We had a few “close calls” in terms of sightings of Snow Leopards over the nine days we spent camping in Hemis National Park. We spent one morning hiking to Rumbak Village, passing frozen waterfalls and partially frozen streams to arrive at a quaint town with colorfully painted homes and pagodas. As we entered the village, prayer flags as well as mounds of stones, big and small, carved with a mantra of compassion. Om mani padme hum, greeted us; as did the locals, with a smile and a friendly “Jullay” – which translates into “hello”, “goodbye” and “thank you.”
After a few minutes of exploring the area, we sat down to a delicious lunch inside a local family’s home. Suddenly, one of the guides outside began to shout “Snow leopard! Snow leopard!” Without a moment’s hesitation, we all jumped up and scrambled outside. But by the time we got to the scope the leopard had already disappeared over the other side of the ridge. It didn’t come back that day.
A day or two later, we were woken up early with news of another sighting also in Rumbak Valley. We quickly dressed and ate breakfast and hiked as fast as we could for 2 hours. But by the time we got there, the cat had already left once again. We knew that being able to actually see a Snow Leopard in the wild would take patience, perseverance, and a bit of luck, and we still had several days to go, so we were in good spirits. The beautiful scenery, camaraderie, and encounters with the lovely local birds such as Wallcreepers, Hill and Snow pigeons, Tibetan Snowfinch and the Himalayan Griffon were keeping us plenty busy and content for the time being.
As it turned out, after over a week of hiking and searching, our patience would pay off, and we would see not one but two Snow Leopards less than half a kilometer from our camp! That morning, local villagers told our guides that they had spotted Snow Leopard tracks on the trail by the frozen waterfall we had passed several times already on our trip. So our local trackers, Stanzin and Gyalson, climbed the small ridge to be on the look out. We waited below.
Suddenly, we heard shouting and looked up to see Stanzin and Gyalson waving their arms madly. We started to run. Hearts pounding (both from the excitement and from the run up the hill) we caught our first glimpse of this stunning feline. There, standing tall on a rock just across the valley from us was a beautiful Snow Leopard. She stood still for several minutes before walking down and disappearing behind a crevasse. We waited for about half an hour, and began to worry that the cat had slinked away without us noticing. Suddenly we saw two Snow Leopards walking up the mountain side. It appeared to be a mother and her nearly full grown cub.
We all took turns looking through the scope and watching them with binoculars. Even when we knew where they were, as they walked, they occasionally disappeared into the background, like ghosts. Their mottled fur blends in perfectly with the pale brown rocks and shadows of the mountain.
After watching the cats for over an hour, we lost sight of one, while the other had lain down so only its head was barely visible above the top of the ridge. Our trackers assured us that the cat would not move between now and dusk. So, after a few more minutes, we headed down the mountain for lunch. That afternoon, part of the group decided to climb the hill again and they were rewarded with another sighting of the cat as it awoke at sunset. It quietly made its way across the ridge before disappearing down the other side and into the night.
It was such a thrill to see these beautiful cats and to share this landscape with them. This was one trip none of us are likely to soon forget. Contact us to find out more about India: In Search of the Elusive Snow Leopard tour and upcoming trip dates.