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In search of a Snow Leopard

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Soukous

In search of a Snow Leopard

 

Well, I already feel a bit of a fraud after typing the title for this post.

The plan was that we would fly up to Leh and then trek to the village of Rumbak, where we would base ourselves for a few days whilst scouring the valleys for an, apparently, elusive snow leopard.

 

It didn’t quite work out that way.

 

I don’t mind trekking, but I’m not a great fan of high altitude trekking and the thought of hiking around mountains at 4000 metres did not fill me with excitement.

 

23 March

After the pollution and noise of Delhi it was great to step out onto the tarmac at Leh airport and see clear skies and breathe fresh air. Actually, although the air was certainly fresh, at 3500 metres breathing it was not as easy as I’d have liked.
Still, we had 2 days to acclimatise before beginning our trek so it should be fine.

We were here to look for one of the World's most elusive cats, the snow leopard. The area where we were headed was also home to the even more elusive Pallas Cat and the Lynx. I didn't expect to see either of those, but my hopes were high for snow leopard.

 

It was quite a shock to check into the Grand Dragon Hotel. Much more luxurious than expected.

grand-dragon-view.thumb.jpg.634f2df00385316f371c330cd4cc2ee0.jpg

On our first afternoon we ventured out to visit Shanti Stupa and take in the surrounding scenery.

Leh-panorama.thumb.jpg.71b093999a366beead57734b2d6deaf0.jpg

 

mountain-view-from-Shanti-stupa

 

Snowfall had been very light during the winter just gone and there was very little covering on the mountains. This meant that the temperature was a lot warmer than we’d expected, around 5 degrees instead of minus 10.
The downside of the lack of snow was that tracking snow leopards would be much tougher.

 

24 March

After a restless night I woke to learn that Varun, our friend who had organised the trip, had been taken to hospital during the night. I hadn’t slept well, but his night had been much worse and he’d needed to go into hospital for oxygen. I soon learned that Varun had needed to go into hospital on his two previous visits to Leh as well. He just didn’t cope well at altitude.

 

For our second day of acclimatisation the plan was that we’d mooch around and go and do some birding by the river, where we might get to see a pair of Ibisbills – a lapwing sized bird with a long curved bill.

As we were driving out of town our guide, Tashi, got a phone call.
A snow leopard had been sighted, did we want to go and see it?

What a question, of course we did.

 

In our excitement, what we had neglected to ask was exactly where it had been sighted.

As it happened, it had been sighted near Rumbak, the mountain village we would be trekking to tomorrow. Except that now we were going there today.

 

Tashi drove us up along a winding mountain road and we were all looking forward to seeing the snow leopard. Then he stopped that car and said that we must walk the rest of the way.
How far?
About two and a half hours.

 

The road continued upwards at about a 35 degree angle. I was fine for the first three hundred metres or so and then I started to find it tough going.

It was not long before I found myself struggling to keep up. Hardly surprising as Tashi was a local and Marc was a keen mountaineer and trekker. I, on the other hand, live in Suffolk, about 20 metres above sea level, in a county with hardly a hill.

 

A few more minutes and I knew that I wouldn’t be making it up that mountain today. I said I would go back and wait by the car whilst the others went up. I’d go up the following day, as planned. Somehow persuading myself that putting it off for 24 hours would make it easier.

 

With several hours to kill, I wandered up and down the road, as much to keep warm and anything else. The only thing I found to photograph was a magpie.

 

After about an hour I heard someone calling out and discovered that our second driver had arrived. In the back of the car was Varun, with a oxygen mask over his nose and mouth.

Any surprise I might have felt at his being out of hospital paled into insignificance when he said that we was going to walk up to see the snow leopard.

That didn’t leave me with much choice. If he could rise from his hospital bed and walk up there I could hardly wimp out.

So, with the driver carrying a portable oxygen cylinder, just in case, we began to walk very slowly up the road. And I mean slowly.

What was supposed to be a two and a half hour hike took us at least three and a half. The higher we got, the harder each step became.

