In November, the landscape in the northern Indian territory of Ladakh is barren. Prickly sea buckthorn bushes and red-limbed willows are among the few species that can survive in the region’s cold desert climate and high altitudes, where temperatures in deep winter don’t come close to reaching 32º.
The mouth of the Ulley Valley in central Ladakh is about 12,000 feet above sea level. The village of Ulley, the last in the valley and the end of the scrawny, pitted road that is the area's only connection to the rest of India and the outside world, is about 14,300 feet in elevation.
Standing on a small outcrop and scanning the snow-dusted ridgelines, I can't see any signs of life. Neither can I imagine anything able to live in such an inhospitable environment.
Except, I know snow leopards are here.
I know this, and enough other snow leopard trivia, to present a new fact a day for 100 days — that’s the species’ average gestational period — because, when I was too young to know this wasn’t possible, I wanted to grow up to be one.
Snow leopards can jump 50 feet in one pounce, have massively bushy tails, and purr but don’t roar. Also, they’re so tough they live where few other animals can — in the high altitudes of Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, western China, Afghanistan, and northern India, where Ladakh is, about 700 miles north of New Dehli.
Although found across a fairly wide swath of Central Asia, snow leopards are among the most difficult animals to see in the wild. Estimates of that worldwide population vary greatly, but the highest is only about 7,500. They’re also solitary, camouflaged, and not particularly large — usually less than two feet tall and, not including those fabulous tails, between three and five feet long.
Wildlife watchers call them “ghost cats” or “mountain ghosts” or “ghosts of the mountains." The Ulley Valley is among the most reliable places in the world to see a snow leopard in the wild.
My grow-up-to-be-a-snow-leopard dream didn’t last, of course — it didn’t make it through kindergarten. So I decided to be a veterinarian who worked with snow leopards.
That dream lasted until I was 15 and a volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary where the biggest animals were blue herons. Within 15 minutes, I discovered that they terrified me. By the end of my first day, I realized that pretty much every other animal at the sanctuary terrified me, too.
So I again amended my dream: I would see a snow leopard in the wild.
Twenty-nine years later, I booked a spot on a snow leopard safari, organized by andBeyond, a travel company that specializes in wildlife-focused trips around the world. Starting and ending in Delhi, the tour was 11 days and included six nights at the Snow Leopard Lodge in the Ulley Valley and the eagle eyes of wildlife spotters Tsewang Norboo and Tsetan Namgail.
As many facts about snow leopards as I can spout, I realized very quickly after arriving in Ladakh that I knew little about their landscape. For starters, it’s not super snowy there. In the shadow of the Himalayas, the region gets only about four inches of precipitation annually. More challenging for snow leopard spotting is the landscape’s scale and complexity.
Before the start of the trip, I arranged for what I imagined would be a personal ghost cat tracking mission: A trekking guide and I would spend a week hiking in the Rumbak and Markha Valleys.
In Hemis High Altitude National Park, on the opposite side of the Indus River from Ulley, these valleys are home to snow leopards and modest homestays where toilets are holes in the ground, English is scarce, and indoor plumbing is nonexistent, but there is always plenty of hot tea, smiles, and momos (local dumplings).
The idea that I’ll spot a snow leopard on my own is crushed my first day in the Markha Valley, a 40-mile-long finger of flatness sandwiched between the Zanskar and Ladakh mountain ranges. Shortly after the dirt road disintegrates to the point that it’s faster and more comfortable to walk than bump along in the hired car, a toothy ridgeline above catches my attention. I think that it will offer great views, and it seems to be an achievable scramble.
I start slowly. Very quickly I get even slower. Wrinkles, undulations, outcrops, boulders, and caves I couldn’t see from the bottom reveal themselves with every step.
Breathing at 11,000 feet is the easy part.
I don't make it up more than 200 feet, which isn't high enough to bother for the guide, who waits patiently for me below. He's the only form of life I can see, though. The snow leopards will have to wait until the next week.
Instead, I visit the Tacha Monastery, which is perched 300 feet up a sliver of rock above a bend in the Markha River and has a commanding view of the valley. I also watch the other wildlife -- bharal, also known as Himalayan blue sheep even though they're in the same subfamily as goats; choughs, a high-flying relative of crows and ravens; flitty white-winged redstarts; and red fox, with their own bushy tails.
