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Trip Report

Snow Leopards
Photo Expedition

Please scroll to the bottom of this report for important information
about next year's trip and our Ultimate India offerings!

This was our second trip to northwestern India in our quest for the most elusive and difficult Big Cat to see or photograph, the Snow Leopard. In preparation for doing a book on the big cats, Seven Tails, my field notes, below, are extensive, and I won't be offended if you simply skim down and look at the pictures. But if you'd like to join me next year, for our third Snow Leopard trip, you may wish to read the report to get a great feel for what a Snow Leopard Expedition is like.

This year, we only saw two Snow Leopards, due in large part to the fact that the Himalayas did not get snow! Accordingly, the Blue Sheep that this big cat feeds upon were high on the mountain ridges, and that's where the Leopards were, too. We did see tracks on some of the trails but those cats must have traveled during the night. We did have success, with one incredible viewing opportunity and fair shooting, along with the best luck we've had with Lammergeyers, Pikas, Red Fox, and Wolves. We had the best shoot we've ever had at a Budhist Monastery, so the trip was a success, but it was a challenge for the Leopards.

Two teenagers at the monastery, with one blowing a 9 foot long trumpet,
while the other monk paused before blasting his long note, too.

Here's the entire report:

Feb. 11. Our group arrived yesterday in Delhi, staying overnight at the Radisson, one of the newest of multiple new hotels built within a ten minute drive of the International Airport. Today we left early, at 4:30AM, for our flight north to Leh that left, on time, at 6AM.
The flight north, sometimes quite dramatic as the route crosses the flat uplands of central-northern India before reaching the first foothills and, soon afterwards, the endless ridges of the snow covered Himalayas, was uneventful today. Cloud cover, or quite likely smoke and smog, obscured the view until we crossed into the Himalayas where the mountains blocked the pollution and the skies were clear. Once again, the views were now spectacular, as row after row of ridges extended on to and beyond the horizon.
India, a subcontinent, was once attached to Africa and has, over the last 50 million years or so, migrated to the northeast where, in a geologic time scale, the drifting continent ‘slammed’ into Asia, and in doing so created the ring of mountains that separates most of India from the rest of Asia. One source says that this movement, which is still occurring, is raising the Himalayan mountain chain by about 5 cm a year, and Mt. Everest itself has now risen about three feet higher than it was when first successfully summited by Edmund Hilary in the 1950s.
Our 1.5 hour flight soon had us nearing the valley where Leh, the largest city in Ladak, lies, a broad, brown valley nestled in this chain of mountains. We circled within the mountain bowl and landed, then waited in the cold mountain air for the small transport bus that would take us to the terminal. Two years ago when we were last here the temperature was much colder, and we were unprepared, and froze while waiting for the bus. The locals had not, as they quickly donned heavy coats and jackets as soon as we touched down. This time, we were dressed more appropriately, and the temperature was not nearly as extreme, and the wait was bearable.
The biggest difference, this year, was the lack of snow. Two years ago the mountains surrounding Leh were covered, but this year the slopes were essentially bare, and only the distant mountains, at much higher elevations, were snow covered. I worried that this might affect our luck, and whether the snow was any lower in Hemis, where we would camp.
We were met by our principle guide, Marup, after we retrieved our luggage and headed to the unheated hotel where we would acclimatize for the next two days. Leh elevation is over 11,000 feet, about the same as we’d have when we reached the snow leopard camp in Hemis National Park. Here the air is less dense than at sea-level, approximately by half, and just walking one flight of steps can, and does, leave you breathless. We’d use the next two days to get accustomed to the thin air.
Our outfitter recommended that we stay at our unheated hotel to ‘get used’ to the cold, the same plan we followed last time we were here. In retrospect, all of us felt that was a stupid idea, much like burning yourself periodically to prepare for a real burn later on. When you’re cold you’re cold, and until then, we decided, its best to enjoy the warmth. We did this on our return, staying at the Grand Dragon Hotel, one of the newest, and one of the few hotels with running water, hot water, during the winter. Most hotels don’t, as the pipes freeze, and hot water is delivered in buckets to your room, for a small bucket bath taken in a cold bathroom. Not fun.
After lunch at our hotel, the Mahey Retreat, we headed up town to begin our acclimatization, walking up the narrow roads and giving way to the small taxis that often zoomed by. Dogs were everywhere, and fairly oblivious to us as they lay curled up against the cold. Tibetan Mastiff dogs are supposed to be fierce and protective, but these shaggy half-breeds were not, just sleeping, and few if any even bothered to walk by for a closer sniff.
lehIn town, last time, we stopped at a small shop run by a charming local named Ish, but on the main street, where his shop was located, the gates were down and the storefronts looked abandoned. I was disappointed because we were planning on buying leather winter hats there, and souvenirs, and as we walked on we passed a small shop where the owner was out front, sweeping away dust with a small hand broom. I looked inside his shop and saw an assortment of similar goods to Ish’s, so we stepped inside. The owner followed, and he turned out to be Ish’s cousin, and led us to his shop. We ended up buying at both shops, and I told the owner, whose name I forget, that I only stopped here because I was impressed at his pride in keeping his storefront area clean.
Ish didn’t recognize me when we stepped inside, and for the first minute or so my memory of him was foggy, but then it clicked and I told him I’d been here two years ago. I chided him on not remembering me, but he pointed out I was wearing a different hat that was covering part of my face, and Mary wasn’t with me at the time, so he didn’t have the visual clues, but then he did. Several people bought hats, big, floppy eared things made of goat hide and fur, and very warm, as people commented upon later, happy that they bought the hats. At another store, where Chinese knock-offs of brand name gear – Nike, Adidas, North Face, etc., I bought a pair of gloves for $5, just in case. They were warm and looked like they’d hold up.
Seeing the amount of outdoor gear available, I wondered if it might not be more productive to buy all the winter clothing one would need for a trip here on location, and simply give it away at the end of the trip. As it was, we spent an extra $200 for excess luggage to reach here, money going directly into the pockets of the airline. Although the plan sounded good, when I later tried to buy a pair of snow pants, cheap, to replace the ripped pair I was leaving behind, I found that an XXL barely fit over the pants I was wearing, and Steve, a bit taller than I, who planned to buy a pair as well, found nothing even close. Had we planned on buying here, we’d either be visiting a lot of stores, and there are not many, or we’d be in serious trouble. So much for that idea.
Our first afternoon of acclimatizing went well and we returned to our hotel for dinner and rest, snuggling into the blankets of our cold room and spending a fairly comfortable first night.

mFeb. 12. We left our hotel before breakfast to catch morning prayers and watch the Buddhist monks at the Thiksey Monastery have their’s. We explored this huge, cement and stone structure, with Marup leading us to a central meeting area where the monks were gathered in prayer. We took off our shoes and went inside, sitting along the wall and trying to be as inconspicuous as possible as we clicked away.
The monks didn’t seem to mind, and most went about their business, praying or eating, without a glance our way.

