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travelingteachr

Snow leopard trip - Full story with photos and videos below (keep scrolling down)

 

Sneak preview of our trip: 

 

December 17th, 2019

When I first flew into Leh in Ladakh, I remember thinking that everything was magical. The landscape, the air, the people, the way of life. That cold brush against the face after getting off the plane from Delhi to Leh invigorated me. It was like the times I’d spent in Kazakhstan in the Tien Shan mountains. The views as we landed were breathtaking.

 

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Full photo album here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?vanity=travelingteachr&set=a.1550241505138364 

 

There’s something special about the mountains to me. There’s mystery around every corner, every crevice. There’s something special hiding, lurking in each valley. There are bodies of water, snow, cliffs, edges, and so much more. It’s like a playground. When people have asked about my opinion of beaches, I’ve shared that I’ve found them boring. Everything is mostly within sight. There is nothing hidden, no gems, no surprises. Of course, underneath the water, there’s a wonderland of mystery. But I feel like my ability to navigate the mountains and still experience lakes, rivers, and waterfalls in addition to all the other features of mountains is what draws me to them.

 

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Accordingly, the Himalayas are the quintessential getaway for me. Add in the possibility of sighting the ultimate wildlife ghost, the thing of legends, and you can’t draw up a better vacation experience. This is what I was made for.

 

Anyway, this day was spent relaxing around Leh, buying sunglasses and a few souvenirs. My travel partner, Ildar, and I also interviewed Snow Leopard Director, Dr. Tsewang Namgail. It was a complete honor. Here is the full interview:

 

 

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We stayed at Mahey Retreat that night. https://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g297625-d3935819-Reviews-Mahey_Retreat-Leh_Leh_District_Ladakh_Jammu_and_Kashmir.html

 

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It was a wonderful first night, with scrumptious food, good conversations, and wonderful people.

 

While I didn’t have too much time to soak in the culture due to a short stay in Leh, I knew that this is the kind of place I could call home. Immediately, looking into long-term living in Leh became a conversation starting piece with locals. I have intentions to return and possibly stay for a period of time.

 

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December 18th, 2019

We woke up to a wonderful breakfast in sunny Leh at our retreat. Shortly after, we packed up and got into the vehicles that would take us a short way up into the Rumbak Valley where we would then settle into our homestay for the remainder of the snow leopard trekking experience.

 

We were dropped off and began our multi-hour, slow trek up to the homestay along the roadside. One thing was clear immediately—we had done well with our clothing and gear choices. It was bloody cold, but we were prepared:

 

 

Along the road, our guides showed us the place where the BBC had filmed the famous shots in Planet Earth II. Our guides had been there for that magical moment. We would, later in the trip, have lunch at this spot.

 

Throughout the walk, we were short of breath, but we took it easy and it wasn’t too bad. We are both physically fit and young-ish guys, but even the best of us can succumb to elevation sickness. Thankfully, on this trip, neither of us were ill from the elevation and only one day acclimatization in Leh.

 

That evening, we had our first scouting in the Rumbak Valley. No sightings. We were alone at this time of year. Only us and the villagers. It was magical. It was breathtaking. I had to pinch myself that I was really there, silent in the Himalayas alongside the mythical ghost.

 

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We ended the evening with a warm meal and then off to bed early for the long days ahead of us.

 

December 19th, 2019

It was cold in the room where we slept. Water bottles had to be kept inside the sleeping bags and under the many layers of blankets or they would freeze. Likewise, camera equipment found itself inside my sleeping bag, for I feared the freezing cold inside the room would not bode well with my equipment. I managed to figure out a way to place a pillow under my head and another on my forehead while I laid on my back. The reason for this was to allow the three layers of blankets to go over my head and close out the cold all while not touching my face or limiting my breathing. It was a primitive and reasonable solution.

 

We woke up and had a quick coffee and hot water at 6:30am before going out to scope early in the morning at the edge of the valley. We had the advantage of seeing three different directions into three valleys from that vantage point.

 

After nearly freezing ourselves to death, we scampered back to the homestay for breakfast around 9:00am. The breakfast was the typical bread, soup, tea, and eggs. It was perfect.

 

We’d get a few minutes to rest, repack for the day, and then head out at 10:30am for the remainder of the day. We wanted to be active. We asked our guides to really take us up into the mountains each day. We were the only team in the entire region looking for snow leopards. Most tourists visit in February, March, or maybe even April because it’s warmer and it’s mating season; the snow leopards make more noise and are more active and visible. However, my partner and I only had the dead of winter available and we also wanted to avoid the crowds. And avoid them we did. However, the disadvantage is that when you have more people, you can spread out and communicate with each other. With only one team (us four) in the mountains, it took careful planning, guessing, and then lots of kilometers of trekking coverage every day. Each day brought about different locations, different wildlife sightings, and different challenges. We loved the uniqueness of each day.

 

We were exhausted when we returned to the homestay for diner around 7pm.

 

December 20th, 2019

Phew, we were finally making sense of the elevation and the movement and the physical exertion needed for the trip. Most of the time spent at the homestay was for rest and recovery. It was brutal.

