F&S Classics: Dying within the Tien Shan

Area & Stream On-line Editors

Dennie and Spook Spann, father and son, traveled 8,000 miles from their Tennessee house for a shot at Marco Polo sheep in one of the vital punishing landscapes on the planet: Kyrgyzstan’s Tien Shan mountains. They scrambled up sheer-sided cliffs, bought stranded by a monster blizzard, and endured minus-30-degree temperatures. It was powerful and challenging-the journey of a lifetime. Then tragedy struck. A real story of dying, survival, and the excessive value of searching on the ends of the Earth.

The rams had been magnificent. There have been 9 of them crossing a snowy facet canyon in one of many world’s farthest-flung corners-central Asia’s Tien Shan vary, on Kyrgyzstan’s southeastern border with China. Within the mushy afternoon mild they had been oblivious to the hunter-and the videographer recording him-just a couple of hundred yards downhill.

These had been the famed Marco Polo sheep: vibrant white and sporting large spiraling horns, they’re one of many searching world’s rarest trophies. William “Spook” Spann had traveled to this distant land from his house in White Bluff, Tennessee, to hunt the majestic animals, and he’d noticed the one he wished. “So we bought the video arrange,” he says. “I bought down with my rifle. I had him scoped at 320 yards. He was full facet to me. Then one thing made the sheep nervous. They bunched up defensively and moved up the mountainside.”

It was the third day of a two-week hunt that Spann, 41, and his father, Dennie, 65, had every spent upwards of $15,000 (which included permits for one Marco Polo ram and one ibex) to expertise. Spook, an achieved, rope-muscled hunter whose October 31 birthday begat his lifelong nickname, was stalking the trophy he had come to take. However he didn’t shoot, although the sheep had been shifting away.

“Then they break up once more,” Spook says. “And I noticed the ram I’d seen initially. He was a lot larger than the others. I shot him at 400 yards.”

Spann’s .300 Jarrett roared as soon as, after which twice once more. The ram went down, going through uphill close to a grey rock outcrop. Its horns had been broomed; their ends had snapped off as a consequence of battle or previous age. Nonetheless, it was a world-class specimen. The rack’s measurements—full lengths plus 4 circumference factors—gave it an unofficial Safari Membership Worldwide rating of 212, making it the Thirty fifth-ranked Marco Polo ram ever taken.

Spook and his information skinned the ram’s cranium, horns, and cape for mounting, they usually quartered the 400-pound animal to move it out on horseback. It was one o’clock within the morning earlier than they made it again to camp.

“I used to be thrilled,” Spook says. “I used to be having the journey of my life.” Little did Spook and Dennie know: They had been about to get greater than that they had bargained for. Quickly they’d be in a battle for his or her lives. Earlier than it was over, they’d even fall out of the sky.


Their journey had begun 18 months earlier. Spook, a central Tennessee developer, and his dad, Dennie, a timber and sawmill operator, had hunted collectively for 3 many years, chasing each North American trophy: deer, elk, black and brown bear, moose, and Dall and desert bighorn sheep.

Then Spook was speaking to George Sevich, proprietor of Gaithersburg, Maryland-based Eurasian Expeditions, who instructed him a couple of Marco Polo sheep hunt he was organizing. Over the subsequent 12 months, father and son crammed out paperwork, made deposits, and educated for what promised to be a bodily demanding journey. They left Nashville on February 26 and flew to Washington, D.C., Frankfurt, and Moscow. There they joined up with Canadian videographer Clay Lancaster earlier than jetting on to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, previously part of the Soviet Union.

Kyrgyzstan, tucked between Kazakhstan and China, is arguably the world’s most mountainous nation. The Tien Shan (Heavenly Mountains), which span roughly 1,500 miles and rise greater than 24,000 toes in locations, are characterised by steepidges and slim valleys with little vegetation. Heavy snows will be anticipated from November to March. It is without doubt one of the most forbidding locations on earth-perfect sheep terrain.

After assembly with the guides and interpreters in Bishkek, the Spanns boarded a convoy of automobiles, together with a heavy six-wheeled Russian Military truck, a four-wheeled Military automobile, a Russian-style jeep, and a passenger van. For six hours they drove southeast to Naryn, an outpost on the sting of the huge wilderness. They spent the night time there after which pushed on for the Kyrgyz-China border, one other 30 hours and 110 miles by truck by means of snow-smothered, desolate valleys devoid of timber and deep within the Tien Shan vary.

For practically two weeks, the Spanns, Lancaster, and the 14-member Kyrgyzstani group hunted on horseback by means of the rugged Tien Shan excessive nation, a lot of the time at or above 10,000 toes in blowing snow. At night time, when the temperatures plunged to minus 30 levels, they bunked in a standard brick and tile-roofed constructing containing 4 small rooms round a coal range. For dinner they sat on the ground and ate the native fare: goat or mutton meat roasted on a stick.

All through the journey it snowed day by day. In the course of the convoy trip to camp, their automobiles bought caught a number of instances on the unplowed roads. Because the hunt progressed, the snow continued to fall.

