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The snow leopard invites us into her lair!

Snow leopard Hemis National Park Ladakh. Photo Sibylle Noras / Jigmet Dadul

Our snow leopard looking across the valley at us. We watched her for 8 hours. Photo Sibylle Noras / Jigmet Dadul

What were the chances to see snow leopard in the wild?

Our group of six landed in Leh, the capital of Ladakh and we spent a few days acclimatising to the Himalayan altitude (3600m) by visiting stunning Buddhist monasteries and walking the hills. As we prepared for our 9 nine nights sleeping in tents out in the Rumbuk Valley I was thinking each day, the snow leopard will teach me patience. I will need to trek gasping for breath and sit watching on high ridges in snow and ice for hours.

Although this beautiful mountain area, the Hemis National park, is prime snow leopard habitat, I knew it would be unlikely I would see a hint of the cat local people call the ‘Ghost of the Mountain’, the ‘Ghost Cat’. I thought to myself, I will be happy, no, ecstatic,  with a sight of a whisker or a tail. No way could I know beforehand the amazing sighting our small group was to have. Later people would say we had been not just lucky, but blessed.

Jigmet tracking snow leopard in Hemis National Park

Jigmet tracking snow leopard in Hemis National Park. He found pugmarks, scrapes, scat. Photo Sibylle Noras.

Our leader, Jigmet Dadul from the Snow Leopard Conservancy India is the number ONE snow leopard tracker in Ladakh. He is a charming man who was born and bred in these mountains and spent years learning the secrets of the snow leopard’s world. He has seen more snow leopards than anyone. That was a great start.

Looking for scats, scent and pugmarks

Once we left the township of Leh and were trekking out on the trail in Hemis National Park our days had the same pattern. At 7 am Jigmet goes off scouting in the valleys, either alone or with one or two of our group. His young son Gyaltsen is also with us, a snow leopard tracker in the making and he often went with his dad, whistling and almost running up the steep hills.

But Jigmet’s morning was always the same. He walks the valley floor looking for snow leopard sign like pug marks (paw prints), scat (feces) or better still, cat movement. Once he’s walked past rocky outcrops where cats may linger he smooths over the snow to cover his tracks. If a snow leopard makes a track later it is easier to see. Once he showed me a pugmark in the sand near a rock. He indented his fingers into the sand next to it so he could tell how old the mark was. “Only one day”, he said with a smile.

Our tents in the snow in Husing valley Hemis National Park.

Our tents in the snow in Husing valley Hemis National Park. Photo Sibylle Noras.

Sleeping in tents in the snow

Meanwhile at 7 am Samstang, our most gregarious kitchen staffer, would wake us with a cup of tea each in our own tents. A luxury, cradling the hot cup in the hands as the wind howled outside and dawn slowly broke over the mountain tops. A precious few minutes snug in the warm sleeping bag before the race to get up and dressed with chattering teeth. The tent was always freezing and I soon learnt to put the tooth paste in the sleeping bag so it would not be frozen in the mornings.

At 8 am we’d have a huge hot breakfast in our blue communal dining tent, the most amazing scrambled eggs, porridge, toast and jam. When Jigmet came back around 8.30 would give us a report of any sign. Usually he had good reports, a pugmark here and there.

After Jigmet had his well deserved breakfast we’d start off, each day in a different direction, up to a different ridge up a different valley, but all long slow treks through thick snow and on icy rock. The frozen river beside us girgled underneath its layers of ice.

The days were cold, often we guessed around minus 10 degrees. I found the going tough, trekking up to high ridges and sitting on rocky outcrops in the snow, scanning 360 degrees around us for hours in the cold. It had definietly been a lot easier dowing this on my first treks thirty years ago. The mountains were older and so was I. But the aluring prize of seeing one of the most secretive and seldom seen wild cats was worth the effort of bursting lungs, leg cramps and exhausted muscles.

Choespang brought our hot lunches

Choespang brought our hot lunches and tea each day we were scanning for snow leopard. Photo Sibylle Noras.

Each day, when we reached our scanning ridge, we would sit for many hours on cold rocks or tree stumps with binoculars and scopes poised. Although there was a lot of snow on the ground we were lucky that during our entire trek no fresh snow fell and despite being whipped by winds on these ridges, we were at least dry.

How many people have ever seen a wild snow leopard?

As we scanned we made many jokes about seeing a nose, an ear, a tail? How many people have seen this cat in the wild, I wondered? I knew many snow leoaprd biologists, dedicated and hardy people who had spent years doing their research out in the field but had never seen a wild cat. Why would I get to see one in the 9 days I had available?

