F&S Classics: Death in the Tien Shan
In this week's story from the archives, the sheep hunt of a lifetime in the wilds of central Asia turns into a struggle to survive
The rams were magnificent. There were nine of them crossing a snowy side canyon in one of the world’s farthest-flung corners—central Asia’s Tien Shan range, on Kyrgyzstan’s southeastern border with China. In the soft afternoon light they were oblivious to the hunter-and the videographer recording him—just a few hundred yards downhill.
These were the famed Marco Polo sheep: bright white and sporting huge spiraling horns, they are one of the hunting world’s rarest trophies. William “Spook” Spann had traveled to this remote land from his home in White Bluff, Tennessee, to hunt the majestic animals, and he’d spotted the one he wanted. “So we got the video set up,” he says. “I got down with my rifle. I had him scoped at 320 yards. He was full side to me. Then something 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 each spent upwards of $15,000 (which included permits for one Marco Polo ram and one ibex) to experience. Spook, an accomplished, rope-muscled hunter whose October 31 birthday begat his lifelong nickname, was stalking the trophy he had come to take. But he didn’t shoot, even though the sheep were moving away.
“Then they split again,” Spook says. “And I saw the ram I’d seen originally. He was much bigger than the others. I shot him at 400 yards.”
Spann’s .300 Jarrett roared once, and then twice again. The ram went down, facing uphill near a gray rock outcrop. Its horns were broomed; their ends had snapped off due to battle or old age. Still, it was a world-class specimen. The rack’s measurements—full lengths plus four circumference points—gave it an unofficial Safari Club International score of 212, making it the 35th-ranked Marco Polo ram ever taken.
Spook and his guide skinned the ram’s skull, horns, and cape for mounting, and they quartered the 400-pound animal to transport it out on horseback. It was one o’clock in the morning before they made it back to camp.
“I was thrilled,” Spook says. “I was having the adventure of my life.” Little did Spook and Dennie know: They were about to get more than they had bargained for. Soon they would be in a battle for their lives. Before it was over, they would even fall out of the sky.
Their adventure had begun 18 months earlier. Spook, a central Tennessee developer, and his dad, Dennie, a timber and sawmill operator, had hunted together for three decades, chasing every North American trophy: deer, elk, black and brown bear, moose, and Dall and desert bighorn sheep.
Then Spook was talking to George Sevich, owner of Gaithersburg, Maryland-based Eurasian Expeditions, who told him about a Marco Polo sheep hunt he was organizing. Over the next year, father and son filled out paperwork, made deposits, and trained for what promised to be a physically demanding trip. They left Nashville on February 26 and flew to Washington, D.C., Frankfurt, and Moscow. There they joined up with Canadian videographer Clay Lancaster before jetting on to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, formerly a 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 higher than 24,000 feet in places, are characterized by steepidges and narrow valleys with little vegetation. Heavy snows can be expected from November to March. It is one of the most forbidding places on Earth—perfect sheep terrain.
After meeting with the guides and interpreters in Bishkek, the Spanns boarded a convoy of vehicles, including a heavy six-wheeled Russian Army truck, a four-wheeled Army vehicle, a Russian-style jeep, and a passenger van. For six hours they drove southeast to Naryn, an outpost on the edge of the vast wilderness. They spent the night there and then pushed on for the Kyrgyz-China border, another 30 hours and 110 miles by truck through snow-smothered, desolate valleys devoid of trees and deep in the Tien Shan range.
For nearly two weeks, the Spanns, Lancaster, and the 14-member Kyrgyzstani team hunted on horseback through the rugged Tien Shan high country, much of the time at or above 10,000 feet in blowing snow. At night, when the temperatures plunged to minus 30 degrees, they bunked in a traditional brick and tile-roofed building containing four small rooms around a coal stove. For dinner they sat on the floor and ate the local fare: goat or mutton meat roasted on a stick.
Throughout the trip, it snowed every day. During the convoy ride to camp, their vehicles got stuck several times on the unplowed roads. As the hunt progressed, the snow continued to fall.
“It wouldn’t just snow a little,” says Dennie. “It would whiteout snow. Then the stars or the sun would come out. I’d think: What beautiful, hard country this is.”
After they shot their Marco Polo rams and ibexes—Dennie’s ram measured a Safari Club score of 204—the hunt came to an end. It was March 13. By now, everyone—including the Kyrgyzstanis—was concerned about the heavy snows and whether they would be able to drive the vehicles in it. They broke camp, loaded up the convoy, and started back toward Naryn. In less than 100 yards, the van bogged down.
With 7-foot snowdrifts obscuring the road, the group decided to abandon all the other vehicles and ride together in the Russian six-wheeler, which was heavier and plowed through the snow more easily. But the big truck had to be dug out repeatedly, and it wore everyone down. Eventually, Dennie, who had been driving heavy equipment through mud at the sawmill back home all his life, took the wheel, and he was able to keep the truck moving all afternoon. But as evening fell, the snow grew deeper and the route became harder to see, and they decided to stop for the night.