Most of the monks were just kids, under ten, and the youngest of these sat close to an older man who was, I presume, his teacher. There is tough love here, for when the young boy did something wrong he was grabbed and straightened out, but at the same time I watched the older man adjust the robe or blanket on the little boy’s shoulders. Randy, who has a great eye, shot one image where one of the older boys, about ten or so, mischievously made and launched a tiny paper airplane at the monks sitting across from him. To my left, two older teenagers nperiodically blew the ten-foot long horns whenever the prayer’s cadence demanded, their cheeks puffing up before blowing in and sounding the trumpeting note. On either side of the room two young boys, under ten I’d guess, periodically pounded an upright drum, again doing so at special times as their chants dictated.
After our visit we toured the rest of the monastery, climbing flights of steps that had my legs aching and my lungs hurting. It was amazing to experience how ‘out of shape’ we were at this altitude, and I knew I’d appreciate several days of conditioning before entering snow leopard country. As it was, we’ only have this day, and the hike in tomorrow, to do so.
8We returned to our hotel for a late breakfast, then walked up town for another conditioning and shopping exercise where our shopkeeper friend, Ish, demonstrated prayer bowls. Ish would hold a bowl in the palm of his hand and strike the rim with a wood rod, then quickly follow this with a measured rotation of the rod along the bowl’s rim. The effect, somehow increasing the initial resonance from striking the bowl, would produce a surprising loud hum, a Buddhist ‘oohhmmm’ as Ish would say. It was an effective demonstration and several in our group bought bowls. Ish did the same thing with a large bell, ringing it and then rubbing the edge with a stick, producing once again a similar effect. With a very large bowl he had me, and then the others, stand relaxed with my eyes closed while he struck the bowl and proceeded to raise the bowl from groin height to and around our heads, the ringing bowl producing a weird, tingling, vibrating feeling wherever he held the bowl. I went first and didn’t know what to expect, and had Ish repeat the process with me again after I watched the technique performed on others. Ish said it was like a massage, and I think he was right.
sIn the afternoon we headed to the nearby castle and Stupa that overlooks the city of Leh. Chita, one of our other guides, took us around this time, and feeling rushed last time we arrived far too early to shoot the Stupa at dusk, when the building is illuminated and glows against the backdrop of the mountains. We shot the prayer flags and climbed up to the fort, then drove over to the Stupa where we photographed and circled the two story Stupa clockwise, as required, and shoeless. The air was warm enough, in the 40s, that walking on the cement and stone in only socks wasn’t too uncomfortable.
Still too early for any light show we returned to our hotel for a break, then drove tt

back to the fort at 5:30 to shoot the Stupa in the the low. We were still far too early, as the sun didn’t set behind the mountains until after 6PM and the lights didn’t go on until 25 minutes later. We shot the glowing Stupa in the increasing gloom of dusk, and left at 6:45 when the light had fallen to dangerous levels for negotiating the steps that led back to the car.
As we drove down the hill to return to Leh we spotted the glowing green eyes of a predator, a Red Fox, that trotted across the nearly barren, snowless hillside beside us. Our driver had seen one just seconds earlier, probably its mate, but for that one I had only a brief glance, a shadow that may have been imagined as not. This second fox provided a good view but in this barren land I wondered what, or how, it found to anything to eat.

Money and fruit are gifts to ask for good fortune and luck at
this Budhist statue in the monastery. I wish I'd had contributed,
although Mary did. Anything that can help in the quest!

