The Ghost Of The Mountain

Author: Lisa Antell

As an avowed lover of cats of all shapes and sizes  and as a wildlife photographer, I have a committed desire and life goal to see and photograph in the wild as many of the world’s cat species, and especially the 5 Panthera genus big cats (tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars and snow leopards), as I can during the peak travel years of my life (right now!).  Tigers…check.  Lions…check.  Leopards…check.  Jaguars…check  (and cheetahs and pumas, too!)  But, up until recently, the most elusive and challenging of these iconic big cats to access, view, and photograph has been the “Ghost of the Mountains”…..ie the superb plushy snow leopards of the Trans Himalayan mountains.

While the Covid-era travel difficulties were slowly receding over the past few years, there was a new high mountain camp built in the vast, remote Ladakh region of northern India in Hemis National Park, which is an incredibly beautiful area of the extensive Tibetan Plateau, and in prime snow leopard territory.  Lungmar Remote Camp was created to provide a perfect base for exploration of the snow leopards’ home in the high altitude environment, and to enable their guests to have a very comfortable camp home base and total experience, with warm heated rooms, quality tasty food in a cozy lounge, and lots of hot water for showering in indoor en suite bathrooms.  No longer was it necessary to “rough it” in tents with outside bath/toilet facilities, while searching for the cats and hiking all day, at high altitudes in extreme conditions.  But the most important part of the Lungmar Camp experience are the dedicated, and very knowledgeable local camp guides and spotters, porters and staff….all of whom recently facilitated for us the most extraordinary week of daily snow leopard expeditions.

It’s safe to say that the people that run and care for the photographers and guests at Lungmar, while searching for the gorgeous cats and getting everyone into the correct positions safely and efficiently (lugging enormous amounts of gear in cold, slippery, rocky, icy conditions, and setting up cameras and scopes,  taking everything down again and packing it up to lug back to camp), and while also providing portable drinks and snacks and hot noon meals(!) as our cameras were set up and waiting for the cats, were just extraordinary, and made for a wonderful excursion and effort on all counts.  Kudos, and thanks to everyone at Lungmar Remote Camp!

For a successful, rigorous snow leopard expedition to occur, first you must evaluate your own health and physical abilities, since the high altitude environment demands careful acclimatization to the conditions, and a guest/photographer should be attuned to their own fitness level and exercise capabilities.  Seeing these remarkable cats has been a long-time desire of mine, and since it was an optimal time in my own life to meet the challenges and rigors of the trip, I was quite motivated to start conditioning and strength training months in advance of our scheduled Wandering Thru Snow Leopard Expedition to search for snow leopards in Ladakh.

There is nothing like the lure of finding and photographing a plushy spotted kitty to push you hard into working out, walking, hiking, exercising in mountains at altitude before the trip, and staying healthy, eating well, and avoiding injuries and illness in the weeks and months ahead of the moment.  Suffice to say, that all of the time and effort was absolutely worth every moment towards the ultimate success of our incredible snow leopard adventure!

Our group members arrived in Delhi 2 nights before we left for Leh (Ladakh) in far northern India, which gave us a short break to sleep and recover after a long international flight and meet up with each other, and then we flew to Leh early in the morning the following day, arriving at the Grand Dragon Hotel in time for a full day of complete rest and initial altitude acclimatization over our intended 2 nights’ stay there.  That period of rest time is essential for human bodies to start to equilibrate to the 11,500 feet of altitude (and less atmospheric oxygen availability) in Leh, and then eventually up to 14,000 feet during the next week of climbing expeditions. Normally, the 2nd morning in Leh would be time to visit a Tibetan Monastery and do some cultural touring, while still resting.

However, this 2024 season has been truly epic and sensational for snow leopard sightings, and sure enough, the call came in to our group leaders during dinner our first evening  that a cat had been seen on a kill just an hour plus drive outside of Leh!  The travel to see the cat mostly would involve driving through the mountains, with only a short hike in from the vehicles to set up our cameras for the day, and the Lungmar team was committed to the complicated logistics of moving and carrying all of our gear, and making the expedition as easy as possible for us on only our 2nd day in the Himalayas (which was supposed to be a rest and cultural day).  Naturally, we all were completely enthusiastic and committed to go find our first snow cat, so we gathered and organized our gear and supplies, and set out early the next morning from the Grand Dragon Hotel on our first mountain adventure!

