Caucus Ascent

Thursday, November 5, 2009
North Ossetia Russia September 2009

Since January I had dreamed of little else, having been the winning bidder for a rather unique hunting experience. It was all fine and good to explain in a rather bravado manner that I was going after a North Ossetian East Dagestan Tur. A what? My friends asked. A goat I answered. In Russia. Near Chechnya, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. Isn’t that dangerous? Isn’t there a war going on there? Aren’t there terrorists there? They all asked. I had well rehearsed answers to all the questions, but as the time came closer, I began to wonder just what I might be in for. I hope I am ready for this I thought as I boarded the plane for the first leg of my journey to the other side of the planet. I had lied awake many nights worrying about this expedition. How hard will it be? It is supposed to be pretty tough. I am not in as good of shape as I could be. Fatter than a year ago. Plantar Fasciitis in my left foot. Will my guides meet me at the airport? Will the Russians let me in? How about my rifle? Will I get robbed? Will I get kidnapped? Will the war start up again? Are there terrorists active in the area? If so then what?

Moscow Domodedovo Friday September 18, 2009 1230

As I get off the Lufthansa jumbo a nurse with the Russian health department is individually checking each passenger with a temperature gun for swine flu before we can leave the deplaning area. I am passed through, but some other people are pulled aside and examined more intensely. I fill out several customs forms before the immigration officer carefully examines my Visa and then gives me his rubber stamp approval. I grab my gear off the luggage belt and wait a few minutes for Oleg Potechykin to show up and help me through the customs quagmire with my weapon. The gun permit I had worried so much about is actually not for me I find out. It is for Oleg. I can not go anywhere at all without him to keep a close eye on me. The customs officers are not too quick to know what to do, but Oleg helps them along and a dozen rubber stamps on four hand copied forms and we are set to go to the police official to register the rifle. 45 minutes later and we are done. I am surprised by the people roaming the terminal. Long straight blond hair, blue eyes, very white, not tan, extremely thin, beautiful women with stiletto heels, fashionable oversize sunglasses, Coach handbags and Gucci brightly colored leather coats, unshaven guys with athletic track suits and sunglasses . White, blond hair, blue eyes. No variation. I guess I was expecting more fear, depression, downtrodden, gray sky.