Feb. 13. We left our hotel after breakfast, with our camera gear safely stowed in the back hatch and our luggage, our sleeping bags and supplies, either piled and strapped into the back of a pickup truck or strapped on top of the roof of our five rear-wheel drive mini-SUVs. We departed by 8:30, driving through the Leh valley and passing through the large Army complex India maintains as a deterrent to territorial jumping from China, or aggression from Pakistan, both close neighbors in this northwestern finger of India and in disputed land.
bWe stopped twice, once at a large bridge festooned with prayer flags and within sight of a monastery or old fort picturesquely perched on a distant cliff, and where we looked for a rare endemic bird, the Ibisbill, a shorebird-like, ibis-like bird that can be found here. We were out of luck, and in our scope only located a pair of Goosanders, a type of merganser duck. We stopped again at a steep cliff overlooking the Indus river, ice-free and cutting through snow-free, rocky gorges.
By 11AM we reached the end of the road, just past a tiny village of J…, where we met the pack train that would carry our luggage on small ponies up to camp. Jim, who had some trouble last time we were here with the altitude, started out immediately with his guide, arriving in camp after two hours or so. The rest of us waited until the gear was stowed, and reached the camp, a fairly easy hike that had a slight upgrade that punished us with our still unconditioned legs and lungs, after about one hour. In contrast to last time, the route was snow-free, and only the river itself was frozen. Around us, on the steep hillsides that led skyward, it was only rock, and barren.
Before we left we met an Indian photographer/tourist who had just spent three days at one of the camps at the end of the valley. He had seen nothing, and was very disappointed.  Earlier, at our hotel, we met a small group of tourists that had just returned from the mountain village of Ulley, where we home-stayed last year, and nearly died from CO poisoning, or so we feared with the poor ventilation of the stove that heated our frigid room. There, at Ulley, they had several encounters with snow leopards, including one that visited an Ibex kill. While this sounded great, Ulley lies in a large mountain bowl with steep, tall hillsides on three sides, and a kill, high on those slopes, would have been taxing, or even too much for anyone to even get close to. In contrast, here, in Hemis, we hoped to find a Gray Ghost down low, at a kill in one of the valleys. At least that was our hope.
We learned that the BBC had a film crew at our camp, and were not having much luck. Last year, a banner year for the Gray Ghost, they averaged a cat every two days, but this year it was every 10. We hoped we’d bring them better luck.
Not knowing what to expect we hiked up the valley in our snow boots, which for Mary and I were rather heavy Arctic Muck Boots that added 5 pounds to our weight. Last time, with snow, I used a pair of insulated leather boots, that soaked in wet snow and left my feet cold. When we reached our snowless camp this year both Mary and I changed to lighter, more comfortable leather boots, which worked fine in this warmer, snowless visit.
After a lunch it took us two hours to get our tents organized and everything somewhat put in order. Mary and I shared a tent, zipping our two sleeping bags together for added warmth. The camp was far better prepared this time, supplying us with two heavy wool blankets we placed over our bags, and two thick, genuine foam pads beneath for further insulation. Last time, we had to purchase extra blankets for insulation, which we weren’t happy about but proved to be critical in the cold temperature we had that year. This time, we were quite comfortable. Mary and I were the only ones to share a tent and for the group how we did so was a mystery, as there really isn’t too much room. The tents were good dome-shaped tents designed for mountain use, with a fly sheet to add a layer of air insulation and to shed snow, if there were any, but the tents are too low to permit standing, and dressing and undressing is done from a seated, and rather awkward position.
After lunch we headed up the Rumbak valley gorge, a rather narrow channel cut by a small frozen stream and flanked on each side by very steep cliffs. A Golden Eagle nests here, in season, and last time, with all of the snow, we had Blue Sheep, or Urials, grazing on exposed grasses quite close to the trail. Snow free, the slopes were bare of sheep, but after our second crossing of the frozen stream we reached a boulder field where, we were told, Big-eared Pikas and weasels were often spotted. We soon spotted our first Pika, a roundish, rodent-looking mammal that pis, in fact, a member of the Rabbit family, the Lagomorphs. While both Lagomorphs and Rodents have four big front incisors, ‘buck teeth’ used for gnawing, Lagomorphs have a second set on top, directly behind the two larger, and visible, incisors. Rodents lack this. Further, most rodents hibernate, and thus escape the harshness of winter. Lagomorphs do not, and Pikas are unique and unusual in gathering grasses and other vegetation that they store beneath large rocks in hay piles, where the vegetation dries and on which the Pikas feed throughout the winter. Two years ago, with the snow cover, these boulders were mostly hidden, and if a Pika was active, we didn’t know it, and saw none throughout the trip. This year, within minutes, we saw our first Pika, darting across the rocks like a shadow and disappearing quickly.
We gained several hundred feet in elevation from where we started our hike into the valley hours earlier and where we now stopped, and although we felt the climb and our legs and lungs ached, all of us could feel an improvement and the pika hike was great for our continued conditioning.

Feb. 14. We spent a surprisingly comfortable night, with the temperature inside the tent warm enough that we were able to completely undress and change clothes, a huge difference from our previous trip. Then, either we were so inexperienced with the cold, or it was just that much colder, we never got out of our mesh long underwear. This fishnet clothing traps air between the skin and the next layer, and helps keep one dry when sweating, since there is an evaporative gap. As we dressed, we didn’t bother with the mesh gear, and throughout the trip we ended up never needing it.
I don’t think we were just tougher. Last time, if I left an insulated water bottle outside of my sleeping bag, where my body heat would keep it warm, the water inside would be frozen solid by morning. This time, that never happened. I could keep my water bottle outside the bag, which was refreshing, since I had to accommodate a foam bag that held all of my camera batteries, and another bag that would hold the first layer of clothes I’d wear the following day. Although we had a generator for charging batteries, we worried that there wouldn’t be enough outlets, or enough time, to charge drained batteries, and keeping them warm, via body heat during the night, kept the batteries going throughout the trip – with just one recharge each, for Mary and I, on our 7D batteries, which do not hold as long a charge as our larger Mark series cameras.
pAs would be the custom we were awakened by the camp staff with a cup of tea delivered to the tent, which we’d set outside to cool and to give us space while we slithered out of our sleeping bag and dressed. One of the most vexing thing about camping in cold weather is … the bathroom. No one wants to leave a warm(ish) tent, or climb out of a sleeping bag, to pee in the middle of the night. We did that enough last time, and this year, to avoid that, we risked possible dehydration by not drinking after 6PM. We were hydrated enough through the day to last, and after several bathroom breaks prior to climbing into our tent for good at 9PM, we made it through the night. Just barely, as I often hurried to get dress and out, despite not having had anything to drink for 12 hours or more. The others on our trip, all guys, used bottles, with one being smart enough to buy a bottle from a Pharmacy beforehand specifically for that purpose. Two of the other guys used bottles, or tried to, and one, deciding that the narrow opening of a soda bottle was just too risky, sacrificed an expensive insulated water bottle instead, and was happy to have done so. Scott gave me an extra bottle, Fred, as it was labeled, for my use, but I couldn’t see struggling with that inside the tent, especially if Mary would then be suffering without remedy. Spilling the bottle by mistake just wasn’t worth the risk!
We had breakfast around 8, which each day would consist of some type of hot porridge, fried bread, tea, and usually eggs,  and afterwards headed back up the Rumbak valley to the Pikas. We were close enough to the camp that if a Gray Ghost was spotted we’d know, and the easy hike would be great further conditioning for us at altitude.
There were no Pikas visible, and all of us settled into the rocks to wait. Within an hour at least four or five appeared, with most simply  vanishing in the rocks after a short dash. Dun-colored, the Pikas at any distance blended well with the rocks and even when perched in the open they were difficult for some to see. Often, one was spotted only by the movement when it darted across the rocks. Still, we were able to pattern a few, and locate favorite sunning spots, and everyone got photos.
After the first hour, the Pikas seemed to disappear, and having some success, and now having no Pikas, people began to talk. Doing so insured that no further Pikas would appear, and I moved further up the trail to be as far from the noise as possible, and where a good Pika appeared just as Mary came up to me to discuss plans. I only caught a fleeting glimpse as it ducked into the rocks, but after she returned downhill I set up at the rock and the Pika reappeared. I signaled to the others and a few moved in, getting shots before our presence, this time, spooked it back into hiding.
vWhile we waited, one of the trophy birds of the mountains soared overhead and perched on the cliff face of the opposite side. It was a Lammergeyer, or Bearded Vulture, a large vulture that is also known as the bone breaker, as the bird will pick up the bones from a carcass, carry it off into the air, and drop the bones upon rocks, hopefully splitting the bone and revealing the marrow inside. This bird was an adult, with a yellowish-golden head and nape and a long black tassel,  the beard, draped over its beak. After a few minutes the bird took off, gliding over us and disappearing above the ridge on our side of the gorge.
After lunch, most of the group hiked or struggled up the hillside to one of the knolls where people gather to scan and scope the hillsides for the Gray Ghost. Mary and I decided to check out the Tarbong Valley, the side valley we passed on our hike to camp.
This valley is one of my favorites and where I expected to have luck, if I would have any. The trail is reasonably easy, a continuous but gradual incline with very few steep rises, but still rises 500 to 1000 feet. Mary flushed a Snipe, a secretive shorebird that is exceptionally well camouflaged, along one of the few areas with open water, while otherwise the streams were frozen.
We hiked about two miles, ascending700 feet or so, on ground that was essentially snowless. A few distant Blue Sheep grazed on the highest slopes, but otherwise the area was barren. We stopped when we reached the spot where, last year, we quit, about an hour’s journey from the end of the canyon where the trail became much rougher.
Distressingly, the willows and shrubs that line the small stream that snakes through the Tarbong valley were mowed down in places, cut by the villagers of Rumbak for fuel or forage. This cover, while perhaps not used as food by the Blue Sheep, is used by birds and Hares, Moreover, the cover would be perfect for the Gray Ghost, and its absence could reflect on the hunting success, or even the appearance, of the Ghost in this valley.
The rest of our group who wished to continue with their conditioning hiked the few hundred foot climb to one of the knolls used for scoping the surrounding hillsides, but they saw nothing. At dusk the group climbed down, and we descended the valley and hiked back uphill to camp as the sun dropped behind the steep ridges and the chill crept back into the valley.