Hemis-High-altitude-NP-sign

 

When we were probably two thirds of the way there we met Tashi and Marc and Trish coming back down. Now I felt very guilty. They’d clearly kept their visit short and hurried back down because they thought I was waiting by the car.

 

By then I had already made my mind up that if I managed to reach the homestay there was no way I was coming back down again today. I’d just stay there and wait for the others to come back.
After a short confab we agreed that Marc & Trish would go back to the hotel in Leh and clear out our rooms, then come back up in the morning. Varun & I would head to Rumbak and collapse.

 

For a brief moment, a very brief moment, reassuring words like “not far now, you’re almost there” had me believing that my ordeal was nearly over. Yet it seemed to go on for ages. My legs felt like lead and there seemed to be no oxygen for me to breathe. I could manage about 70 metres before I needed to stop to gasp in air.

 

Eventually we did round the last bend and the village was there ahead of us. As we reached the village Tashi pointed out a yak carcass lying in a field and then the spot where the snow leopard was sleeping on the hillside opposite, between 300-400 metres across the valley.

scope-shot.thumb.jpg.68d9739d0b571a3b8d9622b93a9e25e7.jpg

 

As we entered the homestay I did notice that it was pretty basic, but at that point I was past caring. Finally I could sit down. No more walking.

Now that we’d arrived I could start paying more attention to what was going on.

 

We were incredibly lucky. A yak had died, and before the farmer could dispose of the body it had been discovered by a snow leopard. She came down to the field in front of the village and fed on it before retiring to the hillside to sleep. With a lot of meat still remaining on the carcass everyone was certain that the snow leopard would be in the vicinity for the next few days.

 

A room with a view

Varun & I were shown to our room, which had a window that looked out over the field where the yak carcass lay to the mountains opposite.

We could literally lie on our beds and look out of the window to where the snow leopard would come to feed.

 

We’d been there for about an hour when one of the spotters rushed in to say that the leopard was on her way down.

We sighted her just as she was entering the riverbed. She climbed through the fence and walked right up to the carcass and started feeding.

 

Snow-leopard

 

Snow-leopard-approaches-the-river-bed

 

Snow-leopard-crossing-the-river-bed

 

Snow-leopard-by-the-carcass

 

Snow-leopard-by-the-carcass-1

 

Snow-leopard-by-the-carcass2

 

At one point, I noticed that our hostess had come out to sit and watch herself. Obviously having a snow leopard within the village precincts was not a regular occurrence.

 

watching-the-snow-leopard

 

 

 

For some reason the snow leopard became very irritated by a small group of magpies that approached. It wasn’t as though they would eat very much but even so she didn’t like them being there and chased them away.

snow-leopard-watching-the-magpies

 

snow-leopard-chasing-magpies

 

Rumbak is a small village with half a dozen homestays and, in addition to us, there were probably half a dozen other tourists there.
Once it was clear that the snow leopard had settled down beside the carcass, some photographers moved up to the edge of the field for a better view. The temptation was too much for Varun and he went down as well.
I really wanted to get closer. I even put my boots and jacket on and went out of the house but after a few steps I was breathing hard and retreated back to our room.

 

She stayed feeding until well after sunset.
In fact, although we couldn’t see her, she stayed by the carcass though the night until just before dawn; making sure that foxes and wolves did not come down and steal her food.

 

25 March

Once the sun had risen, we could see the snow leopard sleeping high on the opposite mountainside.

Of course we hoped she’d come down to feed whilst the light was good but there was no way we could make her.

If she was going to follow the same pattern as yesterday she would only come down once the sun had fallen behind the mountains. That meant we had a whole day to kill.

 

During the night that leopard had dragged the carcass towards the edge of the field, trying to move it to a position where she could feed out of sight. The owner of our homestay, who also happened to be the owner of the field and the dead yak, went down and dragged the carcass back out into the open to ensure that we would be able to see the action.

 

Once Marc and Trish had rejoined us, we spent our time trying to guess what time the leopard would come down and which route she would take to approach the carcass.

 

I had it all figured out and positioned myself so that I would be able to see her coming down the gully opposite and crossing the riverbed.

