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Trip Report:

The Snow Leopard Expedition 2013

It may be wildlife photography's equivalent of the Holy Grail, the Snow Leopard, the Gray Ghost, an incredibly well camouflaged and elusive cat. Our group saw 8 in five days, and we photographed several. Truly, it was one of the most difficult and demanding trips we've ever done, and consequently perhaps one of the most memorable, and enjoyable. I can't wait to go back! The following report is the complete journal, now transcribed from my hand-written notes.

We are returning in 2015 for our first Photo Tour for Snow Leopards!
Read our Brochure -- limited to 8 participants.

snow leopard
I suspect all of us hoped to simply see a snow leopard and, if we were very lucky, to get a few photos. For Mary and I, we also just hoped to endure, as we worried how we'd hold up under the conditions. Seven months earlier Mary had undergone a total knee replacement and next year, at this time, I'll probably have back surgery ... so we were not in top form, to say the least. We were not looking forward to the adventure of camping in temperatures that never reached 25°F, and at more than 11,000 feet we certainly worried about how this high altitude would affect us.

We traveled with an enthusiastic and fun group, and perhaps that positive karma accounted for our luck. As you'll see, the group had, without a doubt, one of the best photographic opportunities ever presented by a wild snow leopard. And you'll read about a monumental lesson Mary and I learned from this experience.

See our Pre-trip Report on Keoladeo and Kaziranga
Read our Tigers and the Wildlife of India Trip Report

February 5. Newark, NJ to Delhi, India

The trip started quite inauspiciously as we were stopped at the security gate, with the agent claiming we had too many carry-on’s Both Mary and I were wearing photo vests, and Mary carried a purse and I wore a computer backpack. We figured, incorrectly, that our vests would pass as winter coats but they did not. Both of us were dragging along roll-on bags where we had packed two 800mms and two 500mm lenses. Eventually a Delta rep appeared and after giving us a thorough hassle we reached a compromise where we checked in our EMPTY computer backpack and paid an extra $200 for the extra luggage fee. It’d have been cheaper to simply toss the computer bag away.

February 6. Amsterdam to Delhi

We upgraded to Business Class in Amsterdam where, at that check-in counter, I left my laptop sitting on their desk when we walked off. We were half way to our gate when Mary asked if my computer was OK, as she was carrying hers, and I realized I left mine behind. I sprinted back to the counter, cursing Delta the entire time for putting me out of synch with our normal protocol, but the laptop was still there. The flight went uneventfully and although we watched movies for most of the trip we still arrived feeling rested. In Delhi all of our bags arrived, including our empty $200 computer backpack and the power cords we stupidly left inside. We arrived at the Radisson Hotel after 1AM.

February 7. Delhi

We had a day of semi-leisure as we unpacked and Mary reorganized bags for the snow leopard trip, spending much of the day sorting for the various extensions to come. The snow leopard excursion required a lot of gear, with sleeping bags, winter clothes and multiple layers, ice crampons, extra batteries, and more. At the end of that trip, back in Delhi, we’d have an hour or so to switch gear for our next excursion to Kaziranga where we’d need all warm weather gear.
At dinner the entire group assembled where we met an old friend, Ben, and his three South African companions, an Indian couple, our outfitter, Amit, who would join us on this trip, and our Kenya outfitter and his wife, plus Jim, Tom, and Richard that comprised our group. Everyone was in good spirits and good humored, and our initial sense was that the group would be compatible and fun.

February 8. Delhi to Leh

hotelWe left our hotel at 4:30AM for the drive to the airport for our early flight to Leh. There was some confusion at check-in which we did as a group when two of our bags were not given luggage tags before they were collected and sent on their way. Fortunately Mary had made a count of the bags before check-in and our ticket stubs didn’t match up, but the error wasn’t rectified until someone from baggage called up and reported two untagged bags.
Security in Indian airports can be something of a hassle if for no other reason than the repetitiveness of the checks. After our carry-ons went through X-ray Mary and I had to remove all of our gear from our Kiboko bags and have the empty bags rescreened. Five other photographers with us had the same bag but were not checked, and between the screening and subsequent repacking we were the last to board the plane. Fortunately overhead space was still available.
We were prepared for the cold weather of Leh and so walking through the huge Delhi airport in flannel-lined pants, silk long johns, and heavy sweaters, we were literally soaked by the time we walked the quarter mile or so to the boarding gate. The flight to Leh is only 75 minutes or so and hot and uncomfortable I didn’t look out the window until we were already over snow country, in the mountains, ridges, and valleys of the Himalayas. The view was simply incredible, with row after row of folded mountain crests extending to and beyond the horizon. Glacial valleys and broad snow fields filled the gaps between the ridges, a stark land of black and gleaming white that was simply stunning.
lehThe approach to Leh was interesting, reminding me of a flying approach to Juneau, Alaska or Ushaia, Argentina as we curved and banked and circled to negotiate passes as we dropped ever lower. We knew we were in an entirely different world when we landed, under a crystal clear sky with temperatures hovering around 10 degrees. Snow covered mountains, some reaching 20,000 feet, encircled us, and looking out at this treeless vista of ridges, snow, and barren ground we just had to wonder what exactly was in store ahead.
Collecting our luggage was a bit chaotic as the terminal was tiny and packed with people but all of our gear arrived and we met our guides before being led to five small SUVs for the drive to our hotel, the Mahel Retreat. The hotel staff that met us wore only sweaters or light jackets, their footwear a knock-off of Crocs or flip-flops, and both the lobby and restaurant were defined by large hanging blankets that defined the doors. At night, when the real cold descended as we were to discover, real glass doors that were hidden behind the blankets are brought into play. Before breaking to visit our rooms our outfitter announced our unofficial new rule, that the animal we all hoped to see and photograph would not be mentioned by name until we actually saw our first one. Instead, we'd use 'that which would go unnamed' or, more appropriately, 'the Gray Ghost.' Indeed, this is a name even used by locals as this well camouflaged cat can disappear into a rock pile, seemingly to vanish before one's eyes.
cityOur room was cold, and our outfitter had suggested we stay in an unheated hotel so that we’d become acclimatized to the weather. Later we found that each room did have a radiator that took off the chill in all rooms, and in some produced some real heat. After a short briefing everyone moved to their rooms, either to repack, sleep, or, as Mary and I did, simply huddle together fully dressed beneath the bed’s heavy comforter.
After a vegetarian lunch of rice and deal (a lentil bean preparation), boiled vegetables and mushrooms, and more rice, washed down with the drink of the trip, tea or hot water, we headed into downtown Leh for a conditioning walk at this new altitude, around 11,000 feet. The Chinese New Year was tomorrow and we were wondering if any festivities were occurring today. The walk into town, about a half mile or so, went fairly easily despite the unaccustomed altitude and the cold dry air seemed surprisingly warm, at least while the sun was shining.
Uptown, people had gathered at a large plaza, sitting on small stools or benches, with pencils and a small square of paper in their hands. They were playing Bungoo, a version of Bingo, that was part of a rally for a Damar language drive, where this native language is in danger of being lost. The rally was to promote reading and speaking this tongue.
ringtossThe main street was crowded, with women bundled in sweaters or blankets beside small stalls where everything from pots to shoes were sold. Winter clothing -- hats, down jackets, and boots -- were the most common item, but the streets simmered with the cooking fires offering various hot dishes. Since this was a holiday various games were set up, and at one men and boys played a simple ring toss game, using thin plastic loops which they tossed, attempting to encircle a pack of cigarettes and encircled by a rubber band holding a small wad of cash. Completely covering the pack was a winner, giving you both the cigarettes and the cash, while a half loop gave the winner a small cash payback.