Feb. 15. Most of the group hiked up the side valley towards where, two years ago, our group had the Gray Ghost’s kill but they stopped at the first series of obstacles, a long stone wall Marup, who was guiding them, climbed up another ridge to scope but found nothing. By lunch the group returned.
Meanwhile, Mary, Jim, and I hiked back up into the Pika valley, the gorge leading to Rumbak, where, as soon as we arrived, we spotted a Pika, close, and fully in the open. Of course we did not have our cameras ready and the Pika soon dashed off. For the next two and a half hours we sat and waited, enjoying a bit of success. Several other trekking groups went by, and one group stopped just a few yards up from where Mary sat, and they had a Pika close that simply posed, yards away, for minutes. Not wishing to disturb or disrupt the others, Mary simply watched, hoping that the Pika might move down to her. It never did.
I went a bit further up the valley and when the sun hit my spot, warming me up as the Pikas remained hidden, I dozed off. Konchok, my friend, guide, and porter, spotted a Pika and woke me, and I got a few shots before it disappeared.
After lunch, I headed down to the entrance of Tarbong hoping to find where the Snipe frequented, but I couldn’t find it. I continued down into the gorge, and decided to test my lungs and legs by climbing a ridge where I’d have a better look up the Tarbong valley.  I climbed about 300 feet, stopping at two rises before gathering wind, strength, and nerve in this unforgiving landscape, to go to a higher ridge. A few ledges jutted out, and I could envision a Gray Ghost lying there, and me without a camera. If that happened, I rationalized, the experience of seeing a cat that close, so magical, would be worth it and satisfying enough, but fortunately no cat appeared and I didn’t have to test that out.
Ironically, about one half mile further up the ridge where I sat my guide, Konchok, spotted the Gray Ghost, the Snow Leopard, with my Swarovski scope. I was far off trail and a bit worried that someone might go looking for me and miss me on the ridge, and when I saw Konchok that was my assumption. I could hear him yelling, and as he got closer, coming quickly up the ridge that I labored to climb, he said he had a Snow Leopard. I headed down, following his footsteps on the featureless rock, and headed back towards camp as quickly as I could.


These two photos were shot at quite a distance, with an 800 and 7D, with a 1.6X crop factor, and these shots are cropped. Obviously, the image quality is terrible, but they truly depict the 'gray ghost' as a ghost. Can you spot the Snow Leopard in the image above? It is just to the left of the rock in the center of the frame.

Fortunately the group was at the lowest end of the camping area, saving me a few hundred yards of hiking. Everyone had their lenses aimed on the ridge I had been on, but the cat was much further up, several hundred feet, and behind a rock outcrop that would have been impossible for me to pass. When I arrived the cat had disappeared, lying behind a large rock on the horizon, but the Swarovski scope was on it and as I watched the cat raised its head. Soon the cat started grooming its front paws, then yawned, and finally stood, sauntering down to a rock where it perched, clearly, before finally moving on and settling down behind another rock where, as dusk settled, we left the cat. The ice was broken – the Gray Ghost was now a Snow Leopard!