Oleg explains that I will spend the night at a nearby hotel and then fly early in the morning to Vladikavkaz. Oleg drops me off and I check in to the hotel. The desk girls speak English. All I care is that there is a bed. I fall asleep at 4PM and sleep soundly until 530 AM. I meet Oleg again at 9AM after a hotel buffet breakfast of eggs, rolls, potatoes, fresh fruit and vegetables, yogurt and sausage. Oleg’s son Alexi drops us off at the terminal. He has a large late model Mercedes. There are many very nice cars at airport. Few Russian cars, but many BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Lexus, Ford, GM and Dodge high end models. Check in at S7 regional airline is pretty easy, then back to the police for forms, rubber stamps and hand carry of my weapon to the plane. While waiting in the terminal Oleg explains that he takes many Russian hunters around the world to English speaking areas to hunt like Canada where he recently returned from a two week goat/dall sheep hunt, Australia, South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania and also accompanies a very few westerners to hunt different areas of Russia. He was a field expedition biologist during the Soviet times and spent many years in Mongolia, Afghanistan, Tanzania, Sudan and Ethiopia where he studied sheep, and other large mammals. A notable project he was involved with was to hunt and kill mammals in the area surrounding Chernobyl after the disaster, then conduct autopsies and run tests to search for disease and mutation. Supposedly nothing was found out of the ordinary, except for some mutation and die off problems with amphibians. When the USSR broke up he continued to work for a couple years without pay. Then he turned to hunting. A few foreign hunters come to hunt with him each year for sheep, bear and a couple for Tur. He goes to shows like SCI, FNAWS, and Ovis to gain contacts and talk to prospective clients with his partner Sergei Shushanov from Chicago. They feel there are many opportunities in Russia that US hunters are unaware of. I also learn that Oleg was a KGB guard along the Norway border in the mid 70s.
The flight is a short two hours south. We see massive mountains rising from the steppes, up through the clouds. I am intimidated to say the least. When the plane lands, we are held back from deplaning while the other first class passengers, get off. They are 6 men dressed smartly in suits, probably businessmen, however there are many soldiers, officials with flowers, reporters with video cameras and a band playing. It was the president of Moldavia and his entourage that I sat next to on the flight! 15 minutes later we are allowed to deplane after the VIPs are whisked away in a small convoy of armored limos and SUVs. With the excitement dying down, we are met by a huge bodyguard named Arthur who collects our bags and gets us quickly through the police paperwork process. Oleg and I hop into a Mercedes SUV with blacked out windows and off we race into town. The motor is quite powerful and accelerates to 160 kph in short order shooting past other cars, our lights flashing and horn blaring. We rocket past orchards and fields of crops , a huge vodka distilling plant and then into town. The people are dark haired with brown eyes and decent looking clothes. Arthur checks out each and every attractive female while weaving through traffic and I am afraid we will be the cause of a fatal wreck with one of the dilapidated streetcars, dirty buses, ancient smoking trucks, forlorn autos or lackadaisical pedestrians clogging the roadways. There are dozens of typical Soviet Bloc style concrete apartment complexes that look terrible to live in with clothing hanging out to dry from nearly every balcony. Construction projects are in progress all over on the dilapidated structures, some just needing paint, to others that seem to be totally gutted. Flags, monuments, statues, and propaganda posters are everywhere. The Mercedes lurches to a halt at the regional wildlife management office where we meet the boss, Serra, a short solid fellow in his mid fifties with close cropped hair and a Makarov on his belt. He is the chief director of hunting in North Ossetia. The compound has an old BMP tank in the front yard and the building has half a dozen guards milling about with Kalshnikov automatic rifles and hand grenades. Weeds sprout from the pavement and sidewalks and the trees have not been trimmed or lawn mowed for ages. The office is also very poorly maintained with peeling paint, exposed electrical wires protruding from walls, broken railings, doors and steps. There are framed photographs on the walls of VIPs like Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin, and many others posing with Serra. We leave Arthur at the office, Serra fires up the Mercedes and we race to the hunting lodge about 30 minutes away just on the outskirts of town. It is another military compound surrounded by double fences and many guards to keep out the riffraff. We are welcomed by the staff of cooks, maids and soldiers.
There is a huge banquet hall filled with a few dozen partiers celebrating a birthday or something. The place is very fancy with marble floors, walls, columns, staircases, buttresses, crystal chandeliers, Persian rugs, and beautiful hanging tapestries, but again it is shabby and needs lots of work to be freshened up. The quarters Oleg and I will share is one of several very nice suites with two bedrooms, a dining room, bathroom, sitting room and private balcony looking out to the not so distant mountains covered at the moment in thick fog. There are to be no other hunters here for the week I am told. From here we will head out to hunt a couple days at a time. Serra takes me out to a nearby field to shoot my .300 Remington UltraMag. It is dead on at 200yds. We return to enjoy dinner of ribs, tur meat, pizza pie, tomatoes, cucumbers, soup, bread, vodka, lemonade and mineral water. Serra offers many toasts to St. George, friendship, Ossetia, family and good luck hunting. After dinner I find that we will head out in the morning at 5AM to hunt chamois in an area close by. We have not yet received the proper authorization to enter the frontier border area for Tur hunting. I am quite excited and eager to get started. I arrange my gear for the morning hunt.