 

News of the snow leopard had attracted additional visitors. A local magistrate and a bigwig from the wildlife department showed up and put a small hide in the corner of the field.

She was like a ghost. One moment she was asleep on the hillside, the next she had disappeared from sight. By now there were spotters with scopes all over the village, trying to get sight of her. Every so often someone would come running down and say she was on her way. As soon as this happened two or three people would scurry into the hide to sit and wait. Then, when an hour had passed and she had not put in an appearance they would emerge and try to get warm.

 

Even though there must have been at least twenty people watching constantly, no-one saw her walk onto the rock. One minute it was empty, next minute she was there.

 

snow-leopard-resting

 

By now it was after five thirty and the whole village was in shadow. We needed her to come down soon.

And she did.

snow-leopard-coming-down

 

Not only did she come down but she followed the exact route I had imagined.

 

snow-leopard-coming-down1

 

snow-leopard-about-to-cross-the-riverbed

 

snow-leopard-in-the-riverbed

 

snow-leopard-in-the-riverbed2

 

she even stopped for a stretch in the riverbed.

snow-leopard-stretching-in-the-riverbed

 

snow-leopard-walking-towards-camera

 

Once again she stayed with the yak carcass for most of the night. She was disturbed briefly by people quitting the hide and dismantling it but that was only temporary.

 

26 March

As the sun rose we could see her back up on the mountainside opposite.

 

Feeling less shitty I ventured further from the homestay, exploring the valley a bit. All the time keeping an eye on the snow leopard; willing her to come down a bit earlier.

 

Rumbak-village

 

Rumbak-valley

 

Rumbak-1

 

view-over-Rumbak

 

rumbak-rooftop

 

In fact she came down even later and the opportunities for photos were not as good as the past two days.

 

27 March

Same routine. Except that this time she came down even later. There might have been a chance for photos but her approach was disturbed by a French couple who – having waited all day for her to appear somehow failed to notice that she was on her way – walked across the field in front of her causing her to retreat into cover for a further 30 minutes. By the time she finally came to the carcass it was dark.

 

It didn’t matter. We’d been amazingly lucky. A snow leopard right in front of our homestay and, better still, I hadn’t needed to trek all over the valleys to find her.

 

4 very lucky trekkers

4 very lucky trekkers

 

28 March

The walk back down to the cars was easy. It was all downhill. I even enjoyed it and had time to look around at the scenery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tdgraves

Wow! You were so lucky...amazing!

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Game Warden

@Soukous Absolutely fantastic sighting. Also the vistas provide an interesting change to those you see in Africa. One day, one day...

 

Matt

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TonyQ

What a great sighting of the Snow Leopard with wonderful photos. Beautiful photos of the area as well.

We went to Ladakh a number of years ago (not wildlife connected) and  I remember the first day being unable to walk more than a couple of hundred yards before being completely exhausted, so I think you did well to get to the homestay so soon in your trip.

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Kitsafari

Such great fortune Soukous! Its a stunner too. You did well to walk all the way up despite your condition.

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kittykat23uk

I am insanely jealous!  You are so lucky to have such an amazing sighting! 

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Soukous
9 minutes ago, kittykat23uk said:

I am insanely jealous!  You are so lucky to have such an amazing sighting! 

 

Yes I am and yes we were.

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pomkiwi

@Soukous What a great trip, I'm glad the altitude effects settled (I've treked to 4500m in Kyrgyzstan and it was hard work but we had some time to aclimatise). Lovely pictures of the leopard and I too am jealous having been on the wrong side of a ridge as a snow leopard passed under the other side - again in Kyrgyzstan.

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lmSA84

As they say, it’s better to be lucky than good and you made the most of it with those photos. Can I ask what lens you used? 

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Chakra

The first day is indeed an extremely lucky sighting. I know several people who have been to Hemis searching for the Grey Ghost and I've seen a number of photos. Even with 600 mm on a cropped sensor the photos were not that impressive, with often only a part of the body visible. Your first day photos are hands down winners. 

Did you take any Diamox prior to travel and during the stay ?

I'm glad that you were fine as thing could have turned  nasty. Hats off to Varun, literally risking his life for his friends. 

