How a lifelong obsession with snow leopards led me to northern India

Dina Mishev

THE WASHINGTON POST – In November, the landscape in the northern Indian territory of Ladakh is barren. Prickly sea buckthorn bushes and red-limbed willows are among the few species that can survive in the region’s cold desert climate and high altitudes.

The mouth of the Ulley Valley in central Ladakh is about 12,000 feet above sea level. The village of Ulley, the last in the valley and the end of the scrawny, pitted road that is the area’s only connection to the rest of India and the outside world, is about 14,300 feet in elevation.

Standing on a small outcrop and scanning the snow-dusted ridgelines, I can’t see any signs of life. Neither can I imagine anything able to live in such an inhospitable environment. Except I know snow leopards are here.

I know this, and enough other snow leopard trivia, to present a new fact a day for 100 days – the species’ average gestational period, by the way – because, when I was too young to know this wasn’t possible, I wanted to grow up to be one.

Snow leopards jump 50 feet in one pounce, have massively bushy tails and purr but don’t roar. Also, they’re so tough they live where few other animals can – in the high altitudes of Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, western China, Afghanistan and northern India, where Ladakh is.

What four-year-old wouldn’t want to be a snow leopard?

Although found across a fairly wide swath of Central Asia, snow leopards are among the most difficult wildlife to see in the wild. Estimates of their worldwide population vary greatly, but the highest is only about 7,500. They’re also solitary, camouflaged and not particularly large: usually less than two feet tall and, not including those fabulous tails, between three and five feet long.

Among wildlife watchers, snow leopards are called “ghost cats,” “mountain ghosts” and “ghosts of the mountains”. Thanks to several residents who are master wildlife trackers, the Ulley Valley is among the most reliable places in the world to see a snow leopard in the wild.

Of course my grow-up-to-be-a-snow-leopard dream didn’t make it through kindergarten. When it died, I pivoted quickly: I’d grow up to be a veterinarian who worked with snow leopards. This lasted until I was 15 and a volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary where the biggest animals were blue herons. It took 15 minutes to discover they terrified me. By the end of my first day, I realised pretty much every other animal at the sanctuary terrified me, too.

So I amended my snow leopard dream one final time: I would see one in the wild.

Twenty-nine years later I book a spot on a snow leopard safari. I find a trip organised by ‘andBeyond’, a travel company that specialises in wildlife-focussed trips around the world. Starting and ending in Delhi, it is 11 days and includes six nights at the Snow Leopard Lodge in the Ulley Valley and also the eagle eyes of wildlife spotters Tsewang Norboo and Tsetan Namgail.

I pick this trip because since “andBeyond” started running it in 2017, according to its travel planners, between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of groups have seen a snow leopard.

As many facts about snow leopards as I can spout, I realise very quickly after arriving in Ladakh that I know little about their landscape. For starters, it’s not super snowy here. In the shadow of the Himalayas, the region gets only about four inches of precipitation annually.

More challenging for snow leopard spotting is the landscape’s scale and complexity. Before the start of the “andBeyond” trip, I arranged for what I imagined was a personal ghost cat tracking mission: Myself and a trekking guide would spend a week hiking in the Rumbak and Markha valleys.

In Hemis High Altitude National Park, on the opposite side of the Indus River from Ulley, these valleys are home to snow leopards and modest homestays where toilets are holes in the ground and there’s little English and no running water but always plenty of hot tea, smiles and momos (local dumplings).

The idea that I’ll spot a snow leopard on my own is crushed my first day in the Markha Valley, a 40-mile-long finger of flatness sandwiched between the Zanskar and Ladakhmountain ranges.

Shortly after the dirt road disintegrates to the point that it’s faster and more comfortable to walk than bump along in the hired car, a toothy ridgeline above catches my attention. It looks like it offers great views, and also to be an achievable scramble.

I don’t make it up more than 200 feet, which isn’t high enough for the guide, who waits patiently for me below, to disappear from view. He’s the only form of life I can see, though.

OK, the snow leopards will have to wait until next week. Instead, I visit the Tacha Monastery, which is perched 300 feet up a sliver of rock above a bend in the Markha River and has a commanding view of the valley. I also watch the other wildlife – bharal, also known as Himalayan blue sheep even though they’re in the same subfamily as goats; choughs, a high-flying relative of crows and ravens; flitty white-winged redstarts; and red fox, with their own bushy tails.

I also see two different sets of snow leopard tracks, easily distinguished from those of Himalayan wolves, the only other large animal in the area, by their rounded-but-asymmetric (versus oval) shape and lack of nail impressions.

They’re smack in the middle of the path. I walk, literally and with a pounding heart, in a snow leopard’s steps. By the time I return from Hemis and meet the “andBeyond” group in Leh, Ladakh’s most populous (about 50,000 people) city, I’m mostly used to the altitude. Fresh off the plane from Delhi, none of the rest of the group is, though.

Shortness of breath isn’t the only worry at high altitude, where the number of oxygen molecules you get per breath is about half of what you get at sea level. Altitude sickness, caused by going too high too fast, can cause headaches, nausea and dizziness and, at its extreme end, high altitude pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal buildup of fluid in the lungs.

