Attempting to follow the tracks of a wild snow leopard is a fool’s game, but we were fools on a mission, and when we woke on the fifth morning of our safari to find two sets of tracks that went straight through the camp (literally within fifty meters [±150 ft] of my tent), we were off like a shot. The camera bag with all the attachments got slung on my back in no time, and the trek up the valley began. This is one of those moments where you need the utmost speed, but that speed is a gentle walk at best (the altitude still winning all the fights). We made good time, but not snow leopard time. By lunch, the tracks were starting to melt in the warm minus three-degree (26°F) sun, and I actually think we were further away form the leopards than we were when we started in the morning. The walk back down the valley was a little disappointing, but we were one step closer than we had been on the previous few days.
The sixth morning started out the same way – two sets of tracks walking right alongside the camp, but this time in the other direction. Realising the optimism involved with attempting to track a snow leopard high in the Himalayas, we were gearing up a little slower than the previous morning, understanding better that we were perhaps ill-equipped physically to track down these two cats. A cup of tea later, and a very excited guide came running up the valley towards our camp (yes, the guides can actually run up there, they don’t seem affected by the altitude at all; read jealousy) waving his arms, and telling us they have found the leopards!
Packs on, tea drunk and doing the fastest slow walk I could muster, I was racing down the valley, heading in the direction of the tracks. We found the guide who had spotted the cats sitting up on a ridge, so made the climb to join him. Trying to look through the spotting scope while dry heaving is not the easiest, but the leopards were indeed sitting in the middle of the spotting scope. They were easily three kilometres away! We made our way as close as possible, (still between one and a half and two kilometres away) and spent the rest of the day watching the cats. The cameras were quite ineffectual until late in the afternoon when they started to move around. Even then, the best I managed was a record shot.
The last day, and our last chance to try get a good photograph of wild snow leopard. There were tracks in the snow, high above our camp heading up a different valley. We gave it a shot, as it was all we had. We made it quite far up the valley, but all the signs of the leopard had disappeared. Now knowing the capabilities of the snow leopard, it came as no surprise that the cat had long gone, leaving us guessing, again. We did get a quick glimpse of a Himalayan wolf, a very difficult species to see, so that felt like the reward for the long trek. We decided to head back to camp slowly, having one last look through the valley in a desperate attempt to get the photographs we had dreamed of. One of our guides had gone on ahead, and we spread ourselves throughout the valley, searching every crevasse, every rock ledge, and every possible snow leopard looking bump.
The call came in, and just from the tone of the voice on the other side of the radio, I knew we were in business. The guide that went ahead had spotted a snow leopard sitting on a rocky ledge, not too far from the trail. With full gear on and in the snow and ice, I ‘ran’ (walked quickly) as fast as I could down the trail to where the guide was waiting. It took a while to see it, mostly because I couldn’t breath. Before I had even confirmed its position, I had the camera setup, and was ready to shoot. There she was, sitting behind a rock, just the tail sticking out (well done to the guide on that spot). It took a freezing couple of hours for her to move about, but when she did, I was in heaven! All the hard work, all the planning, all the pain of walking up those mountains and valleys, all worth it for a ten-minute show that to me is priceless. I got images I never dreamed I would get and I got to experience a moment with a snow leopard I never thought possible. The moment was ended soon after she went over the ridge by fingers that felt like they were about to fall off, and my body was shaking uncontrollably from the cold, but the walk back to camp was the easiest walk I have done in years.