Travel

Hus­ingVal­ley in the Hi­malayan moun­tain range in north­ern In­dia ishome to 10snowl­eop­ards. Sarah Mar­shall goes in search of th­ese elu­sive en­dan­gered cats…

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We go in search of snow leop­ards in the snow-capped Hi­malayan peaks.

I’d 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 moun­tain tops at 3,700m above sea level, while re­mind­ing my­self ex­actly why I’ve cho­sen to camp in tem­per­a­tures that dip to a mind-numb­ing -27°C at night.

Only the sound of hulk­ing yaks snuf­fling for scant veg­e­ta­tion, metal bells clang­ing around their necks, is a wel­come re­minder that life can, against the odds, ex­ist here.

Harsh, 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

When tem­per­a­tures plum­met blue sheep drop down from­moun­tains, pur­sued by snowl­eop­ards

Na­ture, there are be­tween 4,000 and 6,500 of th­ese moun­tain ghosts left in the wild, en­com­pass­ing a range of 12 cen­tral Asian coun­tries.

Coy, aloof and enig­matic crea­tures, they are no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to spot, and at their home on the roof of the world, they rarely en­ter­tain vis­i­tors.

But one of the most ac­ces­si­ble and op­por­tune places to see snow leop­ards is Hemis Na­tional Park in the east­ern Ladakh re­gion of In­dia’s Jammu and Kashmir state. Ac­ces­si­ble, though, is a word used rel­a­tively.

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 in search of their quarry.

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 on to don­keys, and we slip and stum­ble along a frozen river, grab­bing on to the frail skele­tons of wil­low trees for bal­ance.

Our sim­ple eight-tent camp is in the Hus­ing Val­ley, with no run­ning wa­ter or elec­tric­ity, and the toi­let is es­sen­tially a hole in the frosty ground.

Snow leopard tourism is still in its in­fancy, and cap­tur­ing the cats on film or video has be­come a holy grail for wildlife en­thu­si­asts. When

Na­tional Ge­o­graphic pho­tog­ra­pher Steve Win­ter pub­lished cam­era trap images of the an­i­mals in 2008, in­ter­est in Hemis was piqued, and in the past few years, win­ter vis­i­tors have in­creased from a hand­ful to a hun­dred. 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 a sin­gle cat.

The con­di­tions are pun­ish­ing and the odds are stacked against us, but even the knowl­edge that th­ese moun­tain ghosts might have drifted along the same ridge where I’m now sit­ting causes my heart to race with ex­cite­ment.

Early ev­ery morn­ing, be­fore sun­rise, a team of ea­gle-eyed spot­ters re­cruited from nearby vil­lages heads out to set up spot­ting scopes, search­ing for the 10 snow leop­ards that roam this val­ley. Be­ing cre­pus­cu­lar, dawn and dusk are the best times to catch the cats on the move.

With ra­dio sig­nals limited, com­mu­ni­ca­tion is mainly hu­man, and news of sight­ings is de­liv­ered by re­silient mes­sen­gers who sprint with re­mark­able ease at such high

The Hi­malayan moun­tains are the per­fect habi­tat for snow leop­ards

If you don’t see one of the rare big cats, you could con­sole your­self by tak­ing in the mag­nif­i­cent scenery and ar­chi­tec­ture

Snow leop­ards are no­to­ri­ously elu­sive

Wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher Paul Gold­stein (right), ably as­sisted by lo­cals, led our writer on her jour­ney

Trekkers’ be­long­ings are trans­ported by don­keys, and it’s not an easy jour­ney for those on foot

Blue sheep lure hun­gry snow leop­ards down the moun­tains, to where vis­i­tors can spot them

Colour­ful prayer flags are strung high on the moun­tain peaks

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