Jigmet radioed back to camp at lunchtime, telling our team where we were. A little while later, up came Choespang, the oldest of our kitchen staff, shuffling at great speed in his rubber boots, carrying 2 thermos flasks, one for soup, one for tea. Amazingly he also carried a pressure cooker full of hot rice. We were so happy to see him. His hot goodies kept us going till about 5 pm, close to when the sun went down and it became even colder.

Blue sheep are prime snow leopard prey

Blue Sheep are really a type of wild goat and are prime snow leopard prey. This small group kept us amused for hours the day before our snow leopard sighting. Photo Sibylle Noras.

The snow leopard’s companions. Counting other wildllife,

The first four days we saw lots of Blue Sheep. These delightful animals are actually wild goats although they look like a type of deer. They are primary snow leopard prey. We also saw two beautiful red foxes, with their rusty colored body fur and white plume tails. One day we saw 4 Golden eagles, beautiful birds. They take baby Blue Sheep and throw them onto the rocks below to kill them before they eat them.

Each day we saw tantalising pug-marks, snow leopard tracks in the snow. We also saw spray scent marks on rocks, telling us that snow leopards were moving through the valley. Snow leopards like to keep out of each others way and they communicate via these sprays, telling the few that share the range habitat, where they are, are they male or female.

It’s estimated there are about 30 snow leopards in Hemis National Park (at 4000 square km the largest NP in India). Jigmet said where we were searching there were 5 to 6 cats. A big job to find a cat the size of a large dog, with fantastic camouflage in a hundred-square km of high altitude valleys.

On our first day we had met a group of trekkers who’d seen a cat way in the distance for a short time. We hoped that their luck would rub off on us. Even with their 600m lenses it was tiny sighting but I thought to myself, I’d be happy with that. We heard of another group here recently for 17 days that didn’t see a cat at all.

The nights were freezing, around 20 degrees below zero. The condensation from my breath froze into tiny icicles around the top of my sleeping bag. Luckily the bag was excellent, made for the Indian Army that had to sleep on glaciers up here in the Himalayas. I had never in my life seen such a thick sleeping bag, the thickness of a huge bed mattress, but it did the trick.

Snow leopard tracks on the frozen river.

Snow leopard tracks on the frozen river. Photo Sibylle Noras.

Friday the 25th February started like all the other days.

Jigmet had gone out with Thomas and John at 7.30 trekking up the Tarbung valley looking for sign. Katie, Jamie and I were sitting down to breakfast when KC Namgyal, Jigmet’s colleague at the SLC ran into our tent, yelling “Shan! Snow Leopard!”. OMG! I dropped my breakfast plates and the cup onto the ground without thought. I grabbed my stocks and camera, almost fell over trying to pull boots on quickly. I ran with Namgyal, along the frozen river. Every now and then we had to run on the river rather than at its frozen edges. I heard the water rushing beneath the ice and was petrified. I guessed we ran about 300m along the river, then 300 m along rocky scree with a ridge that was only about 20cm wide and past a boulder hanging in thin air. I ran, walked, almost crawled and dragged myself 500m along the valley and up an incline for 200m. It all seemed like a hundred km to me, as my lungs were bursting and my boots filled with snow (in the rush I’d forgotten to tie on my gaiters). But all I could think about was seeing this snow leopard! What if it moved before I got there? Would a cat stay still in one place for so long?

Our snow leopard sleeping

Our snow leopard sleeping on her rocky ledge. Photo Jigmet Dadul and Sibylle Noras.

Finally I got to the long telescope.

I looked up at the rocks across the valley and saw the most beautiful cat in the world and immediately burst into tears. Jigmet was sitting further up and he called to me. Another 5 mins of breathless climbing and I looked into his scope which had an even better view. I burst into tears again!

Jigmet said it’s a female, about 7 to 8 years old. The scope made her look as if she was about 50m away, we saw her lie and stretch and look up. At times she was asleep and her front paws would push up into the air and make little running movements as if she was chasing Blue Sheep in her sleep. Then she’d open her eyes and peer at us, if one of us walked down the hill. She could see us but it was obvious she felt no fear. Then she’d wrap her enormous tail around herself like a scarf.

I could not believe my luck in seeing this beautiful beautiful cat. It was my sixth trek  into high altitude snow leopard territory and today was the one day I had been hoping for for so many years.

Our snow leopard watching us across the valley.

Our snow leopard watching us across the valley. This shot was taken with my compact camera through the scope. Although its blurry I love it as it gives the cat a ‘ghost like’ appearance. Photo Jigmet Dadul and Sibylle Noras.

