After reaching the first floor of the guest house in Leh, after a short flight of stairs, I was breathless and dizzy. At that moment, I didn’t rate my chances looking for snow leopards in the wilds of Hemis high altitude National Park, made up of deep valleys and rugged snow-capped peaks, some over 6,000m.
The next few days were, therefore, spent acclimatising in the region, visiting nearby monasteries, holding their spectacular winter festivals, which, unlike those in the summer are devoid of all tourists. We joined hundreds of villagers and monks, crammed into the monastery wrapped in the deep folds of their coloured robes, with small prayer wheels a constant motion in their hands.
The procession began with monks from the Yellow Hat Sect, playing the ornate Tibetan Horn and with a clash of cymbals, dancers in huge paper-mache masks appeared, depicting gods, animals and some creations too bizarre to even fathom, complete with flowing robes and sashes, spinning around the courtyard as the crowd looked on. After many costume changes and breaks for yak butter tea (an acquired taste) we were able to explore the 500-year-old building itself, which seemed less to cling to the cliffs on which they were perched and more to grow out of the rock itself. Being a particularly auspicious place for a cremation (so carefully avoiding any recent looking piles of ash) we stepped through the heavy wooden doors, worn smooth with age into a dark room, lit by the odd shaft of sunlight. As our eyes became accustomed to the room, we began to notice the small offerings tucked away in the shadows.
Prayer beads and ribbons of white silk draped over small statues of Shiva, rupee notes stuffed into their hands, brass bowls overflowing with fruit and chocolate bars. Oil lamps and incense burnt in the corner whilst the high priest or Kushak sat watching us, his mobile phone charging silently behind him.After making my own offering, hoping for a snow leopard to grace us with its presence on the trip (I needed all the help I could get), we stepped out into the fierce sun and thin air, the pure white of the gompas and the bright fluttering prayer flags, dazzling after the darkness.
The following day we began our drive into Hemis itself, along a road no less than 10 years old carved out of the rock face that wound its way along the mountains, following the Rumbak river, in the valley hundreds of feet below us. After leaving the vehicles, we stepped onto the trail in trepidation and incredibly, saw pug marks after an hour or so. The excitement of the group grew – was the snow leopard in the mountains above, watching us already, and would we even get a glimpse? We continued past pack horses taking rice and vegetables to the villages deep in the valley in which we were to stay later in the week, past small shrines at the base of poplar trees, past frozen waterfalls, the temperature fluctuating wildly in between the sun and shadow. After arriving at camp, the masala chai (and chocolate biscuits) were a godsend and then after a soul-warming lunch of rich stew and rice, we climbed the nearest ridge to begin our search – our guides from the Snow Leopard Conservancy up the ridge like a shot – the rest of us lightheaded and breathing hard, dragging ourselves along the scree. On reaching the top, the spotting scopes were already set up, with binoculars pointing every which way and excited chatter between the guides. After we had settled down, we began to scan the horizon for any signs. The blue sheep were there, the snow leopards favourite dish and we looked and looked – I’d never seen so many snow leopard shaped rocks in my life. After a while as the ridge fell in the shadow of the mountains and the temperature dropped, we headed back to camp for more delicious, warming tea and biscuits. Over dinner that evening our guide discussed the plight of the snow leopard. No one knows for sure how many there are, sightings are incredibly rare and they are one of the most well-camouflaged cats in the world. Not to be put off, we retired to bed – feeling positive after the tracks we saw in the morning and warmed by the hot water bottles that had been tucked into our sleeping bags.
By the time I’d realised what was happening the following morning, the snow leopard that had been spotted above the ridge in our camp 5 minutes before I was awake, was already making his getaway. David had been the first to see it, halfway through his morning shave and our guides were already telling us to run up the ridge behind the mess tent for a better view. We all stumbled out through the camp, pulling on boots, gloves and hats, zipping up jackets, keeping one eye on the rocky ground and the other in the hills above us, grabbing camera’s as we went. Whilst the effects of the altitude were almost gone, running up mountains 5 minutes after waking, at 3,500 metres half-dressed, brought them back and with spinning heads and gasping lungs we reached the ridge and began looking through the scopes.
And there it was. On the ridge opposite our camp only a few hundred metres from where we’d been, crouching in the rocks – the ghost of the Himalaya’s and one of the world’s rarest creatures. We knew how unbelievably lucky we had been.
But to have a second sighting later that day was something else…