By the following morning, March 15, more snow had fallen—the truck was now snowed in—and with no wood around to make a fire, the group was shivering after a night in the subzero temperatures. Plus, they were running out of provisions. Spook post-holed through the drifts to retrieve water from a nearby river, and the guides started burning nonessential gear to keep warm. The satellite phone, which they’d used to call for help, was running low on battery power.
On the third morning—after another frigid night—Spook was struggling to the river again to fetch water when he heard the throaty whump-whump of a Russian Mi-8 helicopter coming to their rescue. The chopper, a troop carrier painted aqua and white, was easily visible against the pale winter sky. It set down near the truck, and three Kyrgyz government officials stepped out bearing sandwiches, pickles, water, and Cokes. “It was such a relief,” Dennie says. “We were saying, ‘Okay, after we eat, let’s get our stuff and go.'”
During lunch Spook studied the aircraft, noticing that its passenger bay, where the long-range fuel tanks were also stored, appeared cramped. “I’d heard these Russian helicopters were all cracklety, but it looked fine,” he says. The pilot, Yuriy Khramushchin, was among the most experienced in the country—he had been ferrying Kyrgyz and foreign dignitaries around the country for years, and Spook wasn’t concerned. “Everything looked great,” he says. “After two and a half days in the back of that truck, we were ready to go.”
As they were preparing to depart, the ziinnnng of snowmobiles began to drift in from beyond a ridge. In minutes, three machines and their riders—wearing uniforms with familiar insignias on them—slid to a stop near the helicopter. It was a team of U.S. Border Patrol officers: senior agent Jim Bunner, agent Raymond “Mark” Overholt, and border security advisor Barry Johnson. The three were in Kyrgyzstan on an antiterror training mission, instructing the Kyrgyzstani border guards at Masatyr, an immigration checkpoint.
“We heard Americans were up in the mountains, lost and stranded,” says Johnson. “So we went looking for them. We’d started looking the night before, but searching the valley at night was pointless. The next morning, as we started searching, we saw the helicopter touching down.”
The agents offered the Spanns a ride back to Masatyr on their snowmobiles, but Spook and Dennie decided that the helicopter was a better way to go. With the last of the gear loaded aboard, the expedition members climbed into the Mi-8. The cabin was packed, but nobody seemed to care. People were jammed into odd corners for the short flight to Masatyr, where they would transfer to trucks bound for Naryn and then on to Bishkek.
Just before the helicopter took off, Spook turned to Lancaster—a licensed pilot—and asked whether he thought the craft was overloaded. Lancaster glanced around. In his assessment, with 24 people (17 in the hunting party, plus seven crewmen and government officials) and all their gear, the helicopter seemed fully loaded. But before Lancaster, Spann, or anyone could question the crew about it, the rotors clattered into motion, the landscape was obscured by blowing snow, and, with a lurch, the aircraft rose into the sky. “It struggled,” says Johnson, who watched from the ground. “At one point, its rotors almost hit the truck.” But after a moment, the helicopter gained altitude and headed down the valley.
After the sluggish liftoff, they climbed higher as the truck shrank in the distance, and the pilot turned to Spook and asked him for his sunglasses so he could see through the glare of the sun and the snow. In the blinding white landscape, he was having trouble finding a reference point. Spook handed them up. They were flying down the valley at more than 100 knots, making for Ak-Beet Pass, the only notch in the 15,000-foot peaks rimming the valley. The pilot asked everyone to move forward—the tail was dragging slightly, and they were losing altitude. A crewman pointed toward the tail, to show it was sloping downward when…WHAM!
The tail section clipped a small hillock on the valley floor, pitching the chopper on its nose and flattening the cockpit in an explosion of snow, glass, and steel. The rotors hit the snow, whipping the aircraft hard to the right, and the helicopter flipped uncontrollably, tumbling end over end. The passengers, the gear, and the ram and ibex trophies churned and slammed into one another like pebbles shaken in a soda can. The fuel tanks tore loose. People were crushed. Windows smashed. Before the helicopter came to rest, it somersaulted a half dozen times. They were 4 miles from where they had taken off.
At first, the silence was cavernous. Then, slicing through the quiet, came the screaming. Khramushchin, the pilot, was dead. Erali Sharamadunov, one of the Kyrgyzstani guides, had been killed when he was thrown from the helicopter. His broken body lay in the snow outside the wreckage. The cabin was filled with shattered gear, gray smoke, and the smell of aviation fuel.
Dennie, who somehow seemed to have escaped serious injury, regained consciousness to find himself pinned beneath a fuel tank. Spook was unconscious and splayed on top of the tank. He had a nasty gash across the back of his skull. As Dennie struggled to push the fuel tank off of his chest, Spook stirred.
“What happened?” he groaned. “We crashed,” Dennie said. “Why’d we do that?” Spook said.
The smell of the gas was strong, and they feared the helicopter would explode. Dennie, Spook, and Lancaster crawled out of the twisted fuselage through a hole torn in the floor. The copilot, covered in blood, dragged himself out through the shattered cockpit window. One man’s face had been virtually ripped off. Lancaster’s left eye was hanging from its socket.
