June 18, 2019

The Grey Ghost of the Himalayas

This is what we had been preparing for!

Despite cutting short 2 days from the search thanks to the bust tyre and the snowstorm, we were optimistic. The day after the storm we were stuck at home because of the closed routes, but our expedition leader Rana took his beast machine Fortuner and broke the snow right up to Kibber! Took him hours and hours. He heard news of 2 snow leopards up in the valley ahead of Kibber – did the gruesome climb with our tracker Dorje in record time, spotted the two and headed back home to Kaza in complete darkness to give us the good news.

The leopards were visible – a male and a female far apart from each other, and the behavior indicated that they were going to be closer to each other at some point soon. Dorje was in Kibber continuing to track the movements, and there was a GOOD chance we were going to see those beauties the next day.

Now, spotting the grey ghost can’t be THAT EASY, can it? Pshhh. Little did we know – D-day was going to be THE COLDEST DAY yet. The sun was out but the temperature showed -19 degrees when we stepped out in the morning. WHAT. After quite an eventful morning with the cars struggling to run in the freezing temperatures, we somehow managed to reach Kibber and met Dorje, who informed us that there weren’t just two leopards – but FOUR! That news pumped us up, and we were off for the climb up to the valley.

I knew this was going to be the actual test of the trip, considering I spent most of 2018 in and out of hospitals. Climbing uphill in snow for 3 hours at 15000 ft. in -16 to -18 degrees was no joke for city folk in general – but especially for someone as unfit as me. Mum Dad did INCREDIBLY well, Ishrat far ahead as happy as ever, and I, huffing and puffing, somehow managed with a blinding altitude migraine in the last hour of the climb. But, as painful as every step was, the views made up for ALL OF IT. What a beautiful, terrifying at times, quite literally breathtaking, and life-changing hike that was. To be quite honest, I would’ve been equally happy even if there wasn’t a leopard waiting for us at the top – the photographs of the hike will show you why.

But, we had special prize waiting for us. And boy WHAT a show it was. Across the massive gorge, beautifully camouflaged, the male and female were together atlast, the female had 2 cubs that were snoozing at a good distance from the couple, always keeping their mother in their line of sight. Both pairs were about 800m away from us, across a huge gorge, completely camouflaged – so it took us a while to focus our lenses and binoculars on to them. Suddenly, something happened that we could have NEVER EVER, in our wildest dreams, imagined we would get to see – the couple started mating! The local spotters from Kibber and Chicham were beyond excited! Snow Leopard Mating was a phenomenon that had not been seen or photographed by many in the Spiti area. Around us, there were a couple more photographers, including a guy from NatGeo who had been living in Kibber for a month, tracking these leopards – boy, he’ll be getting a raise, for sure!

I sat in one position GLUED to my camera for ATLEAST an hour or 2 before realising that my legs were completely frozen and jammed. It took me 20 minutes of walking and jumping around to get them back to normal! Ishrat was already busy using heatpads in his gloves and shoes! In all the excitement, we had forgotten how terribly cold it was. The cold began hitting us again when the sun started to set. I would do a burst of shots, jump for a few seconds, and do some more bursts again. It’s hard to describe what -18 feels like at that altitude when you’re completely outdoors and not even moving. It was BRUTAL. After spending 3 hours watching these incredible animals, it was time for us to head back down.

The hike back down was even more stunning with the sunset creating some insane shots for me. A perfect end to a perfect day. Exhausted and frozen – ‘the team’ was absolutely ecstatic.

What in the world did we just witness?

This was recorded during one of our jam sessions at Sakya Homestay, a self composition by the talented Abhimanyu Pandey.

Note: The leopards were photographed from almost 800m away, so the images are tiny and grainy and work only for documentation purposes. Gives me a reason to go looking for them again – a better photograph!

Morning blessings from this littul furball
Don’t be deceived by the clear sky and shining sun!
Last communication point – “if we are not down by 6.30pm, come looking for us.”
The most photographed famous Key Gate
From Kibber. Can you believe this? I still can’t.
Spot the colorful Kibber Sanctuary Gate
And the trek begins, leaving Kibber far behind.
Our spotter Dorje waiting for us slow pokes. He was carrying my MASSIVE prime lens, 2-3 Litres of water in that bag. CHAMPION!
Chicham village on the other side of the Gorge, with their newly built bridge.
What are these views.
Spotted the little cub!
Walking up to his/her sibling!
Snoozing away
The couple on the other side, COMPLETELY camouflaged. My camera could barely focus!
Did not move from this position for hours!
Cubs heading down to find a new napping spot, better view of their mother.
There are two leopards in this shot. Can you spot both?
Still camouflaged, had to quickly focus back on the couple when the spotters shouted “mating!! mating!! mating!!”
They’re at it again! Got up and did the deed around 3-4 times till sunset; with lots of long naps in between.
The cubs basking in the last light of the day.
Heading back down, with frozen legs and hands.
The team shot!

Dorje and our little guide dog who led us all the way back to Kibber
Gorgeous colors, gorgeous sunset.
Couldn’t believe where I was.

The beautiful day wasn’t over yet. This was THE ONLY clear night of the entire expedition, and I could not leave the mountains without some astrophotography. Reached Sakya at night, and headed out to their balcony in -20 around 10pm and spent around 30-40 minutes getting whatever I could till I literally froze. Tsering’s dogs Chinchin and Bruno gave me company outside and we managed to get these shots! WHAT. A. DAY.

View from Tsering’s Home.

Thank you Spiti. Thank you.