The group had gone on ahead when a familiar face approached me and said hi, and I was taken back because Sandeep, one of the employees of the tour company, should be in Delhi. I greeted him by name and asked why he was there, only to learn that this man, a dead-ringer for my friend, owned a shop here, and he invited me in to look. That may have been a fortuitous meeting for everyone, as Ingvok sold us hats, blankets, cashmere wraps, and various souvenirs while we haggled for what we believe were fair prices.
As we headed back to the hotel the sun had dropped low enough that the heat of the day was quickly vanishing, and the slush and melt water began to refreeze, giving us a small hint of what the next number of days and nights would be like when we headed into the mountains for the 'gray ghost.'

February 9. Leh

Although the whole reason for staying in an unheated hotel was to acclimatize, we cheated and turned on our steam heat last night, giving us enough heat so that the room was tolerable at dawn. We knew that, 48 hours hence, that would not be the case.

After a filling breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, and cereal, washed down by either plain hot water or tea, we headed to a palace to photograph the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Snake. Our hope was to photograph the Buddhist monks and lay people who, we hoped, would be dressed and dancing in costume, wearing ornate face masks of dragons and demons.
paradeWith an undetermined time until the parade began we hurried to the palace where we spent the next two hours or so touring, catching candid snaps of Buddhists monks and wizened, coppery-skinned old women, as well as landscapes of the city spread below us. The shooting inside the palace was interesting, with solitary windows or doors letting quite directional light into the otherwise darkened rooms. Rembrandt lighting conditions to be sure, and Mary and I shot portraits of monks at prayer wheels or by upright drums. My favorite was a monk witting beside a large prayer drum with shafts of light piercing the smoky or dusty interior, giving a celestial quality to the mystic scene.
No official time was set for the parade, apparently, for our group and a large number of locals sat on the stone steps lining the courtyard where the parade would pass. By 11AM we were expecting the parade to begin and our group, and hundreds of spectators, assembled around the courtyard in anticipation. The locals were quite relaxed about photographs and several in our group approached men and women for tight portraits. I had taken a roof position to get an aerial perspective of the parade, while Mary stayed at ground level. After two hours, and still no parade, I climbed down the steep stone steps to join Mary in the courtyard.

At 2PM the parade finally appeared with monks blowing horns so long they required someone at the front end to suspend them from the ground. Other monks crashed cymbals and some, covered by large masks depicting horned dragons, simply strode on by, without any dance or ceremony as they marched passed and continued downhill to the market square in the city far below. It was a disappointing show. Especially so as today was to be an acclimatizing day where we'd grow accustomed to the altitude and the cold. Instead, most everyone was dehydrated from being in the sun and dry air for hours, with little to show for it but the brief, rapid pass-through of the monks.

As soon as the parade passed from view we hopped into nearby taxis hoping to beat the procession and the crowds as we headed towards the hotel. Unexpectedly we stopped, and tried again to get more shots of the parade but the monks had passed and the thick crowds in the street made it impossible to follow. Instead, we shopped, buying heavy sheep skin hats from Ingvok once again.

palaceAfter lunch and a short break we drove to the royal palace that sits atop a hill, or mountain, really, that overlooks Leh. The climb by car took us through narrow, stone walled-lined streets as we climbed 600 to 1,000 feet up into the snow country and noticeably cooler conditions. Our objective was to photograph this castle or palace at sunset, framed by long strings of flapping prayer flags that hung suspended to the narrow over-look, a knob at the edge of a thin, snow-covered ridge. Cloud cover to the west subdued the last golden light of the day and we returned to our hotel, the Mahel Retreat, after dark. The keen group of South African photographers also on this expedition arrived about 45 minutes later, having stopped to photograph a beautiful Stupa that is illuminated after dark. Framed against the blue shadowed ridges of the encircling mountains the Stupa made a stunning image that we hoped to make as well when we returned from our expedition, the search for the gray ghost.

February 10. Leh to Base Camp

We changed plans today. Originally we had planned to visit another monastery and to then search for a very rare endemic bird, the Ibisbill, then have lunch and, around 12:30PM or so, drive the two or three hours to the start of our hike, the entrance to Hemis National Park. There we would have another two or three hour walk into camp, hoping to arrive by 3PM. That, as it turns out, would have been a complete disaster.

Fortunately our plans changed and instead, after breakfast and a quick shopping trip we headed on to Hemis. At a roadside market several of us bought huge woolen blankets, a precaution to create another barrier between our sleeping mats and the ice cold ground for the paranoid, like Mary and I, or an absolute necessity for those whose sleeping bags were less than adequate. One member of our group was quite unprepared with a sleeping bag that was not rated for anywhere near the temperatures we'd be facing, and as we finished our blanket shopping he went on to buy a better sleeping bag in Leh.
This proved fortuitous for all of us for the promised thick foam mats lining the tent floor proved to be single, less than two inch thick sleeping mats. Had we not purchased the blankets our beds would have been much colder, and harder to boot. For those without a good bed it might have been critical.
After our buying spree we headed on to Hemis, stopping twice along the way for some scenic photography and a tea-break for our drivers. At our scenic stop overlooking a steep, tortuous river gorge we found a pile of wolf dung, evidence that this predator does indeed stalk this barren, nearly vegetation-free land. As we neared the park the road became a dirt track, where at one point we crossed a frozen stream that stopped our SUV mid-stream. Our driver got out, dug out some gravel, and after spreading the grit and backing up, we continued on our way.

horsesWe arrived at the entrance to Hemis National Park by 11, a small sign informing us that we'd reached our destination. A train of mountain horses were to meet us, and as I looked at the mountain of luggage piled along the road I wondered how we'd ever get the gear to our camp. Mary and I alone had four big duffle bags, two simply filled with our monstrous sleeping bags, rated, with their liner, to -80, as well as the other well-stuffed bags filled with mukluks, clothing, and gear. As we began our lunch the horses and teamster arrived, and we watched with some amusement as they stacked the duffle bags and camera gear onto the tiny horses. A big duffle was roped in to either side of the horse, with a third duffle or a camera bag strapped onto the top to make a rough pyramid.


We started the hike around 12:15PM, and soon found ourselves completely overdressed. We really didn't know what to expect, both in terms of the incline, which was fairly gradual, and the temperature, which was cold but dry. I was wearing fleece-lined pants, with two layers of long underwear beneath them, and my degree of comfort in the cold changed quickly. Just minutes from the starting point I was stripping off jackets and outer layers, which left me cooler but burdened by an armload of bulky clothes. Even so, within minutes we were also hatless, and we were soaked with sweat.
Less than 7 months earlier Mary had had a total knee replacement and the hikes involved with this trip had worried us. Next year, it is quite likely I'll be undergoing back surgery, and with one or both legs often going numb after any long walk I was worried as well. Consequently, before agreeing to scout out this trip we had made arrangements to hire a camera porter that would carry our bag with our big lenses. Although we felt a bit guilty about having a porter, when no one else did, we couldn't have, nor would have, done the trip without one. We were expecting or hoping to see and photograph Blue Sheep along the way, where we'd use our porter as a caddy, grabbing the gear as we needed it. This never happened as the porter, Konchok, was far stronger and faster than us and soon disappeared from sight. We didn't see him again until we arrived in camp.

The oldest member of our party was 70, and a month or so earlier he had injured his foot, so his pre-trip conditioning was suddenly curtailed. Although he never complained it was obvious that he was really suffering, and by the end of the very long hike he was reduced to making one step, taking a breath and a rest, and then another step, then resting again. Most of the members of our expedition were much younger, often by 30 years or more, and stronger and faster, forging ahead as Mary and I and our two friends slowly plodded along. Although the route was fairly obvious, following a frozen stream up a narrow river valley, we walked anxiously, not knowing when the hike would end. As Tom later observed, if you slipped on the ice you might slide a hundred yards or so down river, following the gentle grade of the ice.
willowsWillows and small, thin trees rising ten or fifteen feet lined much of the river valley, and tracks of Blue Sheep crisscrossed the stream bed and slopes. Periodically the small round tracks of Red Fox traced straight lines along the valley floor. The ridges lining each side of the stream valley are steep, nearly vertical and virtually impossible to climb, although not so for the sheep and, we assumed, the gray ghost. The slopes, when not vertical, were covered in snow, with scattered bunches of dun-colored grasses poking out sporadically, forage for the transient sheep herds.
While our path was rather gentle this land was rugged, and the cliff faces and steep ridge lines terminated sharply against the cloudless sky. The Himalayas, of course, resulted when the Indian subcontinent collided with Asia some 40 million years ago. Crashing into the continent the two land masses literally folded, creating an uplift that produced mountains nearly five miles high. Along our trail folds of rock, most appearing metamorphic, made swirls and right angles and abrupt U-turns, layers that echoed the turbulent history of these mountains.