 

This morning, we woke up at 6:45am and began the scouting. We returned to the homestay for breakfast at 10:00am and then rested a bit longer this day. We didn’t go out again until 2:00pm. The main reason for this is that our guides could tell we were tired. Also, the snow was freshly falling this day and further transforming the mystical landscape. As a result, the visibility was significantly limited.

 

So, we did go out for one more check from 2:00pm to 5:00pm and then came back to the homestay for dinner around 6:00pm.

 

One thing we began noticing within the first few days were the beautiful, blue sheep. This was especially true as the fresh snow began to fall. They began descending closer to the homestay for vegetation that wasn’t so covered.

 

 

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It was again a cold night, but a night filled with sitting next the warm fire for a few minutes in the middle of the room before jumping into bed and resting up for the next day.

 

There still hadn’t been a sighting. But anticipation was constantly high.

 

December 21st, 2019

We began yet another cold morning out scoping for the snow leopard. By this day, we were in a routine. We knew what it was like to look for a snow leopard each day:

 

It was the Ladakhi new year. It was a beautiful day with people and searching for the snow leopard. The cold was really settling in, though.

 

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It was on this day that I was beginning to feel ill. I noticed there was a lot of mold around the house. I have terrible reactions to mold. By the evening, I felt like I had a full-blown flu. This is not the kind of trip where you want to take days off!

 

December 22nd, 2019

I had to spend the entire day in bed. I was far too ill to go out. My partner, Ildar went out scoping most of the day as usual.

 

December 22nd, 2019 – December 26th, 2019

The next few days were difficult. I mustered it up but never really felt great. The sickness persisted but I kept going out and exploring with the same routine as before—morning and then breakfast and then out in the field until dinner.

 

Each day grew in disappointment. We’d have a glimmer of hope with tracks around certain spots we were searching, but then no sightings. I found myself really start to appreciate the landscape, the pace of our trekking, the cold, and much more. I began to meditate. I would start counting my breaths. I started to appreciate the numbness of my face and fingertips. I began to appreciate the range of cadences from the wind whipping against particular edges or peaks. I began to whip my head toward any movement or wildlife of any kind; my senses were locked in and I was in some kind of zone and trance at the same time. I found myself lost in thought and then hyper focused on my surroundings. It was a most surreal and serene experience.

 

Ildar and I did not talk much in the field. We both wanted to be fully immersed in the moment and not distracted by conversation; there was plenty of time for talk after the trip. And so, with no other tourists around (we ended up seeing a couple people stop by for a day or two, but that was it) and our commitment to the silence and our guides hell-bent on finding us the snow leopard, it set the scene for a calming and meditative experience.

 

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December 27th, 2019

 

The last day searching for a snow leopard was this day. We had lost hope. Similar to the narrator in The Snow Leopard, I resolved to accept the fate that the snow leopard would remain elusive and that it was the searching, the journey itself, that proved to be the great reward. That if the snow leopard wanted to be seen, it would have made itself known to me. Alas, this was it. I was determined to enjoy the last day in the Himalayans and rest.

 

Then it happened. During our morning scouting, our guides suddenly found a snow leopard, a sub-adult, climbing very far away. We could barely see it through the scopes. Even worse, it was moving away from us. What I’ll never forget was the childlike glee on the faces of our guides. They were jumping up and down and shouting happy New Year. They were like kids in a candy shop. They had felt the pressure to help us see a snow leopard after so many, daily arduous treks and effort. They understood how hard we had worked and how deserving, they felt, we were of a sighting. The pressure had been lifted and they reveled in the moment. This was more exciting than seeing the snow leopard itself.

 

Now, had there been a swath of tourists there, the next thing we did would not have been possible. Having a group of people traipsing into the cliffs is not a good idea on so many levels, let alone disruptive to the animal.

 

However, given our quiet nature and that there were only four of us, our guides determined that it would be safe, ethical, and reasonable to climb up after the snow leopard in hopes of getting a better sighting and see why it was taking that particular route.

 

This, for me, was the crowning moment of the entire trip. I value experiential learning. I’ve been an educator for 13 years and I lead personalized learning experiences in my school in Ethiopia. I know, all too well, the importance of experiences in the learning process. I’ve known it to be true for myself as well.

 

And so, we took off into the high cliffs. Had we tried this on day 1, it would have been a disaster. By now, Ildar and I were ready for what it would take to climb that high. I lagged behind a bit, but we all did some serious elevation gain in a short hour or so of tracking.

 

We found the prints way up on a ridge. It was a thrilling experience to be up that high with the leopard. I placed my gloved hands next to the prints to get a sense of scale and feel even more connected to the animal that had just minutes earlier passed by that very point.

 

We eventually settled into a valley where they anticipated the snow leopard would be walking.

 

And there it appeared several times along the top of the ridge for us to see. Breathtaking. Surreal. Other-worldly. I was transfixed. This was one of the greatest moments of my traveling career. And that it was still so elusive and far away added to the mystery of it all.

 

This was the magic

 

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December 28th, 2019

 

The next morning we relaxed, laughed, told stories, and just enjoyed everyone’s company in the homestay. We then packed up and heading back out to Mahey retreat in Leh.