Feb. 16. Because of yesterday’s cat everyone stayed around camp, scoping the hills, now covered in a very light dusting of new snow, looking for the leopard. Around 11AM Mary and I walked back down to the Tarbong valley entrance where we scoped, and where I hiked up a new rise, a climb of about 200 feet that was far steeper than it appeared as I began. We saw nothing and headed back for lunch, watching another Lammergeyer that soared by and passed directly over the ridge I sat upon yesterday.
mAt the lower end of the camping area a newly installed ‘restroom’ or outhouse abutted a ravine or gully that led up to a distant ridge. The ravine was inaccessible because of the walls cut out by a road crew, but behind the outhouse, and using its wall to ‘chimney’ up the eight foot cliff, I could climb to the entrance of the ravine. After lunch I returned there to do just that, and to follow the ravine uphill, hopefully reaching a good vantage for looking for the cat.
The ravine, after only a few dozen yards, became a steep, sandy talus bank where two steps up resulted in one step back, as the substrate gave way. There was a somewhat well-defined pathway that led upwards, one created either by a few hikers or Blue Sheep, whose scat was everywhere. The route took me through talus, bare earth, and ankle-breaking loose scree, and I’d make it about 10 or 15 vertical feet before having to break and catch my breath, almost hyperventilating as I did so. After a minute or so I’d move on, with my legs feeling strong but my wind poor, as the elevation approached 12,000.
I’d look for the most obvious route as I climbed, often paralleling a rocky ridge that jutted clear of the surrounding scree. My goal, once I could see the top, was the ridge that extended to the east and  continued beyond the knoll where the spotters scoped, but about 100’ from the top the slope was just too steep, and to my eyes, too dangerous to attempt alone. Here the rock-hard slope was covered by a thin veneer of fine and very loose slate that offered no purchase, while the rougher spots were defined by knife-like blades of sharp slate, row after row of serrated blades, poking skyward. If I fell, at the very least, I’d shred my expensive down jacket, and face Mary’s wrath if I survived. I worried, too, that I might slip and go into an uncontrollable slide, and there was nothing but several hundred feet of very steep slope between me and an uncomfortable bottom landing.
From this position I had a fairly decent view of much of the lower ridges, but in my mind’s eye I envisioned being on top, among the large boulders that jutted from the ridge top, and having a snow leopard walking along, oblivious to my presence. That wouldn’t happen from my position, but I’d still have a good vantage for cats at a lower level.
Settling into the rocks and sitting quietly alone I was reminded of George Schaller’s book on the central Asian region, ‘Stones of Silence,’ and how apt that title was. Surrounded by these tall, rocky and now snowless peaks, with no wind stirring and no birds in the air it was indeed an environment of silent stones, where the silence was only broken by the pounding of my heart and my labored breaths, my constant companions as I trudged up the slopes.
I sat for about thirty minutes hoping that a snow leopard would appear on one of the Blue Sheep trails that crisscrossed the slopes below and beside me, but of course there was nothing. At 4PM, as light began to fade I headed downhill, taking only 35 minutes for the descent, far less than half the time required to ascend. Although I had mapped out both my ascent and route back down, as I moved downhill, stabbing my right foot into scree to obtain a foothold, and tilting back to avoid a slip, I missed the gap between a rock outcropping I’d used earlier. The route below, though steep, was negotiable scree and appeared to not have a hidden ledge, and I cut down a new route. I was a bit concerned, for on a trip to Denali in Alaska years ago, I dead-headed down a slope to reach the road, only to have to turn back when my route led to a steep cliff, impossible for Mary, my friend Bill, and I to pass.
I reached camp about five, very tired and a bit dehydrated from the climb and the heavy breathing, with only an hour or so of hydration available before I reached my cut-off time to avoid problems later on in the tent.

