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Grey Ghost of the Mountains

Grey Ghost of the Mountains

May 2017

Words and pics Fiona Ayerst

It was around 1995 when I laid my hands on Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (1978). I found the dusty, dog-eared book again in 2015, at the bottom corner of a box. I had just watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and knew I’d have to go and find this cat myself after Sean Penn growled: “They call the snow leopard the ghost cat. Never lets itself be seen. Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

I researched a trip to India—into the rocky, snowy Himalaya. As a child, I’d loved any mention of the Abominable Snowman or Yeti. The trip took on an adventure-type quality stretching back into my childhood. Did the leopard really exist? Matthiessen had spent two months looking for the snow leopard, and failed.

March 2016 found me leaving the 30-degree sultry heat of New Delhi and winging my way to Leh, a district of Ladakh (“land of high passes”) in northwest India. I was in awe of the unexpected and fabulous views over the Karakoram mountain range in the early morning light. This range spans the borders between Pakistan, India, China and Afghanistan and has 30 peaks over 7 000 metres. It’s rated the most spectacular mountain range on Earth.

Standing at 3 500m in the very cold, -20°C air, I was in shock. Pausing to suck in the thin air, I could see only army barracks and brown mountains from the airport. I walked hurriedly past myriad signs saying foreign visitors should rest for at least 24 hours on arrival due to altitude. Apparently I’d be suffering from one or all of mild headaches, disturbed sleep and breathlessness.

Panicking and feeling suddenly lightheaded, I looked around for someone else from my group. My panicked state increased when I saw a pair of hiking books sticking out horizontally and ominously from behind a thin curtain in a small room to the left, marked with a big red cross. I sidled over, and when I heard that one of our group was going to be taken to hospital with suspected altitude sickness, my concern increased—along with my blood pressure.

Ultimately, four of our group of nine had to be taken to hospital during the first three days. Luckily I’d heard how important it was to arrive at least two days ahead of the trip and to take it easy. I spent this time walking (slowly) through the prayer flag–adorned alleyways, taking in the glorious ochre hues and the spicy smells of India. 

The population of the largely Buddhist Leh is 27 500, and this number swells with tourists during the summer and particularly during religious festivals. Leh sits perched next to the Indus River. Romantically, the river valley represents an important ancient trade route along which salt, grain, cashmere wool, cannabis resin, indigo and silk all made their way. The modern reality is that this is border country with ever present army installations. There’s friction between India and its sibling rival Pakistan. China and Tibet enclose the other borders, and the relationship between them is not pretty, either. Happily, though, it’s still possible to escape the army presence by travelling into the mountain valleys. 

I’d describe the district of Leh as a mix of kind and friendly, selfless souls; rivers and mountains. It’s a strange blend of Buddhist temples and army barracks. Watching prayer-wheel-spinning, orange-cloaked Buddhist monks rubbing shoulders with dapper men in khaki fatigues, I found it hard to get my head around the contradictions of soft and hard, hot and cold, military and deeply spiritual.

I had only two weeks to find ‘my’ cat. I met my guide Jigmet Dadul: snow-leopard-spotter superman and a field programme manager of the non-governmental organisation, Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT). I was immediately drawn to his gentle and warm manner, and his passion for the animals of Ladakh. He reassured me that “the best time to see the cats is from January to March, when the heavy snows arrive and the animals come down from the high peaks to mate.” According to Jigmet, “Until fairly recently, seeing a snow leopard was an almost impossible dream for most westerners—but now, thanks to NGOs following them for many years and getting to know the movements of the cats, it’s now pretty much guaranteed.” 

We travelled along the icy Indus to the remote scree ridge–covered Ulley Valley. Jigmet showed us the first signs of snow leopard—some scrapes in the sand—and he had us sniffing scent-marked rocks. After driving ever upward on an eye-squeezing scary road, boasting what seemed like thousands of switchbacks heading into nothingness over steep valleys, we reached our ‘homestay’. Jigmet explained that this accommodation scheme was launched by the SLC-IT in 2004. Tourists get to stay with local homeowners and, in return, the households must agree to stop killing the snow leopards. There are 119 households involved in the scheme, and all proceeds except for a 10% conservation levy (paid into a kitty for projects to uplift the village) go directly to the homeowner.

We stayed in a mud-brick house perched high at the head of the valley. It boasted a flat-topped roof on which to stand and take in the breathtaking views of the skyline ridges all around. And ‘breathtaking’ is an apt description: At 4 150m, there was less oxygen than in Leh, and every activity left us gasping for air. 

We started searching in a most genteel and relaxed manner, with copious quantities of masala chai (spicy tea) being supplied by our host. After about an hour I was bored, and my lonely novel sitting next to my tripod was calling out for my attention. I decided I’d scope the slopes for another 15 minutes before settling down for a good read. After all, I had nine companions and there were six guides, all of whom were looking.