I wake up early, eat some eggs and drink power juice while Oleg wolfs down oatmeal and coffee. When we are finished Serra arrives and whisks us an hour away to a small village where we meet up with the local guides. The rough looking men all shake hands and introduce themselves, but I do not really catch their names due to the language barrier. They are FSB border guards that moonlight as hunting guides. Some are older, some are younger, but they all look pretty tough. They have mismatched uniforms and old battered looking weapons, but look like they can run up and down the mountains all day long. Serra departs and we pile into a Russian truck meant for four people. We squeeze in eight! The cigarette smoke is thick and the men stink badly. The engine shares the passenger compartment, so it gets hot in a hurry. We drive into a pasture and begin to climb in low gear up the mountain on a rough track clinging to the hard rock. As we slam back and forth I wonder if I am becoming prone to carsickness. Thankful for fresh air, we finally climb out and walking sticks are issued. One soldier grabs my pack and another takes my rifle. Great, I only need to carry myself. We file along up the small mountains as the point men quickly outdistance me, but Oleg and several others match my pace, so I assume I will be ok. After a few hours with no water I am hurting, but unwilling to slow down and show it. The point men spot a nice ram chamois and urge me to rush into position for a shot before it moves away. I chase two of the guys, Aslan the leader and Yuri, one of the younger guys carrying my gear, leaving all the others behind with radios watching through binoculars and updating our progress compared to the goat's position. I have lost my interpreter and am now being forced to move fast. I tire out quickly as the climbing intensifies. When I finally arrive the ram is moving, but only 220 yard away. I try to get into a decent prone position, but can not find the chamois in the scope. Then when I can see him the range is 380, then 450, then 620 yards. No shot. Aslan and Yuri seem a little disgusted with me as we head back to rejoin the others, then thick fog rolls in covering the mountains all around. We eat a meager lunch of bread, apples, tomatoes, and sausage. I am beat. No water, dehydrated, very dizzy and lightheaded. The cool rain is nice and we hunker down to wait for the fog to pass. It does not go away, and in fact some times it is hard to see 20 feet. The trek back to the vehicle is a tough one. The ride in the smoke filled wheeled coffin crammed with eight guys is terrible. We stop at Aslan’s home and wait a couple hours for Serra to come back and get us. I see several nice trophies that Aslan has collected over years of hunting and many pictures of hunts that the team has been involved with. They share some homemade cheese, soup, liver, and chamois meat. It is all terrible. The mineral water from a local spring is pretty bad too, but at least it is wet. There is a huge dog lying on the floor that is only 8 months old, but already 150 pounds. It is for guarding sheep against the wolves that roam the hills. When Serra arrives, I am certainly ready to go. After a quick dinner I collapse into bed. I am hoping to do better tomorrow, but the fog stays for three more days.!!!

In the morning, the fog shrouds the mountains and there is no chance that we can go into the hills. After breakfast, some writing, some reading, lunch and a lot of napping, I am ready to do just about anything that gets me out of the lodge. Arthur comes after lunch and takes us around Vladikavkaz in a battered Mercedes sedan. We stop at the town square where there are many beautiful memorials to WWII heroes, a monument to the victims of the Beslan school massacre, a monument depicting the Ossetians joining with Katherine the Great, and a cemetery of local heroes, writers, artists, mayors and other VIPs with ornately engraved tombstones. The sky is overcast and it sprinkles occasionally. There is little activity in the city, with people staying inside to avoid the unseasonably poor weather. My disguise seems to be working, as no one really even glances at me.

We drive a few miles to the site of the Beslan school massacre where September 1-3, 2004 a dozen Chechnyan terrorists held over a thousand children and teachers hostage. The site is very humbling. There are burned out buildings pocked with thousands of bullets impacts and craters. It is awful. In the main gymnasium there are hundreds of water bottles with flowers stuck in them, symbolizing that the terrorists kept the frightened hostages from having any water, food or restroom visits for three days. There are wreathes, flowers and pictures and of all the victims. The room is not too large, but nearly 300 people were murdered here. There are dark stains on the walls and floors from what I assume is blood. 187 children, 117 teachers, and 12 spetznaz soldiers were slaughtered and all 12 terrorists were killed. Nearly 820 people were also horribly wounded. These people are Orthodox Christians at war with their Muslim extremist neighbors in Chechnya, Dagestan and Azerbaijan. All this horror causes my blood to boil. I start to get dizzy and have to get out of the building. We wander among the ruins for half an hour without speaking. A solemn soldier stands in a courtyard silently gazing at the ruins. A busload of student athletes files into the site with heads bowed. Next we drive to the graveyard where all the victims are buried. The site is maintained by several soldiers. It is a very respectful memorial, but extremely sad. A family of six children buried side by side, a family three, and on and on. Over 300 nearly identical headstones, each with an engraved picture of the victim. A statue of angels rises over the memorial garden. It is enough for me. We leave, heading back to the city, spirits lowered considerably, and take a short walk along the riverfront. I see the capitol building, the police station, and the presidential office. After a few smokes, Arthur drives us back to the compound.

For dinner we have pizza rolls, meat, soup, fresh salsa, vegetables, and beets. Of course vodka! We are joined by the Vladikavkaz police chief and his family and some other local dignitaries. Toasts and good food. The table manners are confusing. They reach for food with their hands and do not use napkins. They all slouch and rest their elbows on the table, but they hold their knives and forks very properly. Lots of laughing, many old stories, but no English. I end up talking to the police chief’s wife and daughter who speak English well enough for me to understand a little. The evening comes to an end and all of the important people and their entourages depart.

