The road was rough. It was a river bed full of soccer ball sized rocks and gravel. For 2-hours we traversed back and forth, sometimes backtracking to find crossings. We stopped briefly to find high ground. We needed to contact the rangers we were meeting and all we had was a 2 way radio. For about an hour we waited but finally made contact. We now had our destination and headed that way.
We were greeted by one ranger. He had a horse, tent and some basic provisions for himself. He was stationed at a lookout point where you could see Argali; an endangered mountain sheep similar to the California Bighorn Sheep.
We setup camp and I started to assemble my gear. We sat around starting to get a glimpse of Argali in the distance about 10 kilometers away. They were very faint in our spotting scope but they were there. As we waited more rangers started to ride in on their horses with some that we would later use to get around. I tried a few times to reach the Argali with my Phantom 4. They were 3 kilometers out and 600 meters up on a peak. The range wasn't an issue but the altitude limit was the limiting factor and lead to me not getting the shot.
After a night and day we packed up and headed towards the next location. Two hours further into the protected area on a river wash and we were greeted by a few more rangers. There we unloaded the van and switched to horses. I have never been a big equestrian and have had a bad experience with a Mongolian horse. I opted to put my extra gear on my horse and walk it. We had a 4-hour hike all uphill and the trail was non existent. Permafrost with lichen on top soaked by water. Basically a bog.
After a few miles with my drone trekker I handed it off to one of the rangers who was on horseback during a break. I was used to hiking on trails so this boggy terrain was really taking it out of me. At this point I started to realize the toll sleeping in the backcountry for the last few weeks was really taking on me. Both physically and mentally, but I knew what I had come to film was just over the mountain.
We got to the top and looked down into a lush green valley, having been the first Westerners to see it. The lead ranger Tumursukh had been coming to this place since he was a child with his father. It was the most likely place we would encounter the Siberian Ibex. As we unpacked the horses and started to set up camp Tumursukh got out his spotting scope. He wasted no time, but we didn't see anything on that day other than a few birds and a bit of rain.
Ragchaa began to cook us some meat. This meat had been salted a few days prior and had no refrigeration. It was cooked on a stick over the fire and when served was very rare. We were also surrounded by wild onions which made for a very interesting flavor. I decided to go to bed before the sun went down around 10pm knowing the next morning was likely the big day. I put two Phantom batteries inside my sleeping bag with me so they wouldn't be too cold to fly as soon as I woke.
I was woken up by Simon. He had a cup of coffee for me and told me to get my drone ready - there was an Ibex on the other side of the valley. I grabbed my P4 and began my pre-flight ritual. I could see the faint outline of the ibex through the spotting scope but there was no way to see it otherwise. He was 3 kilometers away across a windy gorge. If the drone went down the party was over.
I took off and pointed the drone at a landmark I could see near where the Ibex was. I didn't have time to wait for a gps lock so I was flying in altitude mode (I almost always do). Without the comfort of knowing the drone would fly back if I lost signal my hands were shaking. Simon kept his eyes on the scope guiding me in. After 3 minutes I was right on him.
At first the Ibex didn't know what to think, but they are hunted by giant eagles that drag them off these cliffs, so once I got close enough he darted. I followed him up and down the cliff-side until my battery was at 30%. I flew back cautiously and once I landed a wave of relief fell over me. I got the footage I had came for. The first close up look at the Siberian Ibex traversing its habitat. We spotted a few other groups on the other side of the valley and I got some other shots of them but nothing came close to the first flight and the excitement I felt.