Elusive snow leopards have become a holy grail for wildlife tourists. Sarah Marshall goes on their trail.
I had been warned about it; the swirling black hole that sucks away all breath, body warmth and rational thinking. But here I am, coiled tightly into a ball like a startled millipede at the bottom of my sleeping bag, struggling to gasp the thin, icy air that circulates the mountaintops at 3,700m above sea level.
Harsh and hostile but overwhelmingly beautiful, the Himalayan mountain range is a fitting habitat for one of the world’s most elusive and endangered big cats: the snow leopard. According to estimates from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, there are between 4,000 and 6,500 left in the wild, encompassing a range of 12 central Asian countries.
Coy, aloof and enigmatic, they are notoriously difficult to spot, but one of the most accessible and opportune places to try is Hemis National Park in the eastern Ladakh region of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state.
Accessible, though, is a relative term.
During the summer months, the park’s green valleys become a magnet for soul-searching backpackers and hardy trekkers heading to the Stok Kangri peak, but in February and March, when temperatures plummet like a skydiver in freefall, the crowds disappear.
Yet this is the time when blue sheep drop down from mountains, pursued by hungry snow leopards, who in turn attract wildlife tourists.
After landing amidst the snowy, jagged peaks of the military airport at Ladakhi capital Leh – a reminder of our proximity to the Pakistan border – we drive into the granite folds until we reach the end of the road. From here, our belongings are piled onto donkeys, and we slip and stumble along a frozen river, grabbing onto the frail skeletons of willow trees for balance.
Snow leopard tourism is still in its infancy, and capturing the cats on film or video has become a holy grail for wildlife enthusiasts. My guide, Paul Goldstein, an award-winning wildlife photographer with a fascination for predators, became hooked when he first visited Hemis last year – even though he didn’t see one.
Early every morning, before sunrise, a team of eagle-eyed spotters recruited from nearby villages head out to set up spotting scopes, searching for the 10 snow leopards that roam this valley. With radio signals limited, news of sightings is delivered by messengers who sprint with remarkable ease at such high altitude.
After combing ice crystals from my hair and applying heat pads to every extremity, I set off to join them. Struggling to gain any purchase on the loose scree, every footstep feels arduous, and as we gain altitude, my breath quickens.
Having chosen our vantage point, we pull out binoculars and wait. Then we wait some more. The sun now out, the temperature has risen to a tropical four degrees. Remembering that it took the BBC’s Planet Earth team three years to get decent video footage of snow leopards, I realise that a trip of this nature requires some serious patience. One of our spotters, Jigmid, tells us that snow leopards have been known to venture into villages, decimating livestock. At one time, they would have been shot, but that now carries a hefty prison sentence.
After six hours, we’ve seen nothing, save a few blue sheep kicking up dust storms as they scamper down bone dry precipices. So as stars begin to light up the night sky, we head back to camp.
Every night, the support team prepare an impressive feast – including chapatis, pizzas and even a chocolate cake iced with leopard paw prints. But I avoid the curried eggs, not wanting to endure a night of turmoil.
The following morning, though, we awake to a much more welcome furore – news that a snow leopard has been spotted close to the camp. Tugging on base layers and pulling a down jacket over my pyjamas, I pick up my camera and race out. With no food and little sleep, I’m exhausted and have to rely on our wonderful porters to haul me up.
Ahead of me, cumbersome camera lenses form an arc along the ridge, like firearms on the front line.
And then she appears on the horizon, silhouetted against the blue daybreak sky, and flanked by her two princes, both one-year-old juveniles. Standing before us is a third of the valley’s snow leopard population. Paul is beyond desperate and breaks his tooth trying to set up his tripod in haste.
Using their muscular, bushy tails for balance, the trio drop down sheer escarpments and leap between ridges, traversing gaps several times their body length. Against a mottled backdrop of the sandy rock, their camouflage is incredible and we struggle to keep sight of them.
Finally, they settle in a cave, and even though they are 2km away, the excitement is palpable. For 22-year-old porter Stanzin, who lives in a nearby village, this is his first sighting of a snow leopard, and I know the goosebumps on his arms and neck have nothing to do with the cold.
We stand on a snowy 45-degree angle slope for seven hours, becoming intimately familiar with every crag, crevice and contour on the rock face, until the sun falls behind the mountain, pulling the plug on our electrifying show.
Although nothing more than mere specks, our sighting of snow leopards is worth more to me than any HD image beamed on a giant plasma TV screen.
Because this is real.
They may appear more intangible than supernatural phenomena, but these mountain ghosts are out there somewhere.
Be patient, bide your time, and there’s a chance you might find that holy grail.
• Sarah Marshall was a guest of Exodus (0845 805 9424, www.exodus.co.uk) which offers the 15-day In Search of the Snow Leopard tour from £2,099pp, including flights, seven nights’ hotel accommodation, five nights’ fully-serviced camping and one night home-stay. Departures February 6 and 15, 2015.
Paul Goldstein also leads several photographic tours, including a 2015 snow leopard departure. Contact Exodus for details. Visit www.paulgoldstein.co.uk