The next day is similar. Fog and no chance to go into the mountains. More reading, writing and sleeping.
After lunch Natasha takes Oleg and me on a drive to her hometown in a valley an hour away. The town is a tiny mining community with a roaring river, narrow road and long thin sliver of apartment buildings crammed in against the valley walls. She shows us the apartment where she was born and the school she attended. The road is very winding with tunnels and steep walls. Mine shafts bore into the sides. Most of the factories and mine facilities look abandoned. An important natural gas pipeline also shares the valley. Many guard posts with soldiers, machineguns, sandbags and bunkers stand ready to defend the road and pipeline due to the Georgian conflict which is not really quite over. We stop at a massive stone statue of a king said to bring good luck to hunters. The mountains rise steeply thousands of feet above us disappearing into the clouds and fog. I actually catch a brief glimpse of the blue sky high above as we visit the site. Maybe the legend is true and this fellow will help me by clearing the sky.

We return to the lodge at last and have dinner with Serra, Natasha and her two sisters. One of the sisters speaks English and talks about how much she likes America and would love to go there, especially New York City. She is amazed to find out that I have not been there. The evening ends and again I hope for a break in the weather.

The next day is all about napping and reading and being cooped up in the lodge. We eat alone, but receive word from the guards that the weather is clearing for tomorrow and we will go out at 4AM to hunt chamois in another area where we are cleared to enter the border frontier zone. The Tur area is still closed. I wonder if I will get to hunt for Tur at all. I hope so. I have had enough rest.

I have seen and experienced a lot, but want to get to what I really came for.
The time has come for hunting. Up early, power drink, light pack, good mountaineering clothes, a short drive with Serra to meet the hunt team on the road. A drive of a few hours. It is dark so I can not see much crammed in with six smoking Russians. I just try not to get sick. We stop at a village and a couple more guys join us. They have seen chamois in the valley nearby. The fog is light and burning off as the sun rises. We proceed to a checkpoint where soldiers examine our documents. They are very polite, but curious about me. Where am I from, why am I here? …. They have a boring job. We drive along the valley past some abandoned fortifications from the Georgian conflict and then I get out with two soldiers for a climb up the mountain. The truck departs and begins dropping off guys with radios and binoculars along the road at intervals to glass for goats while I scramble to get up the slope and into position. A group of twenty chamois is spotted and I go with the two young soldiers to get in close. It sounds easy. With an audience watching every move from 3000 feet below and 2 miles away, I struggle to keep up as we scramble on the shale and boulders staying low in stream ravines and edge slowly up ridges to carefully peer over trying to catch a glimpse of our quarry. What looks so easy from below is not easy on the mountain. I see thousands of polka dots on the mountainside across the valley. I can not understand what it is and since the guys with me do not speak English, I can not ask. Eventually I realize that the polka dots are shell craters. The old darker vegetation has been blown away and new lighter colored growth has replaced it. The whole mountainside was shelled 8 months ago during the war. My hypothesis is confirmed as I begin to find dozens of parts of shell casings, fuses, guide fins and shrapnel broken and scattered on the rocky terrain we are traversing. I am hoping and praying not to run into any unexploded ordnance or artillery deployed mines. Georgia is only a kilometer away on the backside of the mountain we are climbing.