Altogether we watched our magnificent snow leopard for 8 hours.

Jigmet thought she’d just eaten a Blue Sheep and so would rest for a few days before moving on. Occasionally she’d stand up and put her rear end down as if about to nestle, then suddenly turn around and lay down in the opposite spot staring out at the wind, at birds, at scents across the valley until she fell asleep again.

Late in the afternoon the others started going back down to our camp. I couldn’t bear to tear myself away, she was still in that spot, sleeping calmly. Finally close, to 5 pm, Jigmet said we had to go. It was getting dark and we negotiated the hills down and the trek along the frozen river with a torch and finally came into camp in the pitch dark. I had spent as much time with this queen of the mountain as I possibly could.

That night in the dining tent we toasted the snow leopard

We toasted Jigmet and toasted ourselves. The fact that we’d had such a day with this mystical cat was remarkable and special. But more importantly we toasted the Snow Leopard Conservancy and the local people of this region who were now helping to protect their spectacular and iconic  “Ghost of the Mountain”. May there be many many more generations of snow leopards in the cold valleys of Hemis National Park.

Thanks Jigmet, thanks to our hardworking staff team who made fabulous food, kept the ‘hottie bottie’s’ coming into our sleeping bags at night and looked after us so well. Thanks to KarmaQuest for their great organisation. And thanks to Thomas, Katie, Andrew, John and Jamie for being such charming companions on this incredible trek. I’ll never forget this day.

{ 30 comments… add one }

  • Rex March 11, 2011, 12:05 am

    Great experience, well told

  • Darla Hillard March 11, 2011, 3:58 am

    Oh, Sibylle! We were DYING for this blog, having heard the news a few days ago. Thank you for the fabulous account of what is still such a rare experience! Hats off to all the guests who had the guts to snow camp at 13,000 feet in the dead of a Trans-Himalayan winter, and ditto to Jigmet, KC, Choespang, Samstang and the entire, amazing, dedicated SLC India team!

  • Sandy March 11, 2011, 4:06 am

    Thank you for your amazing account, Sibylle. I felt like I was there with you!

  • Andy Stronach March 11, 2011, 6:00 am

    Wow, what a fantastic experience! I’m so happy for you Sibylle, a well deserved reward for so much hard work by you 😉 Andy.

  • Nancy Crenshaw-Miller March 11, 2011, 6:15 am

    OH SIBYLLE, I had tears in my eyes and goosebumps while reading your story. It was as if you were sitting here telling me in person about this wonderful experience. I am so very happy for you. Eight whole hours to observe that beautiful creature is unbelievable!! I too love your ghostly photo of your snow leopard. Just Wonderful, Nancy

  • Sue Leibik March 11, 2011, 6:15 am

    wonderful news Sibylle!
    your long time support of snow leopards & great blog has helped in the web of committed snow leopard defenders!
    long live Shan ! & SLC& SLC India Trust !!! Sue

  • Pamela Sutton-Legaud March 11, 2011, 8:06 am

    Your story was so wonderful and I’m so glad you finally got to see your beloved snow leopard. You deserve your rare sighting for all yr dedication and hard work.
    Well done Sibylle. It’s a great achievement and hopefully a positive sign of things to come

    And Sibylle thanks for looking after Christina on the flight to India. I knowshe appreciated it

  • Sibylle March 11, 2011, 9:14 am

    Thanks Pamela, I’m glad you enjoyed it vicariously. And thanks also for all your hard work with snow leopard sponsorship (and others) at Melbourne Zoo. I know the Zoo team is doing a wonderful job with our beautiful cats. Sibylle

  • Sibylle March 11, 2011, 9:16 am

    Hi Nancy, wish you’d been there after all our experiences together in Russia! Thanks for your comments, Sibylle.

  • Sibylle March 11, 2011, 9:17 am

    Thanks Andy and fingers crossed for you guys to get a sighting or sign this year on your Russia field trip. Good luck! Sibylle

  • Bettina March 11, 2011, 9:56 am

    WoW WoW Wow…. I’m truly moved excuse me I need to go blow my nose… sniff!!
    that was an amazing journey thank you for sharing you are so blessed sister! hugs B

  • Jill March 11, 2011, 10:17 am

    I can’t see properly for the tears in my eyes too. What a wonderful story, and so beautifully told.

  • Wendy Lama, KarmaQuest March 11, 2011, 12:38 pm

    Sibylle: Thank you for sharing your personal encounter with this lovely lady snow leopard/ May she find easy refuge and may we find her again and again.