I also see two different sets of snow leopard tracks, easily distinguished from those of Himalayan wolves, the only other large animal in the area, by their rounded-but-asymmetric shape (vs. oval) and lack of nail impressions. They’re smack in the middle of the path. I walk, literally and with a pounding heart, in a snow leopard’s steps.
By the time I return from Hemis and meet the tour group in Leh, the area’s most populous city (50,000 people), I’m mostly used to the altitude. We have to wait a couple of days for the other group members to acclimate.
When we pull into the dirt parking lot at Snow Leopard Lodge after a four-hour drive, Namgail, Norboo, and his family, most of the staff, and a handful of curious villagers greet us. Yaks and cows, generally too big to be prey for snow leopards or wolves, roam freely around us; donkeys, goats, and sheep are kept in leopard-proof mesh-topped pens.
The first spotting session starts after a lunch of mushroom soup, fried rice with vegetables, and soy dumplings. Namgail, Norboo, and Stanzin (Norboo’s middle son and the manager of the lodge), each stand at a Zeiss spotting scope. Two other scopes are open for the six guests to scan on their own. There are also several pairs of binoculars. We’re instructed to focus on ridgelines, where movement and silhouettes are most easily seen.
Almost immediately Norboo finds a group of male Asiatic ibex on a hillside on the opposite side of the valley. To my eye, they are completely invisible. With Stanzin's help, I find them through a scope. Their chins are wispy with beards and their heads crowned with long horns that curve sharply back.
The presence of ibex, a species of mountain goat, bodes well for a snow leopard sighting. Along with blue sheep, they are among the cats' favorite prey.
But there are no snow leopards that afternoon. We see a couple of golden eagles, a Himalayan snowcock, and another group of ibex.
The next morning after breakfast, I begin washing my face in a bucket of hot water delivered to my bathroom just as someone runs through the lodge: "Wolves! Quick!"
The pair of wolves is even more difficult for me to see than the ibex, though they’re but half the distance away. Finally I find them — two shaggy forms saunter across the hillside immediately opposite the lodge. When it’s my turn on a scope, I can see the lolling tongue of the front wolf.
Because I’m still ahead of everyone else in adjusting to the altitude, I accompany Norboo on a tracking expedition to a low pass on the east side of the valley. This pass is a known snow leopard crossing.
We face a 1,000-foot clamber up steep, loose terrain to the pass. Even with poles, it’s hard trekking for me. Norboo walks easily, with a tripod and spotting scope slung over a shoulder. He stops to set this up and scan for wildlife just often and just long enough for me to catch up. He also stops to point out signs of snow leopards.
At an overhanging school-bus-size boulder, Norboo finds tracks in the dirt — a mom and two cubs. “About two days ago,” he says.
Next is a rubbing rock. The evidence? Several strands of snow leopard fur cling to it.
Norboo lifts the carcass of a young ibex by one of its legs, which are the only parts that haven’t been picked completely clean. A snow leopard kill. Taking several steps to the left, he stops and studies the ground: “This is where they ate it. A mom and cubs again, about two weeks ago.”
He offers me the carcass, and, although handling dead wildlife is about as appealing to me as hanging out with herons, I take it and look closely at the bones for impressions of snow leopard teeth, which I do not find. Still, holding the leftovers of a snow leopard meal is the single coolest thing about the trip so far.
We will spend days driving up and down the valley searching for different vantage points. Yet it is an afternoon toward the end of our stay at the lodge that Namgail spots snow leopards: a mom and two cubs, maybe even the ones whose tracks Norboo and I saw.
They are in a flat spot a mere two-minute walk from the lodge's front entrance.
The snow leopards are, by far, the most difficult animals of the entire trip for me to make out. Stanzin calls me to a scope he positioned so the family is in the middle of its field of view. He tells me that the mother is lying on the top of a rock on the ridgeline and the cubs running and jumping below her.
Through the scope I scan the visible section of ridgeline but see no snow leopards. The rest of the group has found the cats, but minutes pass and I still see only the same empty, hostile landscape of the last two weeks.
And then something flies off one of the ridge's serrations. A second something follows. The cubs have leapt off the top of a 25-foot-tall rock.
Now that I’ve got them, I can follow them. They scamper, wrestle, take breaks to lick their paws, and climb a rock back to the top of the ridge where, thanks to a head turn and flick of her tail — which is every bit as magnificent as snow leopard tails look in photos and documentaries — mom finally becomes visible. We watch the cats until it gets too dark to see them any more, about an hour.