Eventually after six hours of hard climbing and crawling, we are able to see some chamois. They see us too and run away! The radio guys say they have only gone a little way. A little way for them is just two ridges. For us it is a long way and takes quite a great deal of effort. There nearly 35 individuals, some smaller ones closer and one or two larger ones farther off 600-700 yards distant. Attempts at asking the soldiers which to shoot are fruitless. I am finally able to set up for a 340 yard shot at a resting chamois below us. It is the best animal I can see within range. I calm down and focus on the target taking time to consider all the factors in play. Two dry fires and then squeeze, squeeze,….. BANG! The chamois jumps up and runs away. The soldiers jabber excitedly and I can not understand. Are they saying I missed? Is the animal wounded? Is it dead? I can not tell what is going on, but one guy wants me to give him my rifle. I hand over the gun and he fires a single round. I look through my Swarovski binoculars at the running herd of chamois, but I do not see what the guy shot at. They vigorously shake my hand and indicate that it is dead. I am slightly disheartened to think that the guide shot my ram. The other goats have all run over the mountain into Georgia. The 380 yards takes me an hour due to the slippery rockslide and having to take a somewhat safe circuitous route to the chamois landing site. The shot felt good and I am confused when they begin to indicate that two chamois are dead. I am worried about what happened and if I shot two and what the fee will be. One is a baby and the other is a decent size female. I know I shot the female and not the baby, but was there a ricochet or pass through? I try to get them to take decent pictures, but they do not quite understand what I want. The pictures are ok, but not great. The terrain makes it really hard to maneuver without sliding down the steep rockslide. They start to pack up, dragging my chamois. I attempt to get them to see that the hair is being ruined and stop them. I put the goat on my shoulders and show what I want. They are hesitant to do this, but eventually agree to tie it to a walking stick and carry it between them while I drag the baby down with me. We descend the rock slide for thousands of feet to where there is some grass and it is relatively flat. The other guys from down below have worked their way up to us and we have another round of photos. This time Oleg takes care of things and the quality improves significantly. I explain how I want the cape done, as Oleg explains that I hit the female and Alec shot the baby himself for the meat. Much relieved and feeling better about myself, I am then sent down the valley for the two hour hike to the truck. I have had no lunch and am very tired. At least there is a rough path to follow. I see some soldiers patrolling the opposite mountainside and they wave as they go by, saluting my success. I feel much better and am enthralled at having worked pretty darn hard for my fourth chamois. The trek ends and I sit down to eat some of the food set out by Aslan who passed by me on his way down. The chicken, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, and Snickers bar are superb. I drink deeply from a stream and relax, waiting for the rest of the team to complete the hike. The drive back is a blur, dropping off soldiers, receiving congratulations, and a three hour drive back to the lodge. We stop for ice cream and fuel. At the lodge there are toasts, vodka, pizza, meat, salsa, vegetables and bread. It is a short meal much to my liking, and best of all, Serra says the Tur area authorization has come through. I am to pack my gear very light for a couple nights on the mountain. It will be very hard I am told and I hope and pray I am prepared. So far it has been hard, but not too bad. I dream about the successful chamois encounter and the coming tur expedition.

At 2 AM it is time to get going again.
I have packed my gear into a Kelty 3200 pack. It does not seem like a very large pack, but I have stuffed it pretty full. Rain gear, aid kit, vest, jacket, wool hat, socks, sleeping bag, water, power food, sat phone, GPS, wind indicator, ammo…. It seems like 20 pounds is not much, but add a 10 pound loaded rifle with scope and bipod and a 12 hour assault on the Caucasus Mountains from 4000 feet to 13000feet at up to 60 degree incline, loose shale, snow covered boulder fields, ice, running water, etc and it becomes a real load.
The three hour ride in the hunt van full of smoke is not a real joy on winding roads. Did I mention that the Russians are not really very safe drivers? Speeding, overdriving headlights, narrow roads, wandering livestock, tailgating, passing blindly, weaving.
We come to a small village and the ruins of a Soviet era resort. The massive hotel is like a concrete fortress, once the pride of the tourist industry, now stripped to the shell and left to decay. We need to report in to the border guard base camp. It has a detachment of about 50 soldiers, dogs, and a couple heavy trucks. They are responsible for patrolling the mountainous border on foot and by helicopter. These guards are very businesslike. A staff officer appears taking our papers and then reemerges 45 minutes later, wishing us luck. We are off. The van winds its way up a narrow dirt track as far as possible until the road ahead is washed out. There is a guard bunker with tripod mounted binoculars and machinegun. The two kids on duty are excited to see us and wish they could go with up into the mountain instead of dying of boredom watching the river flow by down at the bottom of the valley. We dismount and leave our packs for donkeys to carry part of the way for us. The path is very rough and tangled. It was once a road that was carved into the hillside but has had hundreds of washouts and rockslides, so it is now an obstacle course. I enjoy the hike and lead the pack for the 4 hour, 10 mile trek. It is beautiful; the path ends at a hot springs near the face of a large glacier. Two glaciologists we passed on their way out said they saw many Tur, but up pretty high while they were doing their work and tests on the glacier over the last few days. I feel pretty good about things as we strip off our clothes and relax in the hot tub like springs, but when the donkeys catch up, we have a quick lunch and hoist on the packs. It is a nice sunny 55 degree day, little wind, the roar of the icy glacier fed stream behind. Then starts the hard part. We are going up there. Aslan indicates the top of the mountain towering overhead. The climb is very ,very difficult, easily the hardest physical endeavor I have ever undertaken. The mountain side is a 60 degree slope, very rough, rolling rocks, slippery moss, and hidden crevasses. As we get higher, it gets colder, windier and steeper. Ice and snow cover the hellish terrain. The soldiers move very quickly compared to my snail pace. I can feel the weight, measuring each step, careful not to tumble down and injure myself. It is not like a shear cliff, but the incline is steep, rough and relentless. Each false peak is a spot to rest and gather strength for the assault on the next section. In between it is really too dangerous to stop and rest. Finding stable footing was a major challenge. I handle the fatigue well, and discipline myself to keep moving. As we continue to ascend, I can certainly feel the reduction in oxygen. We need to hunker down and hide several times while passing groups of Tur move by. They have a shrill alarm call and stay far away. They are much higher and can see us when they look down. They do not run off, but stare and call at us. We even have some cross behind and below us a hundred feet and 5 minutes after we pass. A female comes to investigate and in my cramped position, I turn my head slightly and notice that she is only 30 yards away. Eventually we decide we have to keep moving or we will not make it to the top by dark. Climbing in the dark would be too risky. We come to a cave where some meager supplies are stashed and have a drink, some food and collapse into our bags. Oleg has a small tent that he erects on an area with a 20degree slope. It is terribly rocky and uncomfortable. I sleep very little, as I can not breathe well and the ground is so bad.