Just to be clear, I've drawn the strata lines which, in a series of three ridges, changed directions three times. Image the inexorable force as the two landmasses collided!

On several occasions we saw Blue Sheep but all, fortunately, were too far away for me to worry about where my equipment was. The blue sheep resemble American Bighorns in a way, but are a bit squatter, with gray-colored bodies and short legs, banded in black. The short legs are thought to provide a lower center of gravity and thus better balance, and I suspect, with the minimal depth of snow, the length of their legs, or lack thereof, does not present a problem.
The blue sheep ram has odd, sweeping horns that reminded me more of an Asiatic water buffalo than a goat or sheep set of horns. This species is thought to be a cross-over species or bridge between the goat family and the sheep, sharing characteristics and exhibiting behaviors of both clades. I looked forward to seeing them much closer than the dark dots lining the distant snow fields.
Finally, rounding a bend and climbing one of the steeper rises we saw prayer flags and the silhouettes of people on a far hill. Growing nearer we saw our first tents, the start of a surprisingly large encampment of several different groups, all here to see the gray ghost.
Reaching camp, we spent the rest of the afternoon securing our tents a bit more securely and unpacking and rearranging our gear. We soon filled up the small two-person tent, and as we laid our our sleeping bags we didn't pay attention to the slight grade. We would sleep facing downhill tonight, and although that proved uncomfortable it wasn't terribly difficult to cope with.
Our camp consisted of multiple dome tents scattered along the trail and between the scrub willows, a large cooking tent, and two large tents combined into one long mess tent. Small tables were spaced inside, and smaller still folding camp stools lined the tables. A power outlet lay along one side, for use when the generator was on to charge our batteries.
Dinner that evening was surprisingly good, and everyone stayed around the table until nearly 9PM, as all of us were reluctant to go to bed and all were dreading undressing. Uppermost in our minds was the thought of having to pee during the night, and of dressing sufficiently to step out into the cold. Everyone drank minimally, hoping to avoid that chore. Surprisingly, when we did go to our tents undressing was rather tolerable and not the agony we expected. Less than a month earlier, Mary and I had tested our new winter gear by sleeping in the camper shell of our pickup truck. It was nearly 10 degrees that night and with the air circulating beneath the truck it proved to be far colder and uncomfortable than sleeping in the tent proved to be.

February 11. Base Camp

campLast night our biggest concern was dressing at dawn, getting out of what we hoped would be our warm sleeping bags and donning ice-cold clothes. Except for the awkwardness of dressing in an area where you could not stand upright, the chore proved easy. Of course, I'll discount Mary's feet in my face, our twisted limbs, our aching knees, but otherwise it was easy.
The plan, this morning, was for everyone to disperse after a quick tea and biscuit snack and explore the stream valley and to glass the hillsides for snow leopards. I had borrowed a fantastic 20-60X APO Swarovski spotting scope and armed with that and our long lenses, carried by an equally fantastic porter, we headed downstream at 7:15. Our personal plan was to explore a long side valley I'd seen on our trek to camp yesterday, about 2/3rds of a mile downstream. The stream had melted sufficiently through the afternoon that new, quite slick ice had formed during the night, and we carefully shuffle-stepped at every crossing.
At the side valley's head we saw one of the camp scouts, and he was waving, obviously giving us a signal. Where we to come to him? Did he have a gray ghost? We couldn't tell, but soon learned he had received a radio call that indeed a cat had been spotted, right from base camp. After informing us he was off, as was our porter, Konchok, who raced back upstream ahead of us. As best we could, lumbering in the thin mountain air, we trudged along after them.
scopeOur scope, and the three others in camp, were set up and aimed high uphill where, we were told, THREE snow leopards had been spotted. One, the mother of two nearly grown cubs, had sat upright and glowing in the morning sun, but she and her cubs had disappeared and the guides were carefully scanning the mountainside for another view. They spotted the cat.
The term gray ghost is apt, for a snow leopard can be practically invisible even when sitting or lying completely in the open. The guides had the cat in my scope but it was so small, and so well camouflaged that I simply couldn't see it. Mary, whose eyes are far better than mine, took over the scope and quickly saw the cat. I did not, until it moved and I had a quick view, one that I hoped would burn into my memory, a fleeting glance of the surprisingly bright, light and dappled coat of a snow leopard. Our friend Angus had just arrived back in camp from his scouting foray, and he too had missed the first viewing of the cats. The snow leopard was still centered in my scope and we quickly switched, and with that every member of our group now had their first snow leopard!
That cat soon disappeared, but another soon magically materialized out of the rocks and we had a much longer, better view. Too soon, that cat glided over a ridge and out of our sight and only jumbled talus and scattered patches of bright snow filled our scopes. We had breakfast, with all of us elated that we'd seen a snow leopard on our first morning in camp. This was doubly sweet as other campers who were now on their last morning of a ten day stay had only seen two, with the first being a tail view of a disappearing cat. We could treasure our sighting, even if it was much too far away for anything but a digiscope photograph.
Some of our group had stationed themselves at a much higher viewpoint and the guides suggested that we go there too. Mary's knees were aching and she wisely chose to stay low, but I took the hike, mostly uphill, steep, and extremely tough. Although I had hiked the steep hillside lining our Hoot Hollow stream to get in shape for this trip, nothing could really prepare my knees for the strain, and the elevation, over 12,000 feet, had me gasping for breath every few upward steps. Konchok had raced ahead and now called down to me to say that the cats were gone but I continued, hoping that by the time I arrived the snow leopards would reappear. They did not.
After a breakfast of porridge mixed with honey and peanut butter, we waited around our scopes while our guides headed back up the valley, anticipating that the leopards may have followed the ridge line and back within our view. The three did not, but the guides did find another leopard, a male lying out in the open on a snow covered slope. I had had my fill of sweating from being over-dressed and so I stripped down to my long underwear for the hike, perfectly comfortable at 11,500 feet in February in the Himalayas. Everyone raced to the new location, another steep climb up a fairly easy to negotiate rocky hillside. By the time I arrived Konchok had my camera and a 2X tele-converter attached to the 800mm lens I'd borrowed, aimed in the general direction of the cat.
snow leopardsnowleopard
The double-humped blob in the center of the frame was the snow leopard, at 1120mm! Cropped, on the right.

I couldn't find the cat through the scope or my telephoto lens, and Konchok and a guide tried valiantly to position the lens so that I could make out the distant cat. Mary manned the scope and found the cat, and then set up the telephoto for these shots. Through the spotting scope the cat was a great view and we had the time to truly relish every minute of the sighting. Mary shot a few pictures, happy to finally record a snow leopard in the wild. When it was my turn I stupidly bumped the tripod, knocking the lens off of the cat just as it stood up and started walking across the snow field. In the vast expanse of snow and rock I was completely disoriented, and a finger pointed uphill in a general direction gave me no idea of where to look. I later learned where I was looking was off by about a quarter mile.
The cat disappeared into the rocks for everyone and we spent the rest of the day on the ridge, scoping the rocks and snow fields while Chitta, the head guide, descended into the valley to follow a draw that lead up slope in the general area where the leopard was last seen. Lunch was delivered from camp, a delicious blend of rice and vegetables, served hot onto metal plates brought up by the camp staff. wooly hareAt 4:30 the sun had dropped low enough that the shadows from the mountain ridges to our west were quickly advancing uphill and to our lookout, and with it the temperature quickly dropped. We headed back to camp, quite happy that all of us had seen at least two snow leopards, and some had an incredible four for the day!
We returned to camp around 4:45PM and Angus spotted a cooperative Wooly Hare on the trail near his tent. The hare had surprisingly long ears for a cold climate animal, resembling a Jackrabbit more than a Snowshoe Hare, with long black-tipped ears and a white, cottony tail. The hare was surprisingly tame, perhaps because of the many campers and trekkers, and permitted some nice shooting for both Angus and me.