Edited by Chakra

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Dave Williams

All I can add to the above comments are that you should have rung home and asked someone to buy you a lottery ticket. You were on an amazing run of luck but fair play, you made the most of it too.... well almost!!

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offshorebirder

Superb sightings - what an incredible run of luck. 

 

Well done @Soukous - I am glad you were able to take advantage of such a setup and bring back some nice storytelling photos.

 

Thanks for sharing.

 

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Treepol

@Soukous what brilliant sightings of this elusive and highly sought after cat. I like your photos and the shots of the mountains and the village provide a useful context for this amazing experience.

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Atravelynn

Now I see why you feel the title was fraudulent.  Lucky, lucky you.  The snow leopard was in search of you and your hostess.  If the yak had to die, it was a most fortuitous time.

 

Should I ever make an attempt to find this beautiful creature, I'm taking YOU with me. You're a snow leopard magnet.

Edited by Atravelynn

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Zim Girl

Fantastic luck @Soukous, what marvellous pictures of a Snow Leopard.

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Soukous
16 hours ago, lmSA84 said:

As they say, it’s better to be lucky than good and you made the most of it with those photos. Can I ask what lens you used? 

 

@lmSA84 It was a Nikon 200-500mm zoom lens. Plus a 1.4x tc

On a crop frame that gave me an equivalent focal length of 1050mm  

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Soukous
14 hours ago, Chakra said:

The first day is indeed an extremely lucky sighting. I know several people who have been to Hemis searching for the Grey Ghost and I've seen a number of photos. Even with 600 mm on a cropped sensor the photos were not that impressive, with often only a part of the body visible. Your first day photos are hands down winners. 

Did you take any Diamox prior to travel and during the stay ?

I'm glad that you were fine as thing could have turned  nasty. Hats off to Varun, literally risking his life for his friends. 

 

@Chakra Grey Ghost is exactly what we were calling her. She managed to disappear and then reappear as if by magic. 

I didn't take Diamox - but only because I hadn't even heard of it before i went.

It seems that different doctors have different opinions too; some recommend taking it before you get to altitude and other say you should only take it if you feel the effects of AMS.

 

 

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Alexander33

Like everyone else has said, you really had some fantastic sightings of this elusive leopard. And in spite of your struggles at that altitude, you couldn’t have asked for anything more ideal than for her to be right beside your lodging. Well done, and thanks so much for sharing your experience with us. 

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Chakra
6 hours ago, Soukous said:

 

I didn't take Diamox - but only because I hadn't even heard of it before i went.

It seems that different doctors have different opinions too; some recommend taking it before you get to altitude and other say you should only take it if you feel the effects of AMS.

 

 

Yes, you are right indeed about the confusion surrounding Diamox. In fact a systematic meta-analysis of the medical literature in 2012 went against the recommendations of a similar review in 2000. I tend to follow the CDC guidelines which does suggest starting a day before and absolutely must if you have the slightest symptom suggestive of acute mountain sickness. It is a reasonably safe drug and as long as you are not allergic to it, does not cause too many side effects.

I find it really interesting to see how people react to altitude in different ways. Some like your friend Varun are hit much harder than the others. Just like jet lag. After a flight to west coast of the USA , I get up at 2 am and stay awake through the whole night watching my wife sleeping blissfully, completely untouched by jet lag.

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michael-ibk

Just WOW!

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ForWildlife

Absolutely incredible!!!

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janzin

all I can say is WOW!  And also impressed with the fantastic photos, the 200-500 with a TC did a great job for you!

 

I'm still trying to convince myself I could survive a trip there, but I'm not so sure ;)

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Soukous
4 hours ago, janzin said:

all I can say is WOW!  And also impressed with the fantastic photos, the 200-500 with a TC did a great job for you!

 

I'm still trying to convince myself I could survive a trip there, but I'm not so sure ;)

 

If I can do it, I'm sure you can @janzin Everyone knows women are way tougher than men.

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serendipityntravel

Great trip report and awesome photos!  What an experience!!

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gatoratlarge

Wow!  That's on my dream/bucket list!  Fantastic!

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