In the early morning, the rocks are ice covered, it is foggy and in the near darkness I can hardly see to walk, my depth perception is quite bad for judging my footing on the rough uneven rockslides. We must ascend another 1500 feet, nearly to the very top. I leave all but my loaded rifle, binoculars, laser and camera. It is 10F and very windy. The guides know the area where the Tur will cross the mountain top into Georgia and we are rushing to get there before they do. We maneuver into position and setup before the sun rises over the opposite ridge. Aslan and Saslan spot a group of Tur making their way toward us and I can sense the excitement. The soldiers are slightly higher than me and can see over the ridge and across the canyon, but I can not. I hope and pray that I will I get a shot. The time comes. Aslan motions for me to get ready to shoot. I can not see my target yet, but then suddenly I see a small band of Tur moving rapidly up the next peak over. I pick the largest horns in the group and get ready to shoot. It is 380 yards, 10F, 15mph cross wind, down angle 15degrees. I concentrate on what Chip, Doug and Tim taught me in Texas SAAM and gently squeeze the trigger. The massive report surprises me and I see burly goats running over the border into Georgia. I lost sight of my target, but Aslan hollers something and points. I aim again and try to get the right animal in the crosshairs. I can not tell. There it is! Bleeding from a hit a bit far back, limping badly, now at 450 yards and running. Another two shots follow wildly, almost certainly off the mark. The good news is that my Tur ran down the ridge and not up and over with the others to Georgia. The bad news is that I can no longer see my goat and my rate of movement is so slow that I have no real hope of catching up to it. Aslan scrambles off in a hurry with his rifle at the ready. He moves in 20 minutes what would take me an hour. He is speaking into the radio excitedly, but Saslan can not tell me what is going on, so I am left to guess. Oleg has made his way to me as I hear two shots from the distant Aslan. Oleg translates that Aslan found my Tur dead and decided to shoot an old one with a broken foot for himself that was coming toward him in another group. We shake hands and then work over the rough mountainside ridges and shale slides toward the fallen Turs. It takes an hour to go 500 yards, but when I reach the fallen ram, I am extremely excited. Thank God for helping me to be strong enough to do this crazy hunt. I lay down on the animal hugging the 350 pound body. What a magnificent animal! Aslan slaps me in the head with his hat and then repeats the motion to the tur, as a show of respect and honor for the hunter and the sacrifice of the ram. Oleg takes pictures of me and the Tur and then it is time to get moving. I hear thump, thump, thump as a huge HIND patrol helicopter armed with rocket pods and automatic cannons passes down the valley, actually below us. It is a very intimidating machine. I can not imagine having something like that come looking for me. Aslan and Saslan roll the two turs down a thousand feet to a place where the other guys can meet us. More handshakes, and they pat the Tur and me with their hats. Everyone is excited about the successful hunt. They start caping and remove the heart giving it to me, motioning to take a bite. I bite into the tough muscle splashing my face with hot fresh blood. The guys broke camp and brought it to us. We have a quick meal , I put my pack back on and head down with Saslan who pulls Aslan’s Tur with him, while Alec, Yuri and Aslan cape my Tur under Oleg’s watchful eye. It has been an awesome experience, but I am very happy to be done and headed down. The trek down is much harder than up. The going is so treacherous, that my mind hurts and I have a terrible headache from the stress of picking foot positions, and taking chances as I descend. I am making slow but steady progress and relishing the thought of the fresh icy streams below. After four hours of descent I hear a curious noise from above. It is a thumping rumble. I see a large pack tumbling down from several