“It wouldn’t simply snow a bit of,” says Dennie. “It could whiteout snow. Then the celebrities or the solar would come out. I’d suppose: What stunning, arduous nation that is.”

After they shot their Marco Polo rams and ibexes—Dennie’s ram measured a Safari Membership rating of 204—the hunt got here to an finish. It was March 13. By now, everybody—together with the Kyrgyzstanis—was involved concerning the heavy snows and whether or not they would be capable to drive the automobiles in it. They broke camp, loaded up the convoy, and began again towards Naryn. In lower than 100 yards, the van slowed down.


With 7-foot snowdrifts obscuring the street, the group determined to desert all the opposite automobiles and trip collectively within the Russian six-wheeler, which was heavier and plowed by means of the snow extra simply. However the large truck needed to be dug out repeatedly, and it wore everybody down. Ultimately, Dennie, who had been driving heavy gear by means of mud on the sawmill again house all his life, took the wheel, and he was capable of hold the truck shifting all afternoon. However as night fell, the snow grew deeper and the route turned tougher to see, they usually determined to cease for the night time.

By the next morning, March 15, extra snow had fallen—the truck was now snowed in—and with no wooden round to make a fireplace, the group was shivering after an evening within the subzero temperatures. Plus, they had been working out of provisions. Spook post-holed by means of the drifts to retrieve water from a close-by river, and the guides began burning nonessential gear to maintain heat. The satellite tv for pc telephone, which they’d used to name for assist, was working low on battery energy.

On the third morning—after one other frigid night time—Spook was struggling to the river once more to fetch water when he heard the throaty whump-whump of a Russian Mi-8 helicopter coming to their rescue. The chopper, a troop provider painted aqua and white, was simply seen in opposition to the pale winter sky. It set down close to the truck, and three Kyrgyz authorities officers stepped out bearing sandwiches, pickles, water, and Cokes. “It was such a reduction,” Dennie says. “We had been saying, ‘Okay, after we eat, let’s get our stuff and go.’”

Throughout lunch Spook studied the plane, noticing that its passenger bay, the place the long-range gasoline tanks had been additionally saved, appeared cramped. “I’d heard these Russian helicopters had been all cracklety, but it surely appeared high-quality,” he says. The pilot, Yuriy Khramushchin, was among the many most skilled within the nation—he had been ferrying Kyrgyz and international dignitaries across the nation for years, and Spook wasn’t involved. “Every thing appeared nice,” he says. “After two and a half days behind that truck, we had been able to go.”

As they had been making ready to depart, the ziinnnng of snowmobiles started to float in from past a ridge. In minutes, three machines and their riders—sporting uniforms with acquainted insignias on them—slid to a cease close to the helicopter. It was a group of U.S. Border Patrol officers: senior agent Jim Bunner, agent Raymond “Mark” Overholt, and border safety advisor Barry Johnson. The three had been in Kyrgyzstan on an antiterror coaching mission, instructing the Kyrgyzstani border guards at Masatyr, an immigration checkpoint.

“We heard People had been up within the mountains, misplaced and stranded,” says Johnson. “So we went searching for them. We’d began wanting the night time earlier than, however looking the valley at night time was pointless. The subsequent morning, as we began looking, we noticed the helicopter touching down.”

The brokers supplied the Spanns a trip again to Masatyr on their snowmobiles, however Spook and Dennie determined that the helicopter was a greater approach to go. With the final of the gear loaded aboard, the expedition members climbed into the Mi-8. The cabin was packed, however no person appeared to care. Individuals had been jammed into odd corners for the quick flight to Masatyr, the place they’d switch to vans certain for Naryn after which on to Bishkek.

Simply earlier than the helicopter took off, Spook turned to Lancaster—a licensed pilot—and requested whether or not he thought the craft was overloaded. Lancaster glanced round. In his evaluation, with 24 individuals (17 within the searching celebration, plus seven crewmen and authorities officers) and all their gear, the helicopter appeared totally loaded. However earlier than Lancaster, Spann, or anybody may query the crew about it, the rotors clattered into movement, the panorama was obscured by blowing snow, and, with a lurch, the plane rose into the sky. “It struggled,” says Johnson, who watched from the bottom. “At one level, its rotors virtually hit the truck.” However after a second, the helicopter gained altitude and headed down the valley.

After the sluggish liftoff, they climbed greater because the truck shrank within the distance, and the pilot turned to Spook and requested him for his sun shades so he may see by means of the glare of the solar and the snow. Within the blinding white panorama, he was having bother discovering a reference level. Spook handed them up. They had been flying down the valley at greater than 100 knots, making for Ak-Beet Go, the one notch within the 15,000-foot peaks rimming the valley. The pilot requested everybody to maneuver forward-the tail was dragging barely, they usually had been dropping altitude. A crewman pointed towards the tail, to point out it was sloping downward when…WHAM!

The submit F&S Classics: Death in the Tien Shan appeared first on Field & Stream.

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