February 12.

hikeEveryone stayed around base camp before breakfast, scoping the hillsides for another glimpse of a snow leopard. After breakfast, Mary, our porter, and I headed back down the stream valley to explore the side canyon of yesterday. Periodically we'd stopped to scope, gradually moving further and higher up the steep stream valley.
The rest of our group went uphill from base camp to scope for leopards. Fritz, one of the South Africans, decided to go alone up a side canyon that led to Runbak where he encountered a very cooperative herd of ten Blue Sheep. He spent much of the morning with them, getting wonderful shots as the sheep jumped, played, and moved in quite close.
Around 2PM the camp cook did his own scouting trip and almost bumped into a Snow Leopard lying on a rock. It was about 40 yards away, so close, he said, that he was scared and hunkered down behind a rock. He quickly scrambled down and alerted the group, most of whom had left their high vantage point and had started back for camp. Angus and Lawrence, a naturalist and guide from South Africa, had stayed up high the entire time, relishing the quiet and the solitude of the mountains. Ironically, nearly two hours earlier Angus had spotted the leopard, or thought he did, but both he and Lawrence decided that they were merely looking at a rock.
Over the next three hours the group watched as the snow leopard slowly stalked some blue sheep, taking nearly that entire time to negotiate the talus and snow fields as it approached. The leopard would creep forward, then lie down, then creep forward again in a maddening slow stalk that kept the viewers on edge. Eventually the snow leopard settled on a small knoll where it would stay for the next two hours.
blue sheepmary
Meanwhile, Mary and I and Konchok were high up in the steep side valley where we had been photographing Blue Sheep. The sheep can be shy, at least at first, and when we first spotted the two ewes and a lamb I approached alone, using an 800mm and 1.4X tele-converter. Over time, as I moved closer the sheep relaxed and moved about without concern, grazing on the small shrub growth that poked out above the snow.
Mary and Konchok soon joined me and Mary noticed an entire herd only sixty yards away on the opposite side of what was now a canyon. The sheep were incredibly well camouflaged and when motionless virtually disappeared. We stayed with the sheep for nearly two hours when, finally, the group of three worked their way uphill and the larger herd settled, and vanished, in the scree.

We moved uphill, still scanning for a snow leopard, and finally settled at an overlook that gave us a fair view of the remaining mountain valley. Our walkie-talkie crackled, and Angus was on, telling me they had another snow leopard. I was still hoping we'd spot one where we were and so I hesitated, although he and Lawrence kept us abreast of what was happening and urged us to leave and join them.
"Ahh, it's great, mate, she's just lying here!" Angus said, adding that there was an injured blue sheep below her and she was likely to try a hunt. Lawrence got on, adding that it was worth trying, that it was worth the risk to go.
leopardI still hesitated, reasoning that we had at least an hour hard hike to reach camp and felt the cat would be gone by then, and we might still see a leopard where we were. Our valley was perfect, a natural funnel for a cat, and we were alone, and I relished the solitude. Finally, at 3:15, our valley was losing its light as the sun passed behind the steep mountain ridge and Mary was cold, and so at 3:30 we started downhill, dropping almost 800 feet in our slow descent.
As we hiked down two Golden Eagles swooped passed, the wind roaring through their wings in a surprisingly loud, swoosing hiss as they pursued a pair of Himalayan Snowcocks flying frantically down the slope and toward the cover of the stream bottom shrub growth. The birds disappeared around a rise and apparently escaped, as we soon saw the eagles soaring high overhead.
It took us nearly an hour to reach camp and we were tired and overheated. Konchok was there waiting for me and he and the head guide, Chilta, urged me to go for the snow leopard. I grabbed a cup of hot water filled with sugar for some energy just as Mary reached camp. She was very tired and sore, but I urged her to come along and we headed up the valley.
Fifteen minutes later we arrived at a lookout point where several participants were gathered, watching the snow leopard through the spotting scopes. We had a very good but distant view of the cat lying asleep on a rock, once I could discern it through the scope. Once again I almost missed it, for the cat's yellow-brown ground color, broken up by the irregular blotches and spots, melted the cats form into the broken landscape.
Konchok and Chilta kept asking me if I wanted to join the group on the hill who were watching and photographing the cat. I vacillated, and my hesitation was reinforced by a few of the folks down at the scope who said they'd been there and were not going to go back up. One guessed that the climb would take 45 minutes, and with the sun just slipping behind the ridge I knew the light would only get worse. Still, I decided to try, and figured I'd have a few minutes with the cat before the light failed. Chilta grabbed my tripod and Konchok my big lens and started out, and I followed as fast as I could go.
The climb was brutal, straight up, and when I rounded the first big rise I almost despaired, as the group was still so very far away and the hillside so steep. I sucked air and kept going, stopping every few yards to catch a quick breath, and getting there in less than 15 minutes. I almost fainted when I arrived, hot and light-headed, but after a few minutes I caught my wind, realizing at that moment that I was completely under-dressed for a long vigil.
Luckily the cat hadn't moved and I shot a series with both a 1.4X and a 2X mounted on the 800mm. The cat was in shade and the shutter speeds slow but, I later discovered, those conditions were better than bright sun which create distorting heat shimmers. As the light dropped still further the cat finally moved, gathering its hind legs beneath it, twitching its tail, and beginning a fast, low-slung several yard backpeddle before turning and slinking still lower as it climbed the hill. The cat disappeared from sight.
Angus and Lawrence had passed the trail of the injured blue sheep earlier, a serious blood trail, and throughout the snow leopard watch the sheep had been lying down, seemingly oblivious of the cat. We expected that the snow leopard would make a kill overnight and we'd get lucky, and that idea was the big conversation topic that evening.

February 13.

Last night the temperature dropped to -20C, but in our sleeping bags we stayed warm and comfortable. The snow leopard scouts were out at 5:30, spending the next three hours along the hillsides looking for the snow leopard and its kill. As it turned out the injured sheep survived the night.
After breakfast the group split up with one group, led by Amit, heading downstream and up the side valley where Mary and I had hiked yesterday. We were not interested in being a part of a large group and remained behind, while the body of the group retraced our steps. Fritz, another South African, continued even further, actually reaching the end of the valley nearly a mile passed our's, and the majority of the group's, furthest point.
Lawrence, Angus, Ben, and Vin headed back up the ridge to scope for another snow leopard and Angus succeeded in finding one for a thirty minute view through the scope. While all of us wanted to photograph merely seeing a snow leopard and savoring the view through a scope is a reward in itself.
walking the iceEncouraged by Fritz's success yesterday with Blue Sheep Mary, Tom, and I hiked up the narrow stream valley towards the isolated village of Rombak. We were preceded by another ardent hiker, Tony, who had completed the infamous ice river trek, and he returned to camp to tell us that the route was impassable. Yesterday, in the heat of the day the stream had melted sufficiently for a new slick skein of ice to coat the frozen river and crossing the broad, flat stretch was impossible - unless you had ice crampons! We did, so the four of us continued, sharing the crampons or ushering each other across the slickest spots. Konchok, wearing plain boots, shuffled along effortlessly although I did relieve him of my backpack, as I worried that if he did slip and fall he'd land hard upon the gear. With my crampons the crossing was easy.
We hadn't traveled far, perhaps half a mile or so, before we reached our first herd of sheep, calmly grazing above us within thirty yards of the trail. blue sheepKonchok had my lens out and set up, and when Tom joined us we switched cards, as these were the first close sheep he had. Eventually this herd moved higher up the slope and we moved on, where we found another herd of eight blue sheep clambering about the rocks and feeding just off the trail. Over the next two hours we worked this, and still another herd, shooting the sheep against blue sky or black cliff faces, in full sunlight or strikingly backlighted.

sheepblue sheep
By 2PM we lost our light in the narrow stream valley and our sheep had moved higher up the slopes, and we headed back to camp. We learned that another snow leopard had been spotted, which we suspect was the same one as yesterday, but it had moved and disappeared by the time we, and the group that had hiked to the side valley, reached camp. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing, writing journals, snacking, and, of course, searching the mountain slopes for another view of the gray ghost.