After a spectacular drive through the winding high mountains and on cliff-hanging roads, we arrived at a small day lodge on the frozen Indus River, which was our transition point to continue in the more rugged gypsies (jeeps) across the river, and up the last bit of road to the area that the cat was spotted on his meal.  We then hiked back across the frozen undulating slippery river again (slowly huffing and puffing along, with frequent rest breaks) to where our cameras and gear had already been set up for us by the Lungmar team.  So far, our first day’s adventure was already quite amazing, but then once we got behind our cameras and scopes and binoculars and saw that a gorgeous male cat was sleeping just 150m across the river in a small narrow canyon with his blue sheep carcass just below him, we were totally gob smacked by our incredible luck on our very first day in snow leopard territory!  We spent a bright sunny full day with this cat, watching him and waiting, as he slept, chased off the magpies from his kill, repositioned himself nearer his food, posed beautifully, slept again, and generally was the most photogenic snow leopard at relatively close distance that he could possibly be!

Snow leopard sightings have been very difficult for people to find and experience over the past 5-7 years of developing snow leopard ecotourism, and it felt like we had won the lottery jackpot on our very first try.  The local and global conservation efforts to protect the snow leopards and their habitat are slowly, but surely, resulting in cats that are more habituated to human movements (and therefore more likely to be viewable from a distance), and are less threatened in those areas/countries where tourism is becoming better developed and sensitively managed. So after such a lucky start for us on our snow leopard expedition, we finally left the cat to drive back to Leh and the Grand Dragon Hotel for dinner and an early bedtime, after an arduous, but exceptional day in the mountains.

Our next day’s adventure began again with a drive through the mountains and high passes on narrow twisty roads, but this time in very snowy, slippery conditions….it had snowed  the night before and continued off and on snowing throughout the day.  The vehicles needed chains on their tires, and it was slower going to get to the remote location where a pair of mating snow leopards had been spotted on a ridge the day before, but the mood of our group was lively and excited, and so our 2nd full day’s adventure was quite cheery, although ultimately unsuccessful in finding the cats.  However, there was time for a convivial roadside lunch in a snowstorm, lots of group photos,  snowball fights,  snow angels to be created, and also an adventurous return drive back down again to Leh involving maneuvering around a small landslide across the road, and through some beautiful snow-covered mountain landscapes, including tiny villages with terraced snow laden fruit trees.

All in all, a fun day in the mountains for our snow leopard expedition group!  We collected our luggage as we drove back through Leh, and then continued on into the remote valley in Hemis National Park, where the comfortable Lungmar Camp is located (altitude 12,250 feet).  Our home for the next 7 days and nights!  We had dinner and settled in to our cozy warm rooms, while our intrepid private WanderingThru guide, Tristan, vibrated cheerfully around greeting everyone in camp (including the resident camp dogs!), clearly very happy to be back again on a snow leopard expedition!

The next morning in camp was a windy cold morning, with inches of freshly fallen snow, and the camp spotters left a bit later on their daily mission to find the snow cats.  The guests also had a later start that day with time for a relaxed breakfast, and to spend organizing our photos.  We finally were called mid morning to gather our gear, and we piled into the trucks and vehicles, and drove through a sparkling, heavily frosted landscape about 20 minutes away to do some cat spotting, and to photograph the herds of blue sheep making their way across the deep snow on the mountains.

Back to camp for lunch when it started to snow again, and then in the afternoon we trudged and hiked through the deep snow cover a short distance further up into the Indus River valley towards a small shrine near a juniper tree, as a “test hike” up to 13,200 feet!

Eventually, the goal was for us to be able to do a longer hike into where a big male cat had been seen on a large carcass for several days already, but the camp staff wanted to delay that moment a couple of extra days into the week, to ascertain that we were all capable and ready for a longer, more challenging day of higher altitude hiking, on a mission to find this cat.  Along the way of the short test hike, we heard stories of the people and culture of Ladakh, and also investigated a known snow leopard territorial marking spot on one of the rocky outcrops, getting a good whiff of the cats’ urine scent!  In addition, Biscuit, one of the herder’s dogs and a camp guest/staff fan favorite, followed along on our trek and decided to chase the herds of blue sheep up a very steep hillside and through several feet of fresh powder, in an astonishing display of energy, exuberance and sheer stamina!