Feb. 17. The group split this morning to cover territory, with everyone but Mary and I heading towards the old kill site. Their hike was a hard one, going up a frozen stream bed and across talus rock piles that were poorly marked, and included an elevation rise of 1,000 feet or more. The physical capacities of the group differed, and between breaks the members were strung out, accommodated for by the guides by five or six long breaks lasting 15 or 20 minutes each. I much prefer to walk for less time and pause often, just a minute or two, to catch my breath before continuing, and in doing so not working up a sweat or getting really tired.
The group had snow leopard tracks that led up the valley for at least half their journey and, at one of their break stops, a Weasel, which ran within twenty yards of them but did so too fast for anyone to get a camera and a picture. The group ate lunch towards the end of the trip and returned to camp, making it back down in less than two hours. I’ve yet to be there, missing the trip last time by a stupid alternate plan, and now, although I’m curious about seeing the area I’m afraid old ghosts would come to haunt me.
Two years ago, our outfitter suggested that on our last day we do the several hour hike to Rumbak where we’d have lunch and a visit at a home stay. Along the way we were prepped to see lammergeiers, said to fly so close that a short zoom would suffice. We saw none. The route went through good gorge country where any snow leopard would be accustomed to people on that track, and feeling as if we should see everything on this scouting trip both Mary and I went. A huge mistake, and one that cost me sleep, without exaggeration, for two weeks of woeful regret.
The day before a Snow Leopard had been found up the other valley and our group was shown photos by a girl who only used a 70-200mm lens. Although she had to zoom in to show us the cat on the LCD screen, the images were encouraging enough for the SMART ONES in the group to forego the Rumbak trip and try for the cat. Stupidly, I worried that the entire valley of tourists would be up there, too, and from the girl’s report it seemed as if the kill was nearly finished. It was a gamble, but I suspected that the kill might be deserted and the time a waste.
Follow the kill! That’s the lesson to learn, and one I won’t forget. The group had a spectacular day and shot wonderful images, while those of us that hiked to Rumbak had a nice cultural experience, and photographed some neat village scenes and way of life, but …..
While the group hiked up the valley that we now called ‘Angus’s valley,’ after a good friend who did do that trip that day and obtained wonderful images, Mary and I and Konchok hiked back up Tarbong, with our goal the very end of the valley. There, the little stream ends at what we were told was a glacier, and a cave, and a cathedral of rock walls. Not many go there, and it was our hope that we might find a cat at a kill. Between our two distant locations, Angus’s valley or Tarbong, we hoped to find something.
Shortly after starting the trail at Tarbong we found fresh snow leopard tracks in the dirt, and periodically as we continued we found more. Almost all were headed downhill, opposite the direction we were hiking, but the area was prime, there might be more than one cat, or the one that left the tracks might have doubled back. We reached our turn-around point in good time and continued up the valley, which was a bit rougher and the trail more convoluted for this final hour.
Two French hikers and their guides surprised us by being ahead of us – the tracks in the dust to our untrained eyes didn’t indicate any sort of freshness, but they were quiet and intently searching the slopes for a snow leopard as well. Our trail crossed the frozen stream several times and here, at about 13,300 feet or so, there was still snow in many areas. And here we found plenty of snow leopard tracks, and many of these were very, very fresh.
sA small herd of Blue Sheep were grazing on a hillside a few hundred yards away and as we watched they moved in closer, enough for rather pleasing shots. Sheep were scattered at varying heights and we hoped a cat might suddenly make an attack, but that proved to be just wishful thinking. Red-billed Choughs, a good sized, crow-like bird, flew in large kettles high above us, then following the wind or their own set wings drifted overhead and out of sight behind the ridges, and frequently we heard the surprisingly melodic whistles of Himalayan Snow Cocks. We carried our scope along, and at one point Mary spotted one bird upon the slope where, at 60X, we had a fantastic view of this chunky gray, chicken-like bird.
Mouse and weasel tracks etched the fresh snow, and while Mary scanned the slopes I continued up the valley, hoping to reach the very end of the steep canyon. The ‘glacier’ stopped me, where the frozen stream piled upon itself in a deep, smooth mound of glowing blue snow that, without ice crampons, was impossible to cross. I scanned the hillsides with binocs and saw nothing, and returned to Mary where we continued to study the barren hillsides. It was perfect cat habitat and reminded us of the BBC footage we’d seen of a snow leopard unsuccessfully pursuing a sheep, which escaped by plunging into a river and swimming across. Had it not been for the river we’d have sworn we were exactly in the same place, but that footage, I believe, was shot in Pakistan.
Along the way we passed a cave-like structure, what we took as a shepherd’s hut for summer grazing and we were told that Doug Allen, another very tough BBC photographer, had used that shelter for months, years ago, before tourism hit the Hemis valley. He spent two months in a hide here, overlooking the ridge, watching for sheep. In his second year there he suffered from altitude sickness, which can be life-threatening, and had to evacuate, and never got the shots. Another photographer had success, and those are the images of the hunting snow leopard one sees on one of the BBC programs.
It took us 3.5 hours to reach the end of the valley, although later I did the same hike in just over 2.5 hours, a distance, one way, of about 5 miles based upon the time it took us to hike back to the entrance of Tarbong, going almost all the way downhill. When we reached camp it was nearly 5PM and we were exhausted and dehydrated, having finished our water hours earlier. Now the challenge was re hydrating before our 6PM cut-off, but that’s another story.
When we started our hike I had been very sore, and I wondered if yesterday’s excursion up the steep slope was too much, too soon. My legs ached and I felt out of breath, but after 15 minutes or so my muscles warmed up and the hike went smoothly. As we returned to camp I looked at the ravine I climbed yesterday and resolved that I’d relax tomorrow and remain near camp, unless a snow leopard was spotted. I wanted a rest.
tFeb. 18. Encouraged by the amount of fresh tracks we’d seen yesterday, the group headed up to the end of Tarbong, a very admirable accomplishment considering the long walk they had yesterday. There were few fresh tracks and the few Blue Sheep they saw were very high. They returned to camp around 4.
Mary, Larry, Jim, and I stayed around camp until mid-morning when the sun would finally reach the Pika rocks but today the skies were mostly overcast and the air cold and we only saw a few Pika, and I think I was the only one to manage any images. My legs felt like lead, and I was tired, and needed an easy day to recharge.
After lunch, Mary and I decided to wash our hair, using the hot water from the drink dispenser. Despite a temperature in the 20s the wash wasn’t bad, and was certainly refreshing. We towel-dried as best we could, then used the gas heater of the dining tent to finish off. Mary was leaning too close to the flame and actually singed her hair, which browned into a crinkly, curly mess that disintegrated when I ran my fingers through her scalp. Luckily her hair, or her clothes, didn’t catch fire, and the couple curls lost were not very noticeable. And her hair was now very clean and very, very dry.
Feb. 19. Our last full day in camp. Steve and I, with our porter/guides, hiked back up the Tarbong hoping for a leopard. The rest had done me good, as I reached our turn-around spot in just 50 minutes and would have made it to the valley end in less than another hour had I not waited for my guide. He stopped often to scope, and I didn’t want to get ahead of him and find a cat, while he was somewhere below, carrying my long lens!
As we approached the end of the valley a flock of Choughs rose into the air and settled down again on the slope and my pulse quickened, I thought they might have been flushed by a cat on a kill. I waited for Konchok and pointed to the birds but he said they were just feeding on berries, and he was correct.  Had I had my lens out I’d have had my best shots of these birds but the light was dull, and low, and I didn’t bother. Instead we continued on, and settled into the rocks at the end of the valley to scan the slopes.
rI didn’t notice that Steve’s guide had climbed up the steep slope in front of us, only spying him when I heard his voice. He was wearing black and was not really camouflaged, but at 100 yards he was surprisingly difficult to see. With my lens, however, he’d have been a frame-filler, as would a cat should one appear. That wasn’t going to happen now, as the guide was talking loudly on his cell phone as, at this high elevation, he could get a signal back to home. He talked for several minutes while Steve and I looked on, growing increasingly annoyed at this obvious waste of our time. A cat would certainly not appear over a rise while his voice echoed across the canyon, and I told Steve I’d give him 15 minutes to finish his business, whatever that was, before I’d say anything.
His call completed, we had momentary silence, and then his phone rang and another conversation began. I turned to Konchok who was seated behind me further up the hill and told him, gruffly, to tell that guy to get down here and to get off the phone. Konchok shouted over and the guy obliged, and for the remainder of our time sat behind us, dutifully watching the rocks.
We spent about two hours watching the slopes, and for much of that I systematically scanned the rocks with the Swarovski set at 20X, going left to right, dropping a field of view, and continuing right to left, and repeating again. The clarity of the scope made judging distances difficult, things looked too close, but I hoped that a cat, lounging in the rocks, would stand out enough for me to spot it as I scoped. A very light snowfall began, and the air was cold, and although I had hand, feet, and body chemical warmers in my pack I forgot that I did, and just grew increasingly cold. Perhaps, had we waited until nearly dusk we’d have had luck, but we might, just as easily, encounter a cat as we headed back down the Tarbong valley. As it was, we saw nothing, and neither did the group who remained at camp or along the lookout ridges, scoping for the elusive leopard.
As we hiked back down the valley my mind wandered a bit, I guess, for I must have stepped on a small, loose rock on the trail which flipped and spilled me. I’m guessing here, but the next thing I did know was I was flat on my belly, my hands extended above me gripping the stones along the trail, with my feet aimed downhill on a steep slope. Steve was behind me and saw my lying there but didn’t see the fall, and I was fine. Looking down, though, the steep pitch continued about 100 feet before ending in rocks and shrubs, and had I slid or rolled, the results would have been painful. That little action reinforced my decision two to abort on my solo hike to the ridge top, and the need, always, to concentrate on where one puts one’s feet.
Many years ago, Marup, our head guide at the camp, was carrying a heavy cine camera for the legendary BBC film maker, Hugh Miles – one of my personal heroes, and slipped. He had stepped upon a rock that flipped, and he rolled, head-over-heels for several yards before righting himself enough to slide over 150’ down a steep bank where, finally, he came to a stop. Had there been a ledge or cliff before that he’d be dead today, there was no stopping until the very end.
Another photographer friend of mine had a similar lucky break in Yellowstone. There is a spot along the Yellowstone River in the national park where signs warn tourists to keep off the steep banks, necessary since ospreys nest on the sea-stack like columns on the cliffs lining the steep gorge that might tempt a tourist. My friend ignored the signs and walked down the steep incline to get closer, and suddenly, as if a step suddenly collapsed beneath his feet the ground gave way and he was pitched forward, basically somersaulting down the hill. Somehow, some way, he grabbed a hold of a small bush, and he doesn’t know how, and stopped his fall. He was about twenty feet from the cliff’s edge, where the next stop was the rocks and river of the Yellowstone, several hundred feet below.
Snow continued to fall in the high country and from camp it looked as if the ridges were simply fogged in. By dinner more snow fell, covering our tents in a light carpet, but by bedtime, an hour or two later, the skies shone brightly under a canopy of brilliant stars. That was to change once again.