That evening we were joined by a volunteer doing research on snow leopards in Hemis National Park. In our area, Rombak, there are nine snow leopards that are rather permanent residents, and two transients that frequently pass by. The snow leopard territories were approximately 10 sq km, shaped by the mountains of course but roughly circular or rectangular. The cats travel the ridge tops as they visit the various parts of their territory, and it is on these high ridges where the camera traps are located. We were treated to some truly mouth-watering images of snow leopards taken with the traps. The images included stunning shots of a mother with cubs in tow, or two or three cats bundled together, with one in flehmen, smelling the scent mark of still another snow leopard. The mountain backdrops often made the images, and all of us, I'm sure, could imagine ourselves along the top, with a snow leopard and the mountains in view. In reality that type of image is virtually impossible as the camera traps use wide-angle lenses and the cats are close when they trip the shutter. Looking at the terrain, even getting to the ridge tops would be, for most, an equally impossible task.
The camera traps showed that a snow leopard will visit a scent post about every four or five days unless a kill waylays it en route. Most scent posting locations are against or beneath vertical rock slabs, generally overhanging a trail where sprayed urine or rubbed fur would last longer than if deposited on top. On our hike up the side valley yesterday we'd seen a scent post where a snow leopard had made a scrape beneath a boulder that projected across the narrow game trail.
Blue sheep, the predominant species in this area, forms the majority of their winter diet, while marmots, pika, snowcocks, rodents, and even twigs and rose-hips form part of their summer diet.
The population of the snow leopards has increased. High cub mortality occurs in winter and camera trap data shows that snow leopard cubs stay with the female for over two years. Other research confirms this, as it is thought that snow leopard cubs may remain with their mother longer than any other cat. In this harsh, barren environment this may make sense, as prey is scarce and hard to catch and an experienced hunter, a mother, might increase over-all survival rates even if she must share her kills with cubs as large as she.
I asked how the numbers of snow leopards was determined and was told that much of the identifications are based on the spots, particularly on the tail. The researcher showed several examples and it was clear even to us amateurs that the tails were different. Sometimes the spots on the head or body are distinctive enough as well.

February 14

I was planning on hiking down the stream valley and up the side valley with Lawrence, intending on having a quiet day of exploration. Mary's knees were too sore for another long hike and she was planning on staying behind. For various reasons our departure down the valley was delayed.
Meanwhile, Angus, with indefatiguable energy, had left camp much earlier with Chilta, hoping again to find the snow leopard or the injured blue sheep. We were about to leave for our hike when Angus radioed: they had spotted the cat!
This climb was even steeper and much higher than the one from two days ago but I was fresh and I was optimistic, the snow leopard two days ago stayed in view all afternoon. Angus radioed down, "Stay on the talus side of the ridge. Keep out of sight." He was understandably worried that more bodies moving uphill would spook the leopard.
Konchok was already far ahead of me and by the time I arrived he had placed my tripod and mounted my lens by Angus, aimed at a snow leopard lying in plain view about a quarter mile away. More people followed, and after the first few from our camp, who followed instructions and stayed out of sight, people became less vigilant, taking the easiest route on the less steep side of the ridge, in full view of the leopard. The cat became alert, sitting upright and looking intently downhill, and we worried that it might leave. We tried sending one of the guides to intercept and redirect the tourists but that didn't work, so Lawrence left his post and scrambled down and directed traffic. As more people arrived hand-signals did the trick, with people keeping out of sight and the cat relaxing.
We stayed with the cat for six hours, with an unnecessary but appreciated hot lunch brought to us on the ridge by the camp staff. The snow leopard stayed in position at its lookout, doing no more than changing positions, head to tail a couple of times, scratching, yawning, and looking alert. One of the South Africans in our group had been suffering from a mild case of pulmonary edema, and as the hours ticked by he often lay in a fetal huddle, shivering violently and nearly passing out. He toughed it out, although everyone was extremely worried for his health.
With the cat in the open and in the sun I had the luxury of trying every possible combination for catching the sharpest image, shooting with a straight 800mm, adding a 1.4X, combining a 1.4X and a 2X, and using a straight 2X in both the version II and version III converters. I tried the 7D, which has a native 1.6X crop factor, as well as the DX camera, with a full-frame sensor. The distance was too far for any of these combinations to do much good, as the bright sun created shimmering heat waves that distorted the image. I tried shooting several frames in a motor-drive burst, hoping that as the waves varied there would be a moment of relative stillness, and sharpness.
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Upper Left: 800 w a 2X teleconverter, and blurred terribly because of heat waves.
Upper Right: 800 w 1.4X, useable but without any sharpening added
except for in the RAW converter.
Middle: 800 w 1.4X, and useable at this image size.
Bottom: 800mm w 2X, cropped for an even larger snow leopard image size than the first image that is blurred. I sharpened the image in the RAW converter, opened the file in Photoshop, and increased sharpness using NIK Sharpener Pro software.

Around 3PM, nearly 5 hours into our watch, the snow leopard started to actively groom, stretching back to lick back or belly fur, then yawning widely to reveal its canine teeth. We were sure it was going to leave, and we hoped that it would remain in view and not drop behind the rise directly behind the cat. Our luck held, and the cat left its roost and began walking downhill towards us, stopping twice to stretch langorously, and then rolling onto its back several times as it slowly moved closer.
The snow leopard eventually stopped at the edge of the cliff that defined the broad ravine that separated us from the cat. The cat sat upon its haunches, then hunkered down, and looked intently down into the valley. Our hearts were in our throats, as we wondered, would the snow leopard move down the steep cliff, or would it skirt the edge and perhaps do a half circle, coming even closer to our position? An enticing ridge line lay below us, and I fantasized that that snow leopard would circle and finally perch there. It did not.
Instead, the cat moved along the cliff edge toward the valley's mouth, before cutting in to walk along the slope where it paused several times before finally rounding a crest and disappearing from view.
It was a memorable experience and one we could barely believe could ever be better. For some members of our group, however, it would.

February 15.

I made a colossal error today, one that would end up keeping me sleepless and haunted for days. Later, Mary turned the error into a positive, calling the decision one of the big lessons we've learned ... but either way, we made a mistake.

snow leopard
All Photo of the snow leopard, above and below, by Angus Fraser

Last evening, back in camp, another camper showed us her images of a snow leopard she'd just taken with her 70-200mm zoom. The snow leopard was on a blue sheep kill, and she said the kill was about two hours up the valley. The snow leopard had chased lammergier vultures off the kill, and she thought that the kill was mostly skin and bones. Last night, one of our group thought she had heard wolves howling, although perhaps she had heard the yowling mating call of a snow leopard for we never encountered any wolf tracks.