 

Final Thoughts:

I will never forget this trip and I rank it right up there with the best of my trips. I’ve had crazy trips and have documented them well on my YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/travelingteachr).

 

But this one was top three, easily, if not the best trip I’d ever done. I did get low-grade frostbite that day when we saw the snow leopard. It took a few weeks to get feeling back and another month or so to peel away all the dead skin.

 

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But it was an inspirational trip. I had a newfound appreciation for meditation, silence, people, and nature. This trip even inspired me to paint the walls of my house:

 

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Edited by travelingteachr
Updated December 30, 2020
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JayRon

Wow, what a trip :)... Thank you for the trip report..

Leh and the Himalayas looks amazing (Reminds me of Nepal were I been a couple of times,). And a lot of respect for what you had to endure to get a sighting of the snow leopard. Even frostbite, that must have been really painful.

 

I seen tiger, lion, cheetah and leopard, but still miss the jaguar and snow leopard, but I think I will go for the jaguar. I like to take it easy when I am on holiday:rolleyes:. It looks like very hard work. But how thrilled you must have been when you finally saw it...But it really puts things in perspective, it is not that hard to drive and find animals(but I love i anyway)...

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AKR1

Excellent trip report. You persevered repeatedly and made the elusive sighting. Kudos to both of you and the guides. Your videos, a few that I have seen so far, are really illustrative of the place and the stunning landscape of the Himalayas surrounding Leh. Some superb photography as well. For me the blue sheep were pretty special as well. Thanks for sharing this. 

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gatoratlarge

What an awesome adventure!  One day I hope to see a snow leopard!  Thanks for sharing!!!  I've read the book but you've seen the ghost of the Himalayas!

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travelingteachr
On 1/1/2021 at 11:21 PM, gatoratlarge said:

What an awesome adventure!  One day I hope to see a snow leopard!  Thanks for sharing!!!  I've read the book but you've seen the ghost of the Himalayas!

Thank you for reading and watching. 

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travelingteachr

Thank you so much for that feedback! Have a great day! 

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travelingteachr
On 1/1/2021 at 10:45 PM, AKR1 said:

Excellent trip report. You persevered repeatedly and made the elusive sighting. Kudos to both of you and the guides. Your videos, a few that I have seen so far, are really illustrative of the place and the stunning landscape of the Himalayas surrounding Leh. Some superb photography as well. For me the blue sheep were pretty special as well. Thanks for sharing this. 

 

 

Thank you for enjoying my report. It was a special and unique trip for sure.

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travelingteachr
On 1/1/2021 at 5:44 PM, JayRon said:

Wow, what a trip :)... Thank you for the trip report..

Leh and the Himalayas looks amazing (Reminds me of Nepal were I been a couple of times,). And a lot of respect for what you had to endure to get a sighting of the snow leopard. Even frostbite, that must have been really painful.

 

I seen tiger, lion, cheetah and leopard, but still miss the jaguar and snow leopard, but I think I will go for the jaguar. I like to take it easy when I am on holiday:rolleyes:. It looks like very hard work. But how thrilled you must have been when you finally saw it...But it really puts things in perspective, it is not that hard to drive and find animals(but I love i anyway)...

Thank you so much for the response. It was a very special trip. After you've seen the Jaguar, definitely consider the snow leopard.

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Caracal

Fascinating and informative report @travelingteachrgreat that the perseverance of you and your guides paid off with that special sighting which you'll always remember.

 

How agile are those blue sheep and what masters of their rugged environment.

 

What was the eagle's victim ? and also I'm wondering about the species of that rodent like animal ?

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travelingteachr
55 minutes ago, Caracal said:

Fascinating and informative report @travelingteachrgreat that the perseverance of you and your guides paid off with that special sighting which you'll always remember.

 

How agile are those blue sheep and what masters of their rugged environment.

 

What was the eagle's victim ? and also I'm wondering about the species of that rodent like animal ?

Thank you for sharing and commenting.

 

It was a mountain hare if I'm not mistaken. We got to see the entire kill. 

 

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Botswanadreams

95017934_1563117420517439_7553593356098469888_o.jpg.317ac8804a038a49807dbe00ec8622bd.jpg

 

If you are talking about this pic it should be a Ladak pika (Ochotona ladacensis).

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travelingteachr
21 hours ago, Botswanadreams said:

95017934_1563117420517439_7553593356098469888_o.jpg.317ac8804a038a49807dbe00ec8622bd.jpg

 

If you are talking about this pic it should be a Ladak pika (Ochotona ladacensis).

 

Yes, the Pikas were everywhere. The kill was of a mountain hare.

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travelingteachr
On 1/4/2021 at 10:13 AM, Caracal said:

Fascinating and informative report @travelingteachrgreat that the perseverance of you and your guides paid off with that special sighting which you'll always remember.

 

How agile are those blue sheep and what masters of their rugged environment.

 

What was the eagle's victim ? and also I'm wondering about the species of that rodent like animal ?

 

Yes as @Botswanadreams noted, it's a pika.

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