Spending two or three nights in Leh, which is 11,500 feet in elevation, lessens the likelihood of getting altitude sickness when we move up to the Snow Leopard Lodge, which is at 14,300 feet.

Leh has Buddhist temples and Ladakhi historical sites including Leh Palace, home of the Ladakhi royal family from the early 1600s until the mid 1800s.

Even though we’re just killing time waiting for our bodies to produce more red blood cells to carry oxygen, the days pass quickly. Still I count the hours until our departure for the Snow Leopard Lodge and the professional snow leopard spotters.

When we pull into the lodge’s dirt parking lot after a four-hour drive, Namgail, Norboo and his family, most of the staff, and a handful of curious villagers greet us. Yaks and cows, generally too big to be prey for snow leopards or wolves, roam free around us; donkeys, goats and sheep are kept in leopard-proof mesh-topped pens.

We’re whisked into lunch, which starts with a bowl of mushroom soup seasoned with ginger. The main course is fried rice with vegetables and soy dumplings. While this is a dish I had at several homestays in Hemis, the level of amenities and service at the lodge are markedly higher.

Most lodge rooms have private bathrooms, and all of its bathrooms have running water and Western-style toilets. Every evening, staff members tuck bladders of hot water between guests’ sheets. Every morning, a hot beverage of your choice is delivered to your room.

The first spotting session starts after lunch. Namgail, Norboo and Stanzin, Norboo’s middle son and the manager of the Snow Leopard Lodge, each stand at a Zeiss spotting scope. Two other scopes are open for the six guests to scan on their own. There are also several pairs of binoculars. We’re instructed to focus on ridgelines, where movement and silhouettes are most easily seen.

Almost immediately Norboo finds a group of male Asiatic ibex on a hillside on the opposite side of the valley. They are completely invisible to my naked eye. With Stanzin’s help I find them through a scope. Their chins are wispy with beards and their heads crowned with long horns that curve sharply back.

The presence of ibex, a species of mountain goat, bodes well for a snow leopard sighting. Along with blue sheep, they are among the cats’ favourite prey.

But there are no snow leopards that afternoon. We see a couple of golden eagles, a Himalayan snowcock and another group of ibex.

The next morning after breakfast, I begin washing my face in a bucket of hot water delivered to my bathroom just as someone runs through the lodge, “Wolves! Quick!”

The pair of wolves is even more difficult for me to see than the ibex, even though they’re half the distance away. Finally I find them – two shaggy forms saunter across the hillside immediately opposite the lodge. When it’s my turn on a scope, I can see the lolling tongue of the front wolf.

Because I’m still ahead of everyone else in acclimatisation, I accompany Norboo on a tracking expedition to a low pass on the east side of the valley. This pass is a known snow leopard crossing.

It is a 1,000-foot trailless clamber up steep, loose terrain to the pass. With trekking poles it’s hard walking for me. Norboo walks easily, even with a tripod and spotting scope slung over a shoulder. He stops to set this up and scan for wildlife just often and just long enough for me to catch up. He also stops to point out signs of snow leopards.

At an overhanging school-bus-sized boulder, Norboo finds tracks in the dirt. I recognize the shape indicative of a snow leopard; Norboo sees a mom and two cubs. “About two days ago,” he said.

Next is a rubbing rock. The evidence? Several strands of snow leopard fur cling to it.

Norboo lifts up the carcass of a young ibex by one of its legs, which are the only parts that haven’t been picked completely clean. A snow leopard kill. Taking several steps to the left, he stops and studies the ground: “This is where they ate it. A mom and cubs again, about two weeks ago.”

He offers me the carcass, and, although handling dead wildlife is about as appealing to me as hanging out with herons, I take it and look closely at the bones for impressions of snow leopard teeth, which I do not find. Still, holding the leftovers of a snow leopard meal is the single coolest thing about the trip so far.

It is an afternoon toward the end of our stay at the lodge that Namgail spots snow leopards: a mom and two cubs, maybe even the ones of which Norboo and I saw the tracks .

We spent days driving up and down the valley searching for different vantage points – and Namgail finds the family while scanning from a flat spot a two-minute walk from the lodge’s front entrance.

The snow leopards are, by far, the most difficult animals of the entire trip for me to make out. Stanzin calls me to a scope he positioned so the family is in the middle of its field of view. He tells me that the mother is lying on the top of a rock on the ridgeline and the cubs running and jumping below her.

Through the scope I scan the visible section of ridgeline, but see no snow leopards. The rest of the group has found the cats, but minutes pass and I still see only the same empty, hostile landscape I’ve seen the last two weeks.

And then something flies off one of the ridge’s serrations. A second something follows. The cubs have leapt off the top of a 25-foot-tall rock.

Now that I’ve got them, I can follow them. They scamper, wrestle, take breaks to lick their paws and climb a rock back to the top of the ridge where, thanks to a head turn and flick of her tail – which is every bit as magnificent as snow leopard tails look in photos and documentaries – mom finally becomes visible. We watch the cats until it gets too dark to see them anymore, about an hour. That night childhood dreams fill my sleep.