snow leopardBased on that information, and expecting every tourist in the valley climbing to that location, we decided to stay with the scheduled program, hiking to the small village of Rumbak further up the valley. We were told that lammergeirs frequented that area and flew so close that a short zoom was all that was necessary, but I had Konchok carry my 800, just in case. Most reports of distances, be that a bird or a mammal, are generally distorted, and I've usually found that the stated distance can safely be doubled or tripled. Regardless, we never saw a vulture.
Most groups visit Rumbak, or the small village of Ulley, as part of the standard snow leopard tour, and the homes in these villages frequently display a Snow Leopard Trust placard. As I write this I still don't know if a home-stay, where tourists stay overnight in a village, is a requirement or just a cultural bonus, nor do I know if the subtle pressure to visit Rumbak was based upon a required visit or perceived pressure on the snow leopard. At any rate, Mary and I and several others decided to go with the program, as snow leopards have been seen around the village and the narrow stream valley leading to the village is a regular route for both tourists and locals. We hoped that we might encounter a leopard along the way and, accustomed to foot traffic, might be less snow leopardwary. We also considered this trip a scouting trip, and that it was important to see everything that was offered to have personal experience for guiding our future visits.
In retrospect, we should have split up, with Mary doing what we expected to be a relatively easy hike to Rumbak and me joing Angus and the South Africans for a shot at the snow leopard. Considering getting snow leopard photographs was my greatest aspiration that decision would have made perfect sense. Instead, we stayed together, and as I said to Mary on the way up, either our friends would hit a home run with the leopard or have a true strike out, wasting the day on a now abandoned kill. They hit a home run!
Retelling of the group's experience varied, perhaps tailored by some so that those who did not go didn't feel as bad. Desciptions of the hike up varied, from the trek up the valley being very taxing, dangerously slippery at times as the photographers walked up the frozen stream, to a more encouraging telling, that the hike wasn't too difficult, and even those less fit could have made the trek even if it took hours, for the leopard stayed. Regardless, the snow leopard was there, and although it left the kill several times it always returned, and the photographers over the course of the day gradually moved close enough that a straight 800mm would have produced wonderful images.

snow leopard

Photos by Angus Fraser
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Our friend, Angus, was kind enough to share his images for this web report, and towards the end of the day he was shooting wonderful shots with a straight 500mm lens. With my 800mm, I'd have had full-frame images, and knowing this, it was extremely difficult to shrug off the mistake. Empathizing with my angst, Angus just shook his head, and more than once said that had he had a radio, he'd have called me back. In what now seems like a pointless decision no walkie-talkie was given to those making the hike, and so, for both groups, the die was cast. Had my group had a cooperative snow leopard along our route Angus and the South Africans would have been unaware, just as we were unaware of the luck that they were having.

Normally I wouldn't devote as many images to a single subject but in this case the snow leopard deserves it, and I'm happy to portfolio Angus's wonderful shots. They are incredible, and represent some of the best, or perhaps the best, photographs of a wild snow leopard. Our South African friends, of course, also made great images, and were understandably elated when they finally returned to camp.

woman and snow leopard toyMeanwhile, Mary and I were taking photos of snow leopard models woven of yarn! The trek to Rumbak had proceeded uneventfully, a relatively easy 1,500 foot gain in elevation that entailed most of the valley. The Blue Sheep we'd photographed two days ago were present but now high, and no one was tempted to stop. The steep-sided gorge led to a broad, rolling valley, with snow leopard habitat much further from view. Fox tracks snaked through the snow and along the stone fences used to mark off pasture, but otherwise the landscape looked barren.
The village of Rumbak was ancient, with old stone fences and narrow lanes, but the houses were well constructed and appeared to be made of cement, and I wondered how such a heavy building material ever made it up the valley, or the huge and heavy iron stoves, or the rows of brass pots lining the walls of the guest homes.
Himalayan songbirds, drab snowfinches and robin-like Accentors flittered about among the donkey and yak stalls, and bold black-billed magpies, the same species found in North America, perched on roof tops and prayer flag poles and lines. Chukar Partridges, plump, gray quail-like birds, raced along the boulders and rock walls, and overhead, soaring Red-billed Choughs, large black birds that resemble a crow, announced their presence with plaintive calls that seemed to say their name.
After teas at two homes and a sumptuous vegetarian lunch we headed back to camp. Outside, a man sat at a large loom while two woman walked the twenty yards, back and forth, stringing either end. We had been expecting to see children in the village but there were none, but as we left I noticed a small group of boys and girls skating down the frozen river, propelling themselves forward by short, nail-studded posts.
Their skates were composed of a small wooden platform secured on top of two short lengths of bamboo. A strap criss-crossed over the kid's shoulders or knees secured the rider to the skate, and in this tight squatting position the kids glided down the frozen river's incline.
We headed back down the stream valley towards camp by 3, arrivng back by 4:30. Soon after, the ecstatic photographers returned and we discovered that we had made a very wrong decision!
That evening, while those that had visited the snow leopard basked in their success, I wrote my notes, included below:
The snow leopard was still at the kill, leaving periodically to climb to a rise that overlooked the blue sheep kill. Magpies would drop onto the kill and the snow leopard would charge, chasing off the birds as it reclaimed its kill. This happened almost continously throughout the day, with only one 'slow' time of about an hour when the snow leopard took a long sleep.
Only around 15 or 20 tourists had congregated at the kill, not the 50 or so staying in the valley, and these watchers started around 150 or 200 yards from the snow leopard. By lunch time almost all of these tourists left, leaving our group and another photographer or two, and this small group slowly moved in closer.
Details and stories varied at this point, as some felt that those advancing had pushed the snow leopard off its kill. Still, the snow leopard always returned but at least a few were annoyed, and felt some photographers were too aggressive in their approach.
One of the troubling repercussions of advancing is the action of other tourists who might not care about an animal's welfare, or have a sense of protocol or politeness towards others. Some of the tourists present, armed only with small point and shoot cameras, would step in front of everyone else. Arms outstretched, holding their tiny cameras, they didn't seem to care either about anyone else or whether or not they spooked the cat.
Eventually most of the long lens shooters got within a 2/3rds frame size with a 600mm lens, presenting an incredible opportunity. One of the local guides may have been asked to move up a draw to get even closer, and in doing so perhaps pushed the snow leopard off of its kill.
One of the photographers present questioned this, and the reply was that it made a great shot. This was infuriating, and that evening, in private conversations with several that were there some real displeasure was expressed about the aggressiveness, the pushing, that was either exhibited or encouraged by some others. Whether this was true or not, or misconstrued, it is nevertheless a concern. I'd seen some hostility between various tourists earlier in the week, when one particularly voluble and loud Canadian woman responded quite indignantly when she was politely asked to be quiet. She couldn't see, or understand, that there was a significant difference between quiet whispering and loud conversation, and those in our group around her were quite annoyed. One of the reasons I, stupidly, decided on not trying for this snow leopard was my concern about a crowd. I thought this would be a circus. It turned out not to be, but still there were some arguments and angry interactions when tourists stepped in front of one another and, far worse, walked fully out into the open when the cat was alert, thus risking driving the snow leopard permanently from its kill.
snow leopard
Photo: Angus Fraser

For those who cared the big issue was the well-being of the cat. Game is incredibly scarce in this high country and kills are very hard won. One kill might represent the first success in multiple days of hunting and, if lost, another kill might not occur for days. This could doom a snow leopard. Further was the worry that if a snow leopard did dessert its kill, only to return after dark, wolves might, if present, claim the kill or perhaps even turn aggressive to the leopard. We did not see any evidence of wolves in our valley and the howls one heard may have been the mating yowls of a leopard. Perhaps most distressing was the belief that one of the local guides was the worst offender. I could understand that, for on our first full day in camp several of us were annoyed at the loud voices of the guides while we watched a snow leopard. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, these guides may have seen enough snow leopards to know when, or if, a loud voice makes a difference and at what difference it might matter, so our annoyance and concerns may have been unfounded. However, if one of the photographers had asked a guide to move closer to flush the cat, this would be a real concern.
The snow leopard encounter did end happily, and the leopard remained with its kill throughout the day and the photographers were understandably elated. There was a real celebration that evening, with a bottle of Scotch opened and emptied before dinner. For those of us that went to Rumbak there were very mixed feelings -- happiness for the guys that worked and presevered so hard, and obvious regret and second-guessing for not going for the snow leopard. I tried to keep my whining to myself but internally I was a basket case.
To compound my angst, I made the mistake of reviewing my previous images, looking at them as critically as I could via my camera's LCD. Except for the last sequence of the day, when the snow leopard walked towards us and approached the edge of the cliff, I guessed that 90% of the shots were bad. Optical distortion due to wind or heat waves, and very definite image degradation by using a 2X tele-converter or, worse, a 2X and a 1.4X, coupled at times with the 7D 1.6X crop factor, made most shots unusable. Ironically, our first good snow leopard from the 15th produced about the same image size, and those were shot with a straight 600mm.
This was our last night at the snow leopard camp, marking a day that for some was the undisputed highlight of the trip. For Mary and I, our only hope of doing better was our next location, where we would be doing a home stay high in the mountains at the tiny village of Ulley.

