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Stalking ibex in the Himalayas

The steep-sided Himalayan uplands provide a spectacular backdrop for stalking Pakistan’s well-managed ibex population, but it’s not a journey to be undertaken lightly, recalls Thomas Nissen

My stomach flips again as I stare into the gorge that is racing past less than a metre from the car’s passenger window. Far below the narrow, twisting road, I can see the thin line of a river. A sheer mountain wall that waits to crush any vehicle foolish enough to wander from its lane scrolls past on the other side of the car. A bend comes at us. I close my eyes but can’t escape the centrifugal force and my sense of dread as we hurtle around the turn above the precipitous drops. 

We’re on our way from Islamabad to Gilgit along Karakoram Highway, one of the world’s most dangerous roads. We didn’t plan it this way. When my friend Jens Kjaer Knudsen had invited me to accompany him on an ibex hunt in Pakistan, we intended to travel by plane to Gilgit Airport. However, that was before unfavourable weather forced the flight to be cancelled for three days in a row. Fed up with the delays, we decided to make the trip by car. 


Machine guns

Now, darkness is falling, and the trip along the treacherous, snaking carriageway is still not over. At dusk, we’re waved to a stop at a police checkpoint. Officers insist on escorting us through the next stretch of mountain passes to protect us from so-called bandits. Their vehicle, a pickup truck with three machine-gun-armed, masked officers posted on the back, starts to follow us. 

One of the policemen is standing with his weapon facing the road ahead; the other two are seated with their barrels pointing along the dark highway behind us. They take us as far as the next checkpoint. For me, the greatest danger seems to be the other motorists, all of whom seem inured to the fact that they’re driving along a road with no crash barriers and certain death awaiting any driver who goes off the road.  

Many hours are spent spotting animals and studying the goats

Relief doesn’t begin to cover my feelings when we finally arrive safely at our luxury hotel in Gilgit at around midnight. I’m not even phased by the hotel’s heavy security presence or their insistence on scanning our luggage for explosives. The nightmare road is behind us, and I’m asleep as soon as my head touches the pillow. 

The following morning, we begin our journey to the town of Sost in Upper Hunza, the region where our stalking will take place. It’s a four-hour drive along snow-covered mountain roads, but it’s a tranquil route compared to the Karakoram Highway.  After an overnight stop, we hike further into the mountains towards our fly camp: a shepherd’s village with a few stone houses located at an altitude of 3,600m, about 100km from the famous K2 mountain. 

The sheer mountainsides are beautiful and scary in equal measure, but the ibex are quite at home


Handsome specimens

As we trek through the valley, we spy our first group of Himalayan ibex, including a beautiful, if not spectacular, buck. We still have six days for our expedition, so we’re content to enjoy the sight. There’s no reason to use the one licence Jens has secured this early in the trip. After all, the game management in this part of Pakistan is exemplary, and with the promise of reasonable weather during our stay, we’re confident of meeting plenty of handsome specimens over the coming days. 

The mountain village where our camp is located is perched on a small plateau overlooking a gorge with barren cliffs, which plummet vertically to the river below. To reach the settlement, we first scramble up a 50m scree slope to reach a narrow ledge that clings precariously to the cliffside. The track is barely 40cm across in places. My legs tremble as I take the last 10 steps, and I pray they won’t give way under me. As I reach the relative safety of the plateau, I risk a glance over my right shoulder, realising only then that an icy incline edged the final part of the path. If I had stepped there, I would have slipped to my death.    

The village men help to bring the animal home along narrow mountain ledges and across icy rivers

I’m a wreck. I have a severe fear of heights, which is a constant challenge when stalking in the mountains. Why do I put myself through all that fear by reporting on hunts in these locations? I ponder the question for a moment, but the answer is all around me: the mountains are so beautiful and the stalking so amazing that I just cannot help agreeing. 


Fresh tracks

As we move away from the cliff edge, I begin to relax. We spend the rest of the afternoon searching further into the valley. Moving quietly, we soon find almost-fresh traces of snow leopard and ibex. The goats are in the next valley, high on the mountainside, but there are no shootable bucks. As darkness begins to fall, we leave the ibex to their foraging and head back to the traditional house where we will be staying. 

Our accommodation is home to three generations of the same family, who lavish us with hospitality and delicious food. As you might expect, Pakistani cuisine is something of a fusion of Turkish and Indian dishes. We are served three meals a day and tea during our stay. Dinner is a banquet, with tasty soup, spicy meat dishes, rice, pasta or potatoes and vegetables, and some form of pudding for dessert. 

The area holds a dense population of Himalayan ibex. The group see many bucks, but a licence system controls the number of animals taken each year

Patience pays off, and on the evening of the third day, the team spot their chosen quarry, returning the following morning to take the shot

The following morning, we have local spotters posted across several valleys so that we can investigate as many as possible for the right buck. The mountains are incredibly high and remarkably steep. The only way to search the terrain is from the valley floor. That’s also where the shot will come from once the animals move down. They tend to spend the morning and evening on the lower slopes, which are filled with loose stone and gravel, and pass the middle of the day resting in the cliffs high up.  

We continue this pattern of searching for three days. No matter how many eyes we have scouring the landscape, prize specimens that can be taken this season elude us. It isn’t until the evening of the third day that we spot our quarry. The buck in question is still high on the mountain across the gorge, but below him, on the flatter area, we can see a herd of females feeding alongside a young buck. Our guides predict the male will be among them by morning. 

Thomas Nissen and Jens Kjaer Knudsen live among the proud local mountain farmers and their families during their stay

We rise early and are out before it is fully light. In the predawn, we see the buck we’d spotted the previous evening and quietly head down from the plateau towards it. The females have already descended from the steep upper slope, and the strong buck is not far behind. It is just 350m from our position when it turns slightly, giving us a clear view of its flank, but Jens is not ready. He is lying with the gun neatly cradled in the rest, but it is a difficult shot. It’s a long distance, and the scope needs adjusting for the ballistics. 

By the time Jens is ready, the buck has picked its way further down the gorge, but it is still visible and offering a side-on target. In such mountainous terrain, you cannot expect a shooting chance under 300m — here, it’s 410m. However, the shot is horizontal, which is a great advantage. 

Jens adjusts the barrel, settles down and despatches the light, flat-shooting 6.5 Creedmoor bullet on its deadly mission. The projectile hits its mark perfectly. Seconds later, the buck is dead and sliding slowly down the gorge. Our Himalayan stalk is over. 

A ceremony is held in the village afterwards to honour the ibex buck


Game management

Pakistan is known for its impressive game management. A strictly enforced licence system controls the number of animals taken each year. You can expect to pay a premium for such an expedition, but 80% of the licence price is paid to the local community. This amount is supplemented by the plentiful tips guests are expected to pay to an array of helpers. It’s expensive, but it helps ensure that mountain farmers do not poach the ibex population to feed their families.  

The weather at Gilgit Airport has improved during our stay, but there’s no guarantee that it will remain that way, so we decide to cut our trip short and fly back while that is still an option. However, the flight is not entirely without risk: the runway is very short, and the aircraft must bank sharply to the right just after take-off to avoid colliding with the steep mountains that skirt the perimeter fence. 

Luckily, there have only been a few minor accidents without loss of life over the past few years, but a serious incident in 1989, when a scheduled flight was reported missing shortly after getting airborne, is enough to make even the most seasoned traveller pause for thought. The plane is believed to have crashed into the Himalayas but has never
been found. As much as I had enjoyed our trip, I couldn’t wait to be at cruising height and looking down at the beautiful Himalayas from a safe distance.