As our week continued after that short hike day, we eventually got much better acclimated to the altitude, and our heavily booted feet became more accustomed to the rocky, slippery hiking terrain, and from then on it was one incredible adventure or sighting after another!  One brilliant sunny day it was viewing, from a distance, a snow leopard mama and two big fluffy subadults on a blue sheep meal for the whole day, with the travel day involving some minor slippery mishaps, and some terrific fresh snow leopard tracks right on the snowy roadside.

The very next day after that became our longest hike day, and a very logistically complicated but momentous day’s outing. We again hiked in along the frozen and snowy Indus River valley (we could hear the river rushing and gurgling below the ice at our feet at times!), and towards where the big male cat had been seen dining for 4 days on a large horse carcass.  After a series of slow careful approaches on foot, we got close enough to be able to photograph him on the high ridge (after he moved away from the carcass, and a beautiful red fox moved in to dine on the leftovers!), and then over the course of the afternoon, we repositioned all of our cameras and gear several times,  following his movements up on the mountainside, ending up again climbing another snowy ridge to see him in his final location in the waning daylight….and at 13,870 feet of altitude.

Naturally, Tristan, our energetic and enthusiastic guide, could not resist a final chance to climb closer to the cat and to get some epic photographic memories of a big male snow leopard silhouetted, and surveying his realm from the tippy top of a very sharp craggy ridgeline.  Magic!  All told, it was a hike day of about 3 miles and up about a total of 1000 feet gain in altitude (not including the drive), but we all were physically able and ready to be fully participatory and engaged in the challenge, due to the slow steady acclimatization process that we had gone through over the past 5 days.

Over the last few days of our snow leopard expedition, we drove and hiked up several times to a ridge near a local monastery (Lato), to view a blue sheep carcass that had been spotted across the valley from a long distance of about 2km away, and then waited to see if a cat appeared to dine on the meal (happening on our final afternoon). We also had an interesting morning opportunity to drive back towards Leh and to a rocky area where some sheep and goat carcasses left from a unfortunate boma-killing spree by 2 snow leopards had been discarded…..which led to a plethora of feral dogs convening on that area to eat, and many many vultures and eagles circling, as well.   It was a great Birds In Flight photographic practice opportunity, in addition to the harsh, surreal, beautiful scenery and vistas to appreciate, and some interesting discussions to continue about how Human-wildlife conflict impacts snow leopard conservation measures.

We had fun moments playing with Biscuit, and also Toast, another adorable fluffy local herder’s dog, and enjoyed their charming antics, some quality photo editing time and tutorials on quiet mornings, a chance to visit a local herder’s predator-proof boma (provided and built by the Lungmar team in support for the local community), and to see their beautiful pashmina goats, including 15 tiny adorable little kids tumbling and playing, and two new babies being birthed while we watched! We took many, many candid photos of the incredible snowy mountain vistas and landscape, and the Tibetan shrines and monasteries, with their colorful, flapping prayer flags.

We learned how to use the spotting scopes to scan and seek out the cats from far away. All in all, the entire week in the Himalayan mountains was a very spiritual, soulful time for me, as I love time spent in invigorating winter mountain environments, and I especially appreciate the rigorous athletic exertion required to find and follow and photograph the beautiful wildlife.  Plus, I finally realized my long-time desire of seeing and photographing all 5 of the big cats’ species in the wild, putting me into a very small subset of humans on Earth that have achieved such a rare, lofty goal, and truly filling me with a profound thankfulness that I have had such an opportunity in my life!  For this, I thank Wandering Thru, and all of the incredible people at the Lungmar Remote Camp in Ladakh, as they made my dream and vision possible, in the most well-planned, thoughtful, professional, comfortable, safe, and just plain FUN way!

For your next safari or wildlife adventure…..and especially for the epic snow leopards in Ladakh, India, I highly recommend and encourage you to contact Wandering Thru and start planning your trip with them!  I trust them fully to provide an extraordinary travel experience, no matter where your wanders will take you.

 

 

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