February 16.

Today we broke camp. Bags were supposed to be out by 8:30 to be mounted and secured to the pack horses. Our sleeping bags are huge, weighing about 8.5 pounds, and jamming these unwieldy, awkard bags into their stuff sacks had us in a sweat. We started downhill towards the entrance of Hemis before the horses arrived, and we hoped that the pack team was coming from Rumbak, since no team passed us on our route down stream. Spring must come fast, for in just five days much of the snow cover had vanished. Fortunately the stream was still frozen and there was enough sand and grit spread on the broad crossing points to allow a safe, sure-footed passage. Like our hike up, everyone was spread out along the trail and long stretches went by when no one was in view. We wondered if our bad luck was continuing and that another snow leopard had been seen, and was being photographed, while we continued walking down the trail. One was not seen, but the photographers who had missed shooting blue sheep made a quick trip up the side valley where they had both ewes and a large ram.
While still only mid-morning the air was warm and beneath the ice we could hear the river flow, marking the approaching spring. Periodically a small rock or clump of mud would roll down the steep hillside, dislodged by the spring melt, and we looked somewhat apprehensively at enormous, truck-size boulders perched on tenuous stalks of conglomerated rock. As Rich pointed out, these hoodoos could collapse at any moment, and we quickened our pace to reach the rock-free zones.
The SUVs were waiting for us when we arrived, as were Tom and Jim who had started on the trail earlier. With five of us ready, we piled into the car and headed for Leh. The vehicle preceding us by twenty minutes photographed a wolf that had trotted on the road just yards in front of their car before angling off and disappearing against the arid hillside.

Oily and greasy, seven days in the field, without a shower.

We reached Leh uneventfully and an hour later the rest of the group appeared, with our luggage strapped to the roof racks. We had our first shower or bath in a week, hand-dipping and mixing a bowl into alternate buckets of boiling hot and ice cold water. Mary called me a wimp when I howled in discomfort when she rinsed me with water either too cold or too hot. While I finished the journal notes we watched and listened to CNN playing on the TV, and although we were clean for the first time in days we were also chilled. The rooms, generally unheated if unoccupied, had a cave-like coldness that we didn't feel or notice when we were outdoors, in the sun, at camp.



That evening we headed back to the palace and the stupa for the shots we missed on our first night in Leh. The sky was gray and threatening, the first cloud cover we'd had, and it felt and looked like snow. We were to drive to Ule tomorrow for our home stay and we hoped the road would be open. If not, a long walk would be required and we did not look forward to that!

February 17. To Ule

Our group parted today, with Amit and the South African photographers heading to the airport. Our group, which included Angus, Lawrence, Tom, Rich, Jane and Steve, and Mary and I, headed on to the home stay at Ule, located at around 14,000 ft in elevation. The overcast skies of the last two days had finally cleared, and we were looking forward to the drive which would lead through the most spectacular scenery for the entire trip.
A straight, non-stop drive to Ule might take two hours but with stops we hoped to take most of the day, thus enjoying the scenery and any photo opportunities, and also to avoid the potential chilling cold and possible tedium of an unproductive home stay. Our route did indeed pass through incredible scenery, although some of the landscape vistas were marred by high tension wires passing from one ridge to another, the wires reflecting brightly against darkened mountain slopes.
We arrived at Ule around 3PM, after following a very good paved road for at least two-thirds of the trip, then a well maintained dirt road that snaked through the ridges past a 'resort' I never saw, and over two melting mountain streams where Brown Dippers briefly appeared, flying by and disappearing among the rocks. At the second bridge we learned that had the next road been impassable we'd be taking a hiking trail uphill to the home stay, virtually an impossible task with the energy and motivation most of us now had. Our huge duffels rode on the SUV roofs and we were told that horses would bring up the bags, but to do that we'd first have to reach Ule. In this remote locale there are no phones to call ahead! Fortunately the dirt road to Ule was clear and passable and we slowly drove along the ridge, the steep ravine to our right, which we watched carefully for signs of leopard, wolf, or ibex.
The village of Ule is even smaller than Rumbak which we visited a few days earlier, with six large, old houses scattered along the upper reaches of a ravine cut by the headwaters of the mountain stream. Upon our arrival we had tea at one of the homes where most of our group would stay while Steve and Jane, and Mary and I headed to another house about 75 yards away. Angus and Lawrence's room was a bit inconveniently located, and they suggested moving to the next nearest house, visible about one hundred yards across the canyon. That plan was scrapped when we learned walking to it would take over an hour, as the trail skirted the entire canyon.
After settling in we hiked up the track, still passable and infrequently used by vehicles, to look for the Asiatic Ibex. Our guides had spotted a dozen or so high up on the slopes and, with our scopes, we had a fairly good view of still very tiny, and well-camouflaged, goats. Our taxis were still here and we commandeered one to take six of us along the dirt track, hoping that with the SUV we'd get closer to the ibex than we could on foot. The track was snow-covered and a bit icy, and as it skidded about on a narrow trail flanking a 60 degree slope we learned that the vehicle was rear-wheel drive.
We reached the end of the canyon where the road made a broad U which would bring us closer to the ibex. But first we'd have to cross a section of the canyon's stream, which was now only partially frozen, with the still icy banks much higher than the running water. Our driver and a guide got out to build some sort of bridge, and so did all of us, now ready to bail from this idea. No one thought the vehicle could make it, nor did anyone wish to remain in the SUV as it negotiated the steep road. We walked back to the guest house.
That evening we had a dinner of potatoes, dumplings, and a sheep meatball, in a large communal room filled with brass pots, urns, and ceramics, and a monstrous ornate iron stove, inlaid with various patterns of hammered tin. Mary and I sat beside our new house mates, Jane and Steve, and we had a very pleasant evening chatting while the rest of the group, whether from being tired or worn out or bored, were as quiet as a morgue.
starscapeAfter dinner on the dirt verandah of our guest house Mary and I did a few star landscapes that overlooked the Ule valley. The moon was half-full, which added enough light to the snow-capped Himalayan peaks that lined the southern horizon to provide some detail. We kept our exposures at 15 seconds or less to avoid a streaking star, using an ISO of 4000 and 1000, at apertures that ranged from f11 to 2.8. The images looked good! Returning to our house after dinner our hosts lit a fire in our room's small stove and going to bed wasn't too unpleasant.