  • Sibylle March 11, 2011, 2:03 pm

    Hi Jill, thanks for your lovely comment.

  • Sibylle March 11, 2011, 2:04 pm

    agreed Wendy, I hope she has many years ahead of her roaming the mountains of Hemis National Park in peace and contentment.

  • Darrell Kirk March 11, 2011, 2:14 pm

    Wow, what an incredible story. I’m so happy for you. This is really the crowning jewel in all the great work you do for these wonderful creatures. They are returning the favor.

    Take care and thank you for sending this to us.

  • Nisar Malik March 11, 2011, 5:47 pm

    Dear Sibylle, I would like share a note to say that I welcome you to the club of people who have been blessed and given the opportunity of seeing (in my opinion) THE most beautiful of all cats! I know what it is like to see this beauty and after all your dedication and love, the reward is apt and I cannot think of another person who deserves to have had this experience. With love and much respect.

  • lachyb March 11, 2011, 8:13 pm

    You make finding snow leopards so easy :) how does one get to go on one of these treks?

  • Jennifer Castner March 12, 2011, 2:25 am

    Wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing and for your important work, Sibylle!

  • Sibylle March 12, 2011, 5:52 pm

    Lachy its easy when you have the wonderful Jigmet Dadul, snow leopard tracker extraordinaire from the Snow Leopard Conservancy with you! The hard bit is all the trekking and sitting for hours and hours in the snow and the ice and the wind – BUT, so worth it :-)

  • Sibylle March 12, 2011, 5:57 pm

    Nisar thankyou so much for these beautiful and generous words. Coming from you, who have done so much to share the story of snow leopards and the proud people in their habitat with the world, your words are treasured for sure. And I couldn’t agree more – it is a blessing to have spent time with THE most beautiful and magical cat of all. Long may they live in the mountains of Asia and the Himalayas. THANK YOU.

  • Sibylle March 12, 2011, 6:07 pm

    Hi Jennifer,yes, it was a fantastic privilege to spend a day with this superb cat, lovely to see her in the freedom of her own domain. But hats off to the folks at the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust – they are doing all the education with the local folks, the insurance schemes and setting up the local Homestays in the villages, all of which will assure snow leopards have a future in Ladakh for generations to come. They are real heroes :-)

  • Madeleine Reichlin March 15, 2011, 3:20 am

    Hallo Sibylle,
    Yeah, das ist ja wunderbar, was du erlebt hast! Hatte auch fast Tränen in den Augen….. Mit grossem Interesse habe ich deinen Bericht gelesen und mich mit dir gefreut!! Thank you for sharing your great experience with us!!
    Herzlich Madeleine from Switzerland

  • Peter Pilbeam March 15, 2011, 5:22 am

    Hi Sybille. Knowing what the Tarbung and nearby valleys are like (speaking as one of probably the other “group here recently for 17 days that didn’t see a cat at all”) – well done indeed – great stuff!!

  • Sibylle March 15, 2011, 9:18 pm

    thanks peter, wish you luck in Russia this year, regards Sibylle

  • Glenn McColl March 18, 2011, 12:39 pm

    WOW ! Welcome back and what an amazing encounter Sibylle.
    Everyone on the trip must have been so thrilled to get the chance to see one of the beautiful creatures of the world in it’s nature environment !
    Fantastic to hear you finally saw a Snow Leopard on one of your journeys.
    I’m so very envious…lol….one day I will get to experience this too I hope in the not too distant future.

  • Vicki L Robles June 23, 2011, 9:40 am

    I accidentally ended up on Page 1 of the Amazon Kindle Customer Discussion site and found this link to your Snow Leopard and Himalayan trek. I enjoyed reading all about your trip. I felt like I lived through you as you were so concise in your article. Thank you so much for sharing with us through this wonderful medium. Makes me love this international highway!! Enjoy all your trips as I know you must.

  • Sibylle June 23, 2011, 9:53 am

    Thanks Vicki for your kind words :-), snow leopards are such beautiful animals but sadly under threat and ecotourism can be one way to help ensure them a future in their Himalayan habitat.

  • We Love Himalaya February 5, 2012, 8:33 pm

    Wow, how amazing is that! I might never see a snow leopard in the wild, but your story has given me a glimmer of hope to hold on to!

    You probably already know it, there’s some footage of snow leopard hunting. Thought I’d share it:

  • Jens September 9, 2013, 6:42 am

    Thank you the article. I have just canceled my own trip to see the Snow Leopards so I am a bit sad that I cannot experience waht you did. I am writing a book about the Panthera cats and I really wanted to photograph one. But that have to wait many months until I can find the sponsor.

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