Feb. 20. It snowed during the night, depositing about 1.5 inches on our tents, and now the mountain slopes around us were covered in white. Now, Blue Sheep were visible on two different hillsides, something we hadn’t seen the entire time we’d been in camp. Luck, for the valley, might be changing, although we wouldn’t be there to enjoy it as today we broke camp and headed back downhill, past the side valley of Tarbong, to meet our vehicles.
mEveryone was manning scopes, hoping to see a cat on the ridges but without success. We packed up and the guides loaded our packs and duffles onto the horses and at 9AM we headed down, stopping often to scope and search. No luck.
This, of course, contrasted with our luck two years ago, when we had eight Snow Leopard sightings in just six days, including that wonderful cat at the kill. Last year, the season was wonderful, and the BBC crew that shared camp with us this year told us that they averaged a sighting every two days last year, but only one every ten days or so this year. The difference, of course, was the lack of snow, and without snow the Blue Sheep stayed high, as did the Snow Leopards. Indeed, the only cat we’d seen, and almost all of the Blue Sheep we’d spotted, were at the very top of the ridges, on snow free ground. Their footage from last year included a mating pair and a mother with cubs and should air, if all goes well, in 2016, under the tentative title ‘One Planet,’ in contrast to previous series, ‘Living Planet,’ etc.
The ride back to Leh was interesting, as the roads were now snow or ice-covered, as it had snowed several times from yesterday afternoon and on. We slid several times, and screeched to a halt occasionally when, rounding a blind turn, we met another vehicle heading up our valley.
Days earlier, when we left our hotel, the unheated Mahey Retreat, for camp, I had forgotten or mislaid my very expensive SureFire headlamp. I was relieved to see that Marup had retrieved it from the hotel, whose staff had found the light after we left and saved it for our return. It speaks of the honesty of the people of Leh, just one example of many we’d seen over the years here.
We had the afternoon free to relax, and most of us headed back uptown to Ish’s and other stores to shop or talk, and where I discovered that buying knock-off North Face clothes here, rather than  bringing them from home, would not be a good idea. It was a real treat to have a long, hot shower at the Grand Dragon hotel, and we all agreed that next time, we’d acclimatize to the elevation in a warm hotel, and hot water, despite the friendly atmosphere we enjoyed at Mahey.

One of three Gray Wolves we saw on our 'road trip' day. The wolves were close when we saw them, but trotted off, where we shot them from a distance.

Feb. 21. Leh to Ulley, and back. We had one final day in the high country, and we scheduled a trip we figured would be only scenic, taking us to some wonderful vistas for shots of the looming Himalayas. We carried our big lenses too, in case we’d have luck with sheep or fox or wolves, and luckily we did so.
Mary and I were riding with the two guides, Marup and Sonam, he being a keen spotter and camp cook and, as he calls it, he “cooks and looks.” The landscape was barren and brown, with the distant snow-covered mountains far in the background, an area that seemed incapable of supporting life. Unexpectedly, quite close to the road, Sonam spotted a Gray Wolf, which immediately trotted away from us across the vegetation-free, rolling hills. I was trying to grab my lens when Mary informed me (a very gentle description) that she had her’s, and I was to open the window for her! I did, and she got a couple shots before they moved out, where three wolves eventually lingered at a distance giving most of the folks a chance to see, or to shoot, the wolves.
There were three, and two looked like big dogs. One was a yellowish-white and reminded me of a large German Shepherd, which I’d have thought it was had we not seen the other wolf, a more traditional, deep brown, and a third, which Mary saw, that was a typical gray wolf color. The wolves had been feeding on a very desiccated cow carcass, where only beef-jerky like limbs, petrified by the sun and cold, offered the only usable meat. The wolves would truly be scavenging here, and working hard to get anything edible from that dry and bony carcass. The wolves disappeared behind a rise and we walked out to an overlook to try for another view, before being told they had moved on, closer to the road. We raced back to the vehicles as quickly as we could at this high elevation but the wolves had vanished. Not much further, however, there was a small herd of Urial Sheep, which resemble BigHorns to some extent, although they reminded me too of the North American Pronghorn. We got some shots, distorted and wavy with the heat waves radiating from the stones over a few hundred yards separating us from the sheep.
At an overlook of the Indus Rive, where, further upstream, a popular trekking route follows an ‘ice river’ to a distant village, we stopped for shots. The bank before us was quite steep, and some type of cement drainage channel cut through at the bottom, presumable to protect the road below from landslides. Scott kicked out a small rock which rolled down the slope, bouncing and bounding all the way until it reached the channel. All of us could envision ourselves doing the same, and stepped back a bit in doing so.
vWhile we photographed the valley with our wide-angle lenses an immature Lammergeyer flew by, extremely close and very slow, almost hovering in the air, then banking, where the sun gleamed off its feathers. Everyone rushed for their big lenses but the vulture flew on, and circled high before retracing its route too far away for anything good. Had we had our lenses out …..
We continued, following a rather nerve-wracking road that was filled with blind hair-pin turns and often snow or ice-covered. I found the only way to enjoy the ride was to not backseat drive and look out the windshield, but instead to look out a side window for game and to trust our driver. While doing so Mary spotted a Red Fox, one of four it turned out, that were running and playing in the valley below us. One paused for a short time on the rooftop of a shepherd’s structure, while another ran along the roadside on the opposite side of our valley.