February 18

We awoke to bright skies and with a real reluctance to crawl out of our sleeping bags, since this was the first time we tried zipping the two bags together. It made for a warm, comfortable night, the best we'd had while camping. Our room was comfortable, with thick, four inch deep foam mattresses, the type we had expected at the snow leopard camp, and on top of this we placed the heavy wool blanket that we had purchased in Leh as we headed to the camp. Our hosts had added two heavy woolen blankets on top of our sleeping bags, and inside, last night, we used two chemical body warmers for the first time. These almost proved too hot, but they kept the bags warm throughout the night.
The four of us, Steve, Jane, Mary, and I, ate breakfast in their room, a beautiful sunroom, with two walls sporting large windows that faced out to the surrounding mountains. The snow leopard camp cook, who was related to the family at the other guest house, ran over with a plate of hot spam-like meat and chapattis and doul, the lentil soup, and the young boy of the house stopped in frequently to replenish our tea. We were full.
yakThe ibex were gone, or at least absent from the slopes we'd seen them on yesterday. We learned that a small yak at this last home stay had been attacked by a snow leopard a few days earlier, and now bore scars on its back end. I suspected that the only snow leopard encounters here were with people who were defending their livestock, or driving a snow leopard from a kill, if it were their yak or goat or sheep. Chilta told us that four to six snow leopards frequent the area but the prey base seemed low that I suspected the leopards traveled widely. Later, Angus spoke with one of the residents (via an interpreter) and he was told that several snow leopards were seen in March and April, often on kills quite close to the road we'd used to reach the home stay. Angus was shown a home video where three snow leopards fed upon an ibex kill not far off the road. The leopards seemed very relaxed. Still, to really have a chance and to have that type of luck might require a four to six week stay. Otherwise, in a one or two night stay, one really must be lucky!
Hoping to find the ibex we returned to the road and hiked back to the end of the valley, angling uphill to the last guest house high up the slope. We glassed the ridges constantly and watched the snow below, but the tracks of fox and distant view of skittish chukar partridge were the only wildlife sightings, until a mysterious kettle of Choughs, the slender crow-like blackbirds, swirled around a distant ridge before dropping and disappearing from sight.
We reached this final home stay around noon, where we ate some cookies and where we photographed the residents, including a shy young girl and her walnut-skinned, wrinkled grandmother who grinned toothlessly at us, her smiling eyes almost lost in the creases of her weathered face. A grazing yak and the mounted skulls of ibex rams, the left-overs from snow leopard kills, completed our photo subjects. From the courtyard our guides spotted a small herd of ibex high on the slopes. The ibex appeared to be descending, but they were so far off and seemed to be moving so slowly that we decided to pass on the chance and instead Mary and I took a long, very gentle round-about route on a snow-covered road to reach the main trail. We had intended to photograph the birds around our home stay, where we'd seen magpies, chukars, and finches, but after a break for tea we just crawled into our sleeping bags for needed warmth and took a nap. We were tired, finally and finding ourselves in what we thought was a somewhat wildlife-poor area we were a bit discouraged, and yet anxious to continue on, in the warmer parts of India.
As I lay in my sleeping bag I kept on slipping back to my talk with Angus about the snow leopard he had, and I was haunted by my decision to pass on that shoot. The stupidity of that decision seemed to cloud my further experiences whenever I take the time to relax. Our knees ached, and with my bum back my legs were going numb. Mary's back was no better, and she was suffering through back spasms through much of the afternoon. We felt ready for the warmth of southern India!
Later, in Bandhavgarh in central India, we would encounter a young man we'd met at the snow leopard camp. He, too, stayed at Ule, arriving a few days after we left. With incredibly strong legs and drive, he hiked to within 80 yards of the ibex and made images, and had further luck when six Wolves passed by the village. He had some wonderful images, some nearly full frame, and one unforgettable shot had the pack half obscured in the dim, blue light of twilight. In retrospect, I didn't need to be so hard on Ule -- luck can happen here.

February 19

As we went to bed last night our host rebuilt our fire but, for whatever reason, the stove malfunctioned and our room filled with smoke. By opening our room door we cleaned out most of the smoke but later, when I awoke during the night, I worried that we might be suffering from CO poisoning. I lay quietly, trying to sense any movement from Mary and eventually she stirred, and thus reassured I fell back to sleep. The mountain air is extremely dry and everyone in the house had trouble sleeping, it seems, and our noses were so stuffed up that breathing was difficult.
The day dawned clear and the mountains to our south were sharply etched, beautiful, in the intense gold light. My concern that we might have snow, which might trap us here or require that we hike down to the main road, proved unfounded, and our taxis arrived by 9. We packed and headed back to Leh.

sheepPerhaps inured by the scenery we didn't stop for scenics, but did for three nice views of the large Urial Sheep. The first we saw was a nice ram, with big, 2/3 curls. Had I been ready I'd have had a fair record shot but the gear was stuffed in the back and so instead we simply enjoyed watching the herd through binoculars. Through our glasses the steep, rocky ridges and talus slopes look so barren that one wonders how any ungulate survives, but watching these sheep as they jumped and trotted across the snow patches and up the scree we could see they do quite well here. And we saw the futility of trying to approach or to follow these sheep, which crossed the ridges in a minute or so, a distance, if we could do it, that would have required at least twenty minutes to do likewise. We passed another, much closer group of Urial Sheep later on, much closer to Leh, that were standing along a ridge top near the road. This time I did jump out and grab my 800mm, and managed a few shots before the herd passed from sight beyond the ridge. All three of our taxis raced ahead, trying to reach the other side of the ridge while the herd was still there, and the first cars arrived in time, catching the herd as they raced downhill, kicking up snow as they passed. Once across the road the sheep slowed, and moved along across the brown desert landscape, terrain dotted with sheep-size boulders and patches of snow that made the sheep practically disappear from view. In this landscape, these brown, furry-looking sheep with their light, white rumps, reminded me so much of our own American Pronghorn. Our view didn't last long, as a group of Indian soldiers spotted the sheep and ran after them in pursuit, their point/shoot camera held stiffly in front of them as they ran. The sheep galloped off, disappearing from view in a steep canyon far below.

We continued on to Leh, arriving in time for another Ladak lunch of rice, doul, and veggies, and all of us hungered for a taste of real meat, and another shower. After lunch we headed back into town where we again met Ischkop, the merchant, where once again our group purchased hats, textiles, and souvenirs. I shopped for Fanta and candy, now hungry for some semblance of western food before returning to our hotel for a much needed shower.


February 20. Leh to Delhi.

We had a leisurely breakfast before departing to the airport for our flight back to Delhi. A sign said no carry-ons to Delhi, but that wasn’t enforced and all of us had no trouble either with security or with carrying on our bags. Our ground operator smoothed our checked luggage, which had to be over-weight, and no charges. The plane, a 737, was not crowded and all of us had either middle or window seats for a view of the Himalayan ridges as we traveled south.
Flying out, we could see the enormity of the Himalayan range. Tony, who has experience in these mountains, estimated we were looking at a 150 mile stretch of mountains and ridges on the right side of the plane, and mountains continued on to the left. The Indian subcontinent collided with continental Asia X millions of years ago, and one’s conception of the Himalayas might be one series of ridges thrusting towards the sky. The reality, however, is these mountains form a  vast series of ridges that seem to stretch forever, a white, harsh, rugged land where one has to wonder if any naturalist or trained observer has ever set foot upon these ridges or valleys? Who knows what the prey base is, or how many blue sheep or urial or ibex inhabit these mountains and valleys, and consequently, how many snow leopards hunt these lands. The Ladak Mammal and Bird Guide estimates a world-wide population of 7,000 snow leopards, but perhaps that number is twice or even three times that amount. Who can tell?
It seemed as if we flew over the mountains for the majority of the 1.5 hour flight, but eventually the sharp ridges transitioned into broader snow-filled valleys and gentler slopes. Glaciers, or what appeared to be so, swept broadly up the mountain valleys. As we proceeded south I could see tall pines dotting the slopes of the low mountains and, to the south, the first scattered snow-free valleys appeared. Even then, ridges of snow stretched surprisingly far into the south, finally to morph into snow-free hills and ridges, marking the foothills of the Himalayas. Soon after, I lost interest in window-peering, as the pall of dust or smoke or pollutants soon filled the air as we continued on to Delhi and the termination of this leg of our journey, the snow leopard trip now complete.


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Because of the demands of our 2014 schedule (and possible back surgery for me in early March of that year) we will not be able to do a Snow Leopard expedition in 2014. However, we plan on doing at least one trip in 2015, so if you are interested in joining us, contact our office and get on the First Alert List. For Mary and I, we can’t wait to get back!

See our Pre-trip Report on Keoladeo and Kaziranga
Read our Tigers and the Wildlife of India Trip Report


Visit our Trip and Scouting Report Pages for more images and an even better idea of what all our trips are like. There you'll find our archived reports from previous years.