Despite the danger of explosion, anyone capable of walking began to drag and carry out the other survivors. Miraculously, 22 of the 24 had lived through the crash. They salvaged what they could from the wreckage, including weapons, cold—weather gear, and the trophies. Lancaster summoned the last of the power out of the satellite phone batteries and telephoned the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek. “We’ve crashed,” he said, “our coordinates are 40.46 North— “The phone went dead.
As darkness fell, and the temperature began to plummet once again, the survivors prepared as best they could for the grueling night ahead. By slashing open the canvas rotor covers, Dennie made beds in the snow for the injured. Because he, Spook, and Lancaster wore heavily insulated hunting gear, they gave away their sleeping bags and extra fleece and outerwear to the others. The Kyrgyz government officials, who had set out for the rescue that morning in street clothes, were literally freezing to death. They made a fire and started burning anything they could find—rifle cases, packing crates, and even the ibex horns—to stay warm. Virtually the only things the Spanns didn’t add to the fire were the Marco Polo ram trophies and the videos. Those would be a last resort.
The Spanns and Lancaster took shelter from the wind in the fuselage, and they were now feeling their own pain. Aside from the gash on Spook’s head and his busted ribs, the crash had broken his jaw and loosened several teeth, and he’d lost the use of his right arm. Lancaster had been able to fix his eye somewhat, but it was swollen shut. And Dennie had now begun to hurt. Seemingly unscathed during the crash, his entire body began to stiffen: Several ribs had been broken and some of his joints had been damaged. Before long he was immobile.
Throughout the night, the whimpering and crying of the wounded mixed with the whistling of the icy wind. Then someone worried out loud that there were lots of wolves in that part of Kyrgyzstan. “I’ll never forget the howling, of people and other things,” says Dennie. “That night was misery.”
Searching for Help
The next morning, the group evaluated their situation. They could sit there and wait, and maybe die, or they could do something. It was agreed that since Lancaster and Muradvil, one of the Kyrgyzstani guides, were the least injured, they would attempt to hike the 20 miles to Masatyr to summon help.
The two left at first light, struggling through the 6-foot drifts, leaving the injured behind to wait for the rescuers they hoped would arrive in time. Then, at midmorning, the stranded party heard several shots ring out in the distance. Soon came a familiar sound—the high-pitched ziiinnnng of snowmobile engines and the Border Patrol team zoomed into view.
When they’d heard that the chopper had failed to arrive at the checkpoint at Masatyr the previous afternoon, they had begun to worry. The team checked in with the U.S. Embassy officials, who gave them the sole coordinate that Lancaster was able to call in before the sat phone went dead. They’d started searching at first light, working the 40.46 North line, and they had found Lancaster, who led them back to the survivors. Agents Overholt and Bunner, both EMTs, took wool blankets and first-aid kits and hurried to the wreckage to begin triage. Johnson put Lancaster on the back of his Polaris 800 and beat it back to Masatyr, where he dropped Lancaster off and collected three tow sleds. He returned to the crash, and the three men started evacuating the wounded. By the time the Spanns made it back to the checkpoint at Masatyr, it was nighttime on March 16. Spook telephoned home to report that they were banged up but okay. And for the first time in days, the promise of survival seemed possible.
Now, as they stand in Dennie’s kitchen in White Bluff, he and Spook are finally ready to talk about their trip. Even after the evacuation, they’ve been telling me, their extended visit to Kyrgyzstan was far from over. Avalanches stranded them in Naryn for days. It was a week before they got to Hong Kong for Western-style medical care.
But it’s June now, and both men have mostly recovered. They’re wearing lightweight summer clothes, and there’s nothing to outwardly indicate that both have had several months of physical therapy. Instead, following slices of cold coconut-cream pie and glasses of milk brought to us by Dennie’s wife, Ruby, father and son are preparing to unpack their Marco Polo trophies, which just arrived. They had to leave them behind in Bishkek, but George Sevich, the expedition’s organizer, had collected them later. And as sunset falls over Dennie’s house in the sultry humidity of a summer Tennessee evening, the two start unpacking.
First out of the box, still carrying the musky scent of meat and bone, come the skulls. As Spook cuts away the shrink-wrap protection, Dennie unpacks a box filled with horns. He lifts each one—longer than a man’s arm—from the box and lays them on the kitchen counter.
“Here’s what all the fuss was about,” says Dennie. Spook carries the skulls to the table, where they reassemble the racks. And now, in the comfort of home, Dennie and Spook’s trip is truly over.
Was it worth it?
Father and son rub the smooth, tawny horns—the prizes that nearly cost them their lives. From the looks on their faces, I can tell their thoughts linger on the accident that cost the lives of two men and injured so many others (Clay Lancaster’s vision is expected to recover completely).
“It’s bittersweet…at best,” Spook says. “We had this great hunt, this amazing adventure, and then everything changed. Two people were killed, others permanently injured. We all went through this together. And my dad and I feel lucky we weren’t injured worse. So how do we feel? It’s complicated. It’s hard to put into words.”
But was it worth it, I ask again.
Both men rub the horns some more, thinking. Father and son look each other in the eye and remain silent. A more complete answer, it seems, may take some time to figure out.