A local villager, perhaps seeing our vehicles stopped, walked up through the valley and spooked off the foxes, but we did manage a few nice shots before he did so.
By now we had Urial Sheep, Red Fox, and Wolves, so Chitah, one of our head guides, jokingly said we’d continue on to Ulley to see Ibex and Snow Leopards too. We weren’t expecting to drive all the way to Ulley, which we did last trip and which, we thought, took most of the day. The roads became a bit more ice-covered when we reached the turn-off for Ulley, which consists of a snow and ice covered dirt track.
Our drivers turned and headed uphill in their rear-wheel drive vehicles, slipping and stopping because of the ice and getting some real clinchers at times when we skidded close to the cliff edge. We had chains, and finally our driver dug out and mounted his, although the other drivers did not. Their reasoning: our lead car would tear up the snow enough that on the rough road the other drivers would not need chains. They were so wrong!
Eventually all of the vehicles chained up but by then my vehicle was far ahead and close to the small village of Ulley. We stopped to glass the slopes and our guides soon spotted several Ibex, so far off that I never saw them except through the scope, after the guides positioned the scope for viewing. When I moved the scope to check something else, the Ibex were gone – at least for me.
We were concerned when two of our vehicles didn’t join us, so our guides piled into one car to head back downhill to check. While they were gone I walked a short distance back down the road and found very fresh Snow Leopard tracks, where the cat had jumped from the steep bank, about 10 foot high, onto the road, about six feet in, before walking on and over the ridge to reach the small stream that paralleled the road. We wondered if the cat was there now, hiding in the scrub, although another set of tracks, seen through binocs, may have been the cat’s returning back up the hill. Our other cars arrived and we continued on, and when our car reached the top Marup met us.
He said he had good news, and I asked, “Do you have an Ibex close?” and he replied, “No, snow leopard!” The cat wasn’t visible now, he said, but had gone behind a rock at a cave, but he assured us that it would come back out. Unbeknownst to us, our guides had received a call from Ulley earlier, informing us that they had a Snow Leopard and that we should come. Not wishing to get our hopes up if the cat vanished they said nothing, leaving it as a surprise when we reached Ulley.

We quickly set up my 800mm and our spotting scope on the other tripod and focused on the hilltop where, near the top, two caves made prominent black holes in the rock and snow covered point. The cat wasn’t visible, but it was expected, and now we waited, anxious not only to see the cat but to get two of our vehicles, with our people inside, up here in time. Somehow, another car, sent to pick up some BBC photographers that had spent one night here, had passed our cars and now was stuck on the ice, just a hundred yards or so shy of the parking area.
Mary ran down, yelling for everyone to hurry up and get their gear, abandon the cars and get up here, as the Snow Leopard had just appeared at the cave entrance. People ran, as best they could at the near 14,000 foot elevation, with some arriving, blowing and wheezing like race horses. Mary and I and the guides grabbed their tripods and set them up, then positioned their lenses and aimed at the cave, as this was far quicker than trying to explain where the cat was.
As it turned out we needn’t have hurried for the Snow Leopard remained at the entrance of the cave, sometimes standing, sometimes lounging on its side, often sitting Sphinx-like, looking down at us, continuously, even as we took a break to finally eat our packed lunches.
We had stayed here two years ago and I recognized one of the boys, now about ten, that lives here, although he didn’t remember me. Still, it was fun to see old faces and to kid around, and where I demonstrated my ‘magic’ of blowing a hard boiled egg free of its shell. The Snow Leopard itself was far off, and our shots had to be cropped considerably, but the views, especially via the scope, were truly outstanding. Last time, because of her bad knee, Mary didn’t make it up to the high country when we had our best snow leopard sighting and although she saw the cat, it wasn’t very satisfactory. This time, she was treated to a view – a wonderful one at that.
Eventually the cat got up, stretched and yawned, and started down the rocky hill, jumping down at spots and suddenly disappearing behind a small ridge. It reappeared again about a hundred yards away, at the very top of the ridge line, presenting a very clear, very nice view. Then the cat ran, kicking up snow as it bounded down the hill, finally to disappear behind another ridge line. There was a cairn atop a rock outcrop to the right and I was tempted to hike up to see if the cat was visible from there, but the time was getting late and that hike would have cost us about an hour, and the light was beginning to fade.
Instead, we packed up and headed home, happy that on the last afternoon of our last day in Snow Leopard country we finally had success. I attributed our luck to the great Karma of our group, which never complained or got pissy about our lack of success while at Hemis, camping. One of our group, a very spiritual person, said she said novenas, via a rosary I guess, and that might have been the source of our luck. Either way, we did it, and had a great ending.

Ironically, about ten days after we left Leh, while we were on the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary part of our trip to India, unusual and unseasonable rains hit most of India. A storm blew out from the Mediterranean  Sea, crossing into the Indian Ocean, then sweeping northward and to the subcontinent. Our drive back to Delhi the following day was tedious, as flood waters clogged many intersections. The papers reported wide-spread damage, and we wondered if the weather reached all the way to Leh and Hemis. If it did, there’d be snow, but perhaps so much that hiking in the valley or along the mountain trails would be taxing. If it did, though, it’d bring down the sheep, and the Snow Leopards, and so perhaps the end of the season, when one would not expect much luck or action, things may have changed.
Who knows? But our luck, though comparatively poor this year, was simply a reflection of the lack of snow, a real fluke for this time of year. We were still encouraged, and before I left Leh I had already scheduled coming back again in 2016 for another chance, as some of the other participants were thinking of doing so as well. If you’re interested, contact our office – the space will be limited!

POSTSCRIPT: Indeed, another photographer visited the Snow Leopard camp right after our trip, and there was snow. One evening, while he was in the mess tent, one of the guides told them to get out and look, there was a Snow Leopard just forty yards away, on the plateau that bordered the camp sites! With the snow, the big cats returned, and so will we!

In 2016 we will be returning to Hemis NP in northern India for another Snow Leopard Expedition-- as I post this our schedule is still being planned. This will be the first of MULTIPLE offerings which will provide incredible coverage of the wildlife of India, from the Asiatic Lions of the Gir Forest, the desert wildlife of western India, and the Tigers and Wildlife of central/eastern India. It is an exciting and diverse program, and you'll be able to combine several offerings for the ultimate India trip.

Contact our office IMMEDIATELY to get on our first contact list.