thousand feet above me bumping and rolling down the steep mountain side. It passes near me and I see it is battered and beat-up terribly. Luckily no one got hit or fell with it. It was filled with a hundred pounds of meat and supplies. It continues past me and tumbles out of view. I later find out that it was Aslan's pack. He stopped for a rest and took the pack off, jarring it and it was gone. It took maybe 15 minutes to tumble 2 miles down the mountain and come to a rest very near the trail back to the guard base. Almost like it was planned, except the radio, binoculars and spotting scope were also inside, but now in many smaller pieces. For six more hours I slowly work my way down and Saslan has patiently stayed just a few hundred yards ahead to guide me and make sure I pick a safe (relative term) route. I come to some water cascading down from cracks in the rocks and drink in as much as I can. I make myself continue and stay focused so I do not end up dead. When I finally reach the bottom, I am spent. I lie back and wait as the others come down, watching their progress and marveling at their skill and agility. Oleg is not coming though. When everyone has gotten down to safety, 90 minutes pass and Oleg is still nowhere to be seen. Aslan is worried and heads back up into the ravine we assume he should have been coming down. 15 minutes later Aslan yells and waves his arms. Alec and Yuri race after Aslan. Later, watching through binoculars, I see the three soldiers carrying Oleg’s slumped body. His head bobs and he is speaking, but in a great deal of pain. Luckily they found him quickly and it was near the trail, not too high up. He fell 50 meters into a rocky ravine breaking his left ankle and right foot. I can do little to help but smile and offer a drink of water. Alec and Yuri stay with Oleg and keep him as comfortable as possible while the rest of us walk out with the small donkeys loaded down with several hundred pounds of meat, trophies and supplies. We each take extra packs from Oleg, Alec and Yuri. The walk along the washed out mountain path is another torturous six hours, much slower than the trek in, now that we are loaded down with gear. It begins to rain about half way back. It is dark when we get to the guard post. Aslan drives the van to a village to borrow a horse and returns for get Oleg. I sit in the guard bunker while the soldiers visit on their cell phones and smoke. Hours later when it is time to go, we all clamber into the van and try to keep Oleg from jostling too much. He refuses to take pain medication and does not talk much. We are all pretty quiet on the ride in the dark foggy rainy shroud that has descended with us. The mountains closed up right after I shot the Tur. I am glad the hunt worked out, but am worried about Oleg and what I will do if he is unable to get me safely out of the country. At the lodge, I give Aslan my spotting scope, thank the guides who are eager to get home at 5AM after a long day and participate in one last Vodka toast. It is awful. I wonder what will happen if Oleg does not return from the hospital. Several hours later with two casts, and a shy grin he tells me to get in the car with my gear to go. He has survived, but now will need several months to heal, keeping him stuck at home with his wife. Special arrangements are made at the airport for an ambulance and help by a couple bodyguards for getting on the plane. I sleep on the flight to Moscow and we are met at the walkway by Alexi, Oleg’s son who helps me to take Oleg to the car. The gun paperwork and customs emigration is a horror show of paperwork and trouble, but eventually all the officials get their rubber ink stamps in the correct locations and I am free to leave Russia. The trophies have to stay to be detailed and dried in salt, but soon enough they will have a new home with my collection in Minnesota. I sleep most of the way home and reflect that I am not in a real hurry to repeat my Caucasian adventure any time soon….well until the next time when I have forgotten all the hardships and can only remember the glory the Caucus mountains and my magnificent East Dagestan Tur.