

Base camp consisted of several Mongolian gers [yurts], traditional circular felt tents historically used by these nomadic people. There we met Tumruu (Tomb-ur-oh) our local guide, Badrakh (Bod-ur-rock) our cook, and Bayaraa (Bye-yur-rah) our driver with his vintage, socialist-era, Russian-made Jeep.

The gers were warm and comfortable, but we spent only a single night there, and at 4:30 a.m. we headed deeper into the mountains with the Russian Jeep to set up a spike camp. As dawn was nearing, we arrived at the spike camp location where Ari, Tumruu, and I set out to find ibex while Badrakh and our driver made camp.

Hiking 45 minutes to the east, we arrived at a place where Tumruu had seen ibex coming to water for several days. This particular spot was bowl-shaped with steep rocky hills on two sides. Near the bottom of the bowl was a shallow, eight-foot-diameter pool of water with a narrow stream trickling down the hill for 50 yards before disappearing into the desert floor.

When forage plants have a high moisture content, Ari told me, ibex can go days without water. However, in recent months, no snow had fallen, and the foraging grasses were so dry now that the ibex were visiting this spring regularly. According to Tumruu, this was the only water for miles.

While my eyes were still adjusting to the early morning light, Ari and Tumruu had already spotted ibex several hundred yards away coming to the water. Following their directions, I finally picked up the animals with my binoculars.

When the last of the ibex had dropped out of sight into the bowl, we hurried to the edge of a hill overlooking the spring. Sliding on our bellies and peering just over the edge of the jagged rocks, we could see dozens of ibex drinking from the spring-fed stream. Two were exceptional males.

With the animals still more than 200 yards away, we attempted to position ourselves to ambush them as they left the spring, but several nannies busted us as we maneuvered through the rough and noisy terrain. We spent the rest of the day exploring the higher elevations above the spring, where we spotted several trophy ibex. We returned to camp at dark.

Having used pop-up blinds to kill mule deer and antelope near water, I talked to Ari and Tumruu about building a ground blind near the spring. We all agreed the idea had potential, but we weren't sure where to build the blind or how wind direction would affect our plans.

So, the next morning we nestled in the rocks above the spring where we would observe the animals and hopefully get a shot as they passed by on their way to the water.

Unfortunately, the spot we selected was too far from the spring for a shot, and the morning sun highlighted us, making it impossible for us to move without detection.

After the ibex had finished drinking and wandered off to their bedding sites for the day, we built a stone blind on the rocky hill on the east side of the spring, where the morning sun would now be at our backs. That way we would remain obscured in the shadows, and the thermals would carry our scent uphill, away from approaching animals.

We used Bayaraa's Russian Jeep to reach our backpacking-style spike camp. We hunted out of this camp on foot.

Our plan wasn't perfect, however, as the water was still 63 to 77 yards from the blind, depending on where the animals drank. My best shots would be on animals closer to the blind as they went to and from the water.

On day four, a beautiful male approached the blind and stopped 57 yards out, giving me my first decent opportunity. Unfortunatel

y, I undershot him, a tough blow to my confidence and, perhaps worse, to my guide's confidence in my ability.

However, if I've learned only one thing from years of bowhunting, it is that you must never give up on yourself or your ability to succeed. If you make a mistake, you analyze what went wrong, and you strive to do better in the future. That's what I planned to do now.

In the predawn darkness of the sixth day, Ari and I again lay motionless on the freezing rock in the blind, and, like clockwork, the ibex began arriving shortly after dawn. First the nannies appeared, peeking over the cliff on the skyline, before slowly working their way down through the cascading rock shelves toward the water.

The older males arrived minutes later, and they too scrutinized every possible hiding place in the rocks for snow leopards that routinely prey on them. Our continued presence in the area wasn't helping either, and it was now taking the herd more than three hours to cover the last 200 yards to the water. We could only watch silently and move imperceptibly as we repositioned our aching bodies on the unforgiving rock slab.

Once a few brave nannies arrived at the water, all of the other animals joined in within a few minutes. As the animals spread out along the stream, each claiming a spot to drink, something caught my eye on the skyline. Another six males had shown up. The two largest had dark coats with gray faces and white necks, and their long, sweeping horns dwarfed the other males around them. As I peered through binoculars, my heart accelerated just at the sight of them. This group held up on the top of the ridge for several minutes, watching the herd below.

On an afternoon hike, I can't help but compare the Gobi Desert with the Southwest U.S. The trail through the U-shaped saddle above my head goes straight to the spring on the other side of the ridge.

Then all six started down the hill. It was breathtaking to watch these heavy-horned animals jump from ledge to ledge, descending the slope in bounds, their heads dipping forward under the burdensome weight of their massive horns. Moments later, these magnificent trophy ibex were all drinking side by side with the rest of the herd. I ranged the largest of the white-necked males at 63 yards and prepared to shoot.

It was now 11 a.m., and while the animals were confidently drinking in the bright sunlight, I drew my bow, found my anchor, and began aiming. The bottom pin on my five-pin sight was set for 60 yards, so I split the difference between the bottom pin and the bubble level at the base of the sight ring and released smoothly. All the animals jumped and ran 20 yards from the water and stopped. Due to the huge contrast between the shadows of the blind and the bright sunshine at the spring, neither Ari nor I could see the arrow in flight. It simply disappeared. Long moments passed without a sound, and then, to our surprise, the animals returned to the water as if nothing had happened. Again I ranged them -- 63 yards -- and again I split the distance between the bottom pin and the bubble level and released. This time I was able to track the arrow in flight and clearly saw it sail over the back of my target. Again, the animals bolted a short distance and then stopped to look in every direction.

Again the herd returned to the water. Nocking another arrow, I now felt confident of exactly how to aim, and as the largest ibex turned broadside, I settled the 60-yard pin just above his back, slightly behind the shoulder, and triggered the release. This time the arrow produced a perfect double-lung, pass-through shot. The big ibex ran 31 yards and piled up within sight.

Remaining in the shadows of the blind, Ari and I celebrated as quietly as possible. The remaining ibex reluctantly worked their way out of the bowl, while Ari and I watched them through binoculars. After the last animals had passed over the ridge, we gathered our gear and walked to my trophy.

Handling the massive, ridged horns, I felt a deep sense of accomplishment. Judging by the annual growth rings on the horns, we determined this animal to be 10 years old, and we measured the horns at 37 inches long and 11 inches around the bases. A truly magnificent Gobi ibex topped off a truly memorable bowhunt -- and my shoulder felt just fine.

The globetrotting author makes his home in Rancho Santa Fe, California.

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