Lowering my eye to the viewfinder, I saw a long tail whipping out, silhouetted on the horizon. I screamed in sheer delight. I don’t think I’ve ever made a sound like that before. My friends will attest to my calm facade in the face of most events. But there was nothing calm about this feeling, a quivering deep in my core. The snow leopard was up to 800m away. No doubt it could hear me as I screamed, completely unable to stop.

Spluttering, I managed to point out to the others where I’d seen the ghost. For a nail-biting 15 minutes, there was no sign of it. I was beginning to feel foolish, when I heard a shout. One of the guides had found it sitting among rocks, very close to where I’d seen the tail. I was immensely relieved that I wouldn’t be branded as crazy. It took me a long time to calm down and I never actually saw the body of that cat properly, such was my excitement level.

I was much calmer at the next sighting. I soaked in the magnificence of this animal. It truly is a majestic and beautiful cat, superbly adapted to dominate the barren landscape. The rosettes on its coat provide the best camouflage. It has an amazingly long tail (almost as long as its body), which it uses both to maintain balance when chasing prey down the steep mountainsides, and as a furry shawl to wrap around its face in the depths of winter. It also has a 10cm thick coat of fur to help keep it warm. The Ladakhi word for the leopard is “Shan”. In recent years, Jigmet has heard more locals refer to the animal as “the ornament of the mountain”.

That evening I was awarded with a homemade cake, securing my position as ultimate leopard lady. I’ve never been prouder. At dinner, our host confirmed that in the past, “the cats were a big problem for the subsistence farmers dotted all over the valley. The cats would come down from the hills at night and kill many livestock, sometimes only eating a leg off one and a head off another.” Standing under an old wolf tail tacked up to the door arch, he assured us that more recently he loves wolves and snow leopards, and has no interest in killing them!

The SLC-IT also supplies materials for building leopard-proof enclosures for the farmers. Jigmet explained, “We supply the mesh wire [for the roof, too], wooden poles and doors, and door frames—the villagers have to build the structure. This gives the locals ownership, and then we have buy-in from them. If you give everything, then there is no ownership.” Locals are also being trained to track and act as ‘spotters’ for tourists and surveys. It appears that income from ecotourism is making an impact. It’s a win-win situation for all the people involved as well as the animals.

We had the extreme privilege of spending about two hours watching a mother leopard with two cubs. Just when we thought life couldn’t get any better, we witnessed the feline family unsuccessfully hunting ibex in the low light of dusk. Another highlight was the 16 grey Tibetan wolves that put in a regular morning appearance. I loved to watch the wolves in the frosty first light, gliding in each other’s slipstreams over the mountainside, snouts down, ever sniffing for prey.

After five days in Ulley, our next stop was Stok Kangri and the adjacent Hemis National Park. Stok Kangri is a peak of 6 153m, which dominates the view over the Indus Valley. The national park comprises 3 350km2, home to an estimated 40 snow leopards. Ladakh is humungous at 98 000km2. Although an official survey hasn’t been completed, Jigmet believed there could be 500 to 600 snow leopards living in Ladakh.

We decanted our baggage onto ponies for the journey to our tented camp in Hemis, and I learnt the joys of walking up an ice-filled river with shoe crampons. The ice under my feet crunched satisfyingly as we walked to our new camp. I could hear the water starting to thaw and flow just under the ice next to my tent. Our camp crew and ponies arrived laden with a portable kitchen, and quickly cut a hole in the ice to access the water. Soon there was a pot of tea to share.

The Stok Valley is starkly gorgeous. We found plenty of four-toed pugmarks on the ice, and close to our camp we spotted fresh scrapings—signs of leopard in the vicinity. We had two snow leopard encounters, but both were infuriatingly distant animals, walking skyline ridges. Although I’m not a birder, I enjoyed the time we spent one day with a Eurasian eagle-owl that gave itself up for a long viewing. 

The mammalian highlight of Hemis—and the favourite meal of Shan—the bharal (or Himalayan blue sheep) gave us vain hope that a leopard would be lured down to us in the valley. The male sheep were very impressive, with their bright yellow eyes, black tights and fat flanks. 

After a week of comfortable camping in the wild, it was strange to get back to civilisation and a steaming hot shower and room. From my hotel window in Leh, I could see the icy face of the Stok Kangri peak and had a yearning to be back under its stony glare.

Flying out after two adventurous weeks, I made sure I was sitting over the right wing. As I pondered the peak of K2, I realised I’d love to return. There’s now 90% certainty that you can see Shan, the grey ghost of the mountains, in the wild. 

Fiona will be leading a trip to Leh in March 2018. Details can be found on her website [email protected], under “Services” (click on “expeditions”).

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer