In Search of the Myth, Grey Ghost Of the Himalayas.
This is an actual sequence of events which happened during SGP’s OverTheTop Expeditions to Spiti, Grey Ghost Protocol.
While photographing Indian Wildlife for more than 16 years now, I always had a fascination for something new, something rare, something which was not explored and something which was difficult to do. And this fascination led me to places like Namdapha where I photographed the rarest of wildlife.
Flash Back …
About the Grey Ghost aka The Snow Leopard.. It has it’s roots way back in the year 2000 when I was astonished to see a sequence from the movie “The Vertical Limit” in which, in one of the starting sequences, two snow leopard cubs play with each other. And then in year 2008 again with BBC’s documentary “Beyond the Myth” shot in Pakistan, they were back. In the documentary there is a shot with snow falling and then suddenly the grey ghost appears…. huhhh!! It still gives me goose bumps .. This left behind a big mark on my mind. A wish, a dream to see the world’s most magnificent and elusive creature living high up in the himalayan mountains…. A Grey Ghost !!
So it is the phenomenon which had already started then. All my planning, right from upgrading my gears was ultimately getting executed as per this phenomenon.
Finally after so many years, the time had come. I started researching about places where there were any chances of seeing these elusive cats. The Hemis region of Ladakh was one of the go-to places for this. As I searched for photographs of snow leopards, I found thousands of images out of which very few were actually clicked in the wild and those were from quite a long distance like more than 500 meters or 1 km or even more than that. Most of these images were taken on the mountain ridge or cliff where snow was no where to be seen. But that shot from BBC’s Beyond the Myth, the snow leopard sitting in the midst of snow fall was glued in my mind.
So i decided to do it differently. I found a few places in Nepal, Bhutan and even in Kyrgyzstan and finally one place came into view … there it was … Spiti Valley.
The Spiti Valley is a cold desert mountain valley located high in the Himalaya mountains in the north-eastern part of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The name “Spiti” means “The Middle Land”, i.e. the land between Tibet and India.
Local population follow Vajrayana Buddhism similar to that found in the nearby Tibet Autonomous Region and the Ladakh region of India. The valley and surrounding region is one of the least populated regions in India and is the gateway to the northernmost reaches of the nation. Along the northern route from Manali, Himachal Pradesh or Keylong via the Rohtang Pass or Kunzum Pass respectively, the valley lies in the North East of the Indian hill state of Himachal Pradesh, and forms part of the Lahaul and Spiti district. The sub-divisional headquarters (capital) is Kaza, Himachal Pradesh which is situated along the Spiti River at an elevation of about 12,500 feet (3,800 m) above mean sea level.
World within world as Rudyard Kipling described it, Spiti Valley is known to be one of the most beautiful and picturesque locations in the world. In Winters valley gets cut off from the rest of the world due to thick snow coverand roat to spiti in winters is known to be among most treacherous roads in the world.Spiti’s border start at Samdo [74 km from Kaza] which is quite near to India-China border. In summer it can be reached via Manali through Rohtang pass and Kunzum pass. Manali is 201 km away from Kaza headquarter of Spiti subdivision. Due to high elevation one is likely to feel altitude sickness in Spiti.
I zeroed down on it. Few other brave souls were ready and interested to join. So I launched one Expedition under OverTheTop expedition series of SGP, the company which I run. The tag line for OverTheTop is “Experience The Enigma” .. These Expeditions are designed for advanced and core wildlife enthusiasts and photographers who believe that wildlife photography is much more than sitting in a gypsy and shooting tigers.
So I started finding more about Spiti, the weather condition, the logistic help etc. With the snow setting, the only time was Peak Winters. And in Winters the negative temperature mark of -33 degree Celsius was something to worry about. But there was a gear made for such conditions so conclusion was that it was still doable. I advised my team to start working on the fitness if they wanted to make it possible as time was on our side, for preparing ourselves for the best and the worst.
Finally with the confidence of the team, i started with all the bookings and arrangements. The travel date was freezed – Jan 24th, 2017. An extensive 13 days itinerary was made. And then the Countdown started…
Sept 2016 to Dec 2016
I researched more about Spiti and read all the articles, travel logs, blogs, Videos available. Some assured me that my decision was right. I read about many snow leopard expeditions in the himalayas. Many unsuccessful ones and few successful ones but all of them stated a common thing which was – “When you are out searching for Snow Leopard in the wild, be prepared to not see one, to avoid disappointments and getting depressed. “
For me – someone has who reached this stage of my life today just by being positive – it was hard to accept it. I decided to be positive about this whole expedition no matter what and resolved to see one in the wild. I was ready to do anything for it.
Snow Shoes, gaters, Snow Pants, Snow Jacket, Middle Layers, Inner Layers, Thermal Pouches, Merino Wool Socks, Balaclavas, UV goggles, Snow Gloves .. there was an extensive packing list. Cameras, Extra Batteries, USB chargers for camera batteries, Rain Covers, Action Cams, Video Cams, Stabilizers, Tripods, Remotes, Camera Traps etc. It was a long long list.
As we were approaching the travel date, I and the rest of the team were getting nervous by looking at the current weather conditions and forecast but I was ensuring and reminding them that we chose this particular time for a reason and we had to be prepared for the same.
Finally… The Day Arrived !! We gathered at Chandigarh on 23rd. Everyone was super excited and sounded very positive. We started our dose of Diamox, a medicine for altitude sickness.
24th Jan –
Started our journey early morning from Chandigarh. There are 2 ways to reach Spiti Valley. One is from Manali via Rohtang Pass which is closed during winters due to snow and the other is from Shimla via Rampur through Kinnaur valley. So our next destination was Rampur. We got the 1st sight of snow in Shimla itself as there was a fresh snowfall which happened the previous night. From Shimla, we changed vehicles from Innova to “Snow Riders” (Sumo) which came to pick us up right from the land of Spiti.
And I realized that it was time to come out of the comfort zone. That was the 1st time I met my drivers who were Spitians named Kesan (Kes Rapchik) and Padma. This was destined to happen so it happened. We reached Rampur and the news came from Spiti that heavy snowfall had hit the valley. But till then we were unaware of the intensity of it. We charged all camera gears, head lights etc at our Rampur hotel and were all set for the next morning for the much awaited and long road journey to Kaza. Day ended with the cozy rooms and room heaters at Rampur.
25th Jan –
We boarded the vehicles early in the morning when it was still dark and began our journey towards the Trans Himalayas of Spiti. As we crossed Spillo village, snowfall began and news started appearing, of road blocks on the way due to avalanche and landslides. Luckily for us it was a smooth drive till then. Then suddenly we saw a huge chunk of big stones and rocks in the middle of the road. It was a huge landslide. There was another vehicle there with local Spitians and there I realized what this small community of wonderful people can do, if united. All of them got on the road and started moving those big rocks and stones and I couldn’t stop myself from helping them with whatever I could. Together, we made a way through those stones and rocks so that the vehicles could pass. We continued and again another landslide and again we cleared it ourselves. We continued and then a huge Avalanche on the way … we could see the huge snow balls coming down on the road. Now this was huge 100 meters road block covered with mountain of snow. Huh .. it was beyond the capacity of we 12 odd souls travelling to Spiti.
Two from these 12 went walking all the way to the nearest army camp for help in terms of JCB or Dozer. We waited for long and it was an evening already. What to do now ? Shall we head back to Rampur and wait till road gets cleared? But what if Snow fall continued and caused more such blocks? The temperatures were dropping as we were approaching 5.20pm.
Finally we took the tough decision to head back to Spillow or Rampur. The decision made some of the team members upset and they started losing confidence about the whole expedition. We turned back and had gone a few kilometers and Kesan got a call from someone that a Dozer has arrived at the Avalanche spot and had started clearing off the snow. We decided to turn back again and wait at the avalanche site till it got cleared and then head forward.
It took almost 3 hours for 2 JCBs to clear that big chunk of snow. It was dark already as finally it cleared and we continued our journey forward. By then it started snowing heavily. As we reached Pooh village, we got the news of other big road blocks near Nako and Maling Nala. So our journey was destined till Pooh village that day. There was snow on the road to Pooh village and it was not possible for our vehicle to make that climb in the night so we decided to walk up to the village and look for some shelter.
Vehicles were parked on the road near the army camp and it was impossible to carry our entire luggage walking. So we grabbed our Camera bags and some basic stuff and walked up all the way to Pooh. We could get a stay at one hotel room having 5 beds with double blankets. In that condition, I would call that a comfort. It was getting colder and colder and snow fall was getting heavier. We put a cloth on the window of our room which was missing some panes. As the snow fall continued, we were getting doubtful of being able to leave from Pooh the next day. At the dinner table we met the hotel owner who was kind enough for arranging whatever he could. He asked, “Where are you people heading towards ?” and as we answered that we are heading towards Kaza in Spiti valley, the owner said, “Kaza” ?? Impossible… Don’t even think of going there .. its 4ft snow there and you all should go back to Rampur as it will take many days for the weather and roads to clear up.” So again many in the team started thinking whether we did a mistake of planning a trip in winters.
With a doubt in the mind and I insisting to stay positive about the situation, the day ended in the room having 5 beds, double blankets and a window without a glass ..
Next day, morning arrived with more bad news. It was still heavily snowing outside and now the snow in Pooh itself was around 3 ft. The Road block at Nako and Maling was not yet cleared. Everyone else was getting doubtful about the entire expedition.
The call was taken. We decided to leave Pooh and head back to Rampur. We decided to extend the trip by another 3 days and reschedule our flights from Rampur. So we left from the so called Hotel and took a shortcut, a steep slope down to the main road from the village. With incessant snowfall, climbing down in knee deep snow was not at all an easy task. Somehow, we managed to climb down, then boarded the vehicles and headed back towards Rampur. And there we go again.
There was again a huge huge avalanche on the same spot that was cleared the other day. And with heavy snowfall still happening, there was no way Dozers could come for help. We were stuck without any option than to again head back to Pooh village.
We again headed back and again parked vehicles near the army camp and again started climbing to the Pooh Village on foot but now from the so called shortcut with steep climb this time. Minds were already disheartened and heavy and now body started denying to help. On the way we met so many locals from Pooh village who said many things which did not help at all ….
Things like .. “Abhi aise mausam me yaha kyon aa gaye?” ..“Kaha jana hai ?, Kaza, Mat jao waha”.. “Nahi Jaa paoge” ..
This bombardment of so much negativity only helped my team to be depressed about the whole situation. Somehow we managed to reach the same hotel and everyone was now silent considering the situation. We decided to stay in Pooh till the condition got better. Now the biggest question started peeping into the minds of my team mates was whether to go ahead or cancel it?
I was constantly explaining them to be patient for some more time till the things became clearer and not to conclude anything right away. For that night I was feeling like I was the only person in the room who still believed that it was gonna happen.
To add to the whole drama, an ITBP personnel (Border Police) entered our room suddenly with a register in hand and in his typical Hariyanvi accent, noted down all our names, phone numbers and addresses and mother-father’s information.
We were feeling like we were some victims of something serious. He did not stop at that, the officer stood up and said, “Jab Tak hum nahi bolenge tab tak aap loag yaha se nahi ja sakte.” Then he asked us, “Waise kaha jaa rahe ho tum loag?”
I answered, that we were going to Kaza to see snow leopards…
He replied, “Kaza ?? Pagal toh nahi hoo gaye! Aise mausam me toh waha koi nahi ja sakta. Road hi band ho jati hai. Direct June me khulti hai road. Waha nahi jana hai, wapas Rampur hi jana hai yaha se aur woh bhi jab hum batayenge tabhi. May-June me phirse aa na. Apple khana, maje karna.” And he laughed and instructed our hotel owner not to allow us to leave until his permitted.
Huh … !! I thought, that’s it. This was like the nail in the coffin. All my efforts to make my team remain positive about the expedition went into the dustbin of that room in just 5 mins.
Now some in the team got scared about the whole thing. Backup plans were made to go back to Rampur and head to Corbett or some other destination. And somehow my mind was still not ready to accept this. The day ended again in the room with 5 beds, double blankets, a window without the glass .. I couldn’t sleep the whole night and was constantly thinking about what to do and felt helpless in the end. I gathered all the positive energies I could by remembering so many events which took place in my life, which changed my life and all only because of being positive. Never realized that it took me to a peaceful sleep that night in the middle of chaos.
In the morning, when I opened my eyes and stepped out of the room with a hope, I saw that snowing had stopped but it was still cloudy. I went to bed again and tried sleeping. But after a few hours, I saw sunlight streaming in through the glassless window. An Archangel had finally smiled on us. Clouds started clearing off and in just a few minutes, the whole landscape changed; Blue skies with few scattered white clouds with houses in the Pooh Valley shining brightly. So it was quite a thing to cheer up considering what we had faced in the last 72 hours.
We went outside to capture some landscape shots and few birds started arriving in the near by areas of the hotel. By the time it was evening, the weather was clear and we saw a beautiful sun setting behind the mountains making the Pooh Valley turn into gold.
All of us and our drivers and escort, had a brief discussion and finally it’s been decided that next morning we would take our chance to move forward. Everyone agreed except few who still had some doubts. I instructed everyone to reschedule their flights by 3 more days than previous departure date. And we did it.
I kept my fingers crossed and next day it was bright and clear and finally we left the room with 5 beds, double blankets and a window without the glass, with the hope of not returning to it again ..
Climbing down to army camp from Pooh Village and boarding the vehicles, we finally started our journey towards Kaza. There was thick snow on the road but there was no block on the road. So we slowly kept going forward. As I was continuously scanning the mountain side for any shooting stones and avalanches, one sharp stone came and hit on the windscreen of the sumo which was ahead of us. We stopped and saw a big hole punched through that thick windscreen. It was scary. So whenever there was a mountain ridge on one side, we would scan the tops. At some patches there was snow as thick as 4 ft and we used to get down from the vehicle and used to clear the road.
Somehow we reached Tabo by night. We decided to stay at Tabo overnight as we got the news about the road from Kaza to Kibber being blocked due to more than 4ft snow on the road. We stayed in one of the oldest monasteries, Tabo Monastery. It’s a complete wooden architecture and the rooms were warm and cozy even without any heaters. There was a different calm in that place.
Next day early morning, we explored this beautiful and one of the oldest monasteries. The day was again clear so with sun coming up, the snow started becoming hard and that was bad news. We Started our journey towards Kaza. It started snowing again as we reached Kaza. The Dozers and JCBs has started working towards clearing the road to Kibber but there was a lot of snow, so we decided to make another halt at Kaza for that night. We Explored Kaza market the next day where only a few shops were open.
So throughout the journey I noticed one thing, during peak winters the entire himalayan region becomes dead in terms of day today activities. Markets, hotels, shops, everything is shut and people spend time only inside their houses.
We stayed in another cozy homestay at Kaza. That night we got all our camera batteries charged and our snow gear was out and we were all set and hoping to reach our ultimate destination which was Kibber.
We started late from Kaza as waited for the Dozer to clear the road to Kibber. As we reached the place where the dozer was still working, it was yet to clear the road till Kee village. From that point Kibber was still a good 12 to 14 kms up the mountain and that too a road with 4 ft snow. As we were deciding on what to do next, we saw a few people from our homestay, RedFox at Kibber coming all the way till our vehicle to help us.
We felt so relieved and confident after meeting and talking to them. They were so cheerful and brought smiles on our worried faces. We all walked up to Kee Village and had lunch in one of the houses in that village.
Finally we took THE decision to walk up to village Kibber. And this proved to be the bravest decision in my life later. With those 7 wonderful spitians to help, we gathered some good courage and confidence that we could, to do that.
With the head lights and torch lights ready, around 5.00pm we started our journey towards our ultimate destination Kibber. A destination which I was dreaming and dying to reach for the past 6 days. Now it was only few kilometers away and with every step it was getting closer and closer. It had started snowing again as we went past the Kee Monastery gate. It became dark and snowfall became intense. Head Lights were ON as we continued walking in the falling snow.
The fresh snow was helping in getting the better grip. The snowfall was getting heavier and heavier and air was becoming thinner and thinner as we were gaining altitude. The temperatures must have easily been around -18 to -20 degree Celsius. Breathing was becoming heavier and heavier. We were having water which we carried but later even that froze. With taking small breaks in between, eating snow to quench our thirst, we kept on going forward. We did not have any idea about the distance we covered.
At one point I saw some flames coming towards us. More people from Kibber village were coming to help us when they heard about our condition. They came with flames, with water to drink, with bread, with tea and with chocolates. I felt so warm even in those negative figures of temperature and now as everyone said …
“Bass ab najdik hi hai jee Kibber” … “Ek chadhai hai aur uske baad aap ko gaon ke lights nazar aa jayenge”.. that was a kind of booster for our tired legs.
We kept walking..now there was a thick layer of snow on our jackets and hats and even on our faces and eye lashes as snowfall was getting stronger and stronger and with wind.
Without enough water, muscles started getting cramped. We still kept walking. After some time the thing came … a steep climb of almost 70 degrees … huh …
I was counting each step .. after every 20 steps I was taking a break … air was getting thinner … I started breathing very heavily … again 20 steps and I was out of my breath. I sat down and noticed that I was slipping, so I stopped there standing and gathered some breath and again 20 steps …
That climb felt like an Everest that night… Snow was coming right on the face, eyes and into the nose. But not even once I felt that I was not going to do it.
We finally climbed up that mountain to reach the flat surface on the top and saw some dim lights far ahead. And someone said … “Woh dekho kibber jee” ..
Our legs were so tired that it was leg in leg situation. With every step, the lights were getting brighter.
I still don’t remember the last 50 steps before I reached something which I would call a summit, our ultimate destination, Kibber village.
I was the 1st one from my team to reach the Red Fox Homestay. There were people standing at the gate ready to welcome us. They clicked our photo before we entered the door. And it was 10.40pm when we reached.
I did a lot of tough treks in the past but I will never forget this day and this walk … “it was certainly the walk of my life”..
I was happy, I was very happy, I was proud of myself that I made it and I was happy that I was positive that we would do it and we did it. We were at Kibber finally.
People from Redfox homestay were surprised that we actually climbed all the way till here. They told us that we were the 1st ones (tourists) to do such a thing in peak winter time and those hostile conditions.
As we entered the guest room of RedFox Home stay, we were pleasantly shocked to feel the warmth of that room. The temperature inside the room was +20 degrees.
Everyone was so tired that we went off to sleep in no time. There was a feeling of achievement, satisfaction and happiness, and also, tired legs, hurting lower back, heavy breath, headache and cramped muscles.
Next day was planned for complete rest and acclimatization. Got up in the morning and was amazed to see clear beautiful blue skies of Kibber engulfed under the thick white blanket of Snow. There was a strange calmness felt especially after the chaos we had been through, a few days earlier.
As I opened the window of my room, it was still chilly outside, though the Sun was bright. The temperature was -12 degrees. The RedFox team set up our chemical toilets. It was quite a new concept for me.
Rooms were so cozy and equipped with Tandoors for keeping them warm.
I immediately set up my cameras for time lapse. I was mesmerized to see the landscape of Kibber. It was quite interesting to observe people living in those extreme conditions. We saw people cleaning the snow off their roofs, kids going to school, villagers doing their routine work to survive the extreme cold. Tibetan snow finches were everywhere in large flocks. Yellow-billed and Red-billed Choughs calling loudly everywhere. Every structure was having colorful flags on the roof which were flowing with the wind. Every small thing felt so wonderful.
During the dinner, we planned the strategies for our treks to search for the grey ghost of the mighty mountains of Himalayas. Our luggage was still stuck at Kee Village and we were having only limited gear. I setup all the gears and cameras ready to go the next day.
Now that we were in Kibber already, negativity was nowhere to be seen.
With night fall, the starry sky was so clear that we could see galaxies and clusters by naked eyes. Thought it was around -25 degrees that night, I went to the roof of our homestay and did a 4 hrs long timelapse of the stars and the Milky way.
Sleep was not peaceful as i was getting nightmares of that night we climbed up to Kibber village.
Early morning after tea and breakfast, we started our trek towards Bhadan Nala. It was a gradual climb of 8 kms, one way, so in total 15 to 16 Kms of a day long trek. The day was clear and Sun harsh. Though it was -10 degrees, as we were climbing.I was sweating during that gradual climb. Breathing was one tough job. It was like someone was pressing my nose. At some places the snow was knee deep. By noon we reached the spot. Saw some Yaaks and Blue Sheep on the opposite ridge. Later we saw Golden Eagle and Lammergeier flying in the valley between the two ridges. Our trackers scanned the whole area but no sign of any pugmarks or no sign of the elusive cat.
We waited till evening as this cat moves in the evening and early morning time and spends the rest of the day sleeping on the mountain slopes and rocky ridges. But no luck that day. We came back to the Home Stay. The day ended in the warmth of Redfox homestay and some hopes for the next day.
As there was no movement or signs towards Bhadan Nala, we decided to go to the opposite direction. i.e. towards Gette Village. It was again a gradual climb of 11 Kms. So it was a lonnnng 22km day long trek. Since we were walking into the sun, it was getting tougher as Sun rays were so harsh that we couldn’t remove our sunglasses and balaclavas even briefly.
On our way we got a beautiful sight of a Red fox resting on the rock. It was super camouflage and it took a lot of time to spot one though it was very close. Finally our trackers found pugmarks of a cat. We followed it till the point where pugmarks vanished. Snow was getting deeper and deeper. And we decided to wait on the adjacent mountain top. We could see Kee Monastery down from the top of that mountain. We waited till evening but again no movement or any sign of the cat.
We started trekking back towards Kibber, on the way scanning the area around, but no luck. It was quite disappointing especially after 22 kms day long tiring trek. And it was taking a toll on the body big time. Calf muscles were cramped and I was very tired after we reached our homestay. I called up my wife Shruti and spoke to my son who said, “Daddy don’t worry I will pray for you. You will see a snow leopard tomorrow.”
I did not even eat much and went off to sleep.
Again in the morning, we decided to go towards Bhadan Nala again. We started the trek but now it was much colder as it was not a clear day. With cramped calf muscles, my speed had reduced and I was walking slowly than others. We reached Bhadan Nala. The trackers were scanning the area for any possible signs but I guess God had decided to test us more.
As we were waiting at the edge of one ridge, we saw one golden eagle flying near the opposite ridge and it suddenly landed and there was another perching there already. And to our surprise we actually witnessed two golden eagles mating and their courtship and the interaction between male and female and how the female confirmed by bringing the nesting material and doing fly past over the male. Amazing behavior. We spent almost the entire day with this pair. It was evening and it was time to return. I was happy and excited to witness and shoot this rarest of the behavior of the golden eagles. The team was disheartened as it was the 3rd day of a tough trek but without any signs of “Shan” (local word for Snow Leopard).
One of them said, “Nahi Dikhega snow leopard.. Itna mehenat karne par bhi nahi dikhega .. bahot mushkil hai use dhundna .. “ I nodded my head and said, “Itna karke himmat mat haro … dikhega … we have to see one..
We started our descent towards Kibber and i was way behind from the rest of the group as I was walking slowly and still scanning the area for the elusive cat. Suddenly everyone from the group stopped.
I reached there and found out that there was one of our trackers right on the top of the tall snow mountain and signalling something to us. He was so high up on the top that we had to use a binocular to confirm if it was one of our team mates. One of the senior trackers who was with us, inspected with the binoculars about the signal made by the tracker on the mountain. And he said – “Sir, isse dikh raha hai shan, bula raha hai hume” … My heart started beating very fast the very moment.
It was 5.15 PM , Sun had gone down behind the mountains already and light was dying fast. I looked up to the mountaintop and not once did I think that I won’t be able to do it.
Though others in the team were reluctant to go as it was already evening, light was dying and body was tired due to day long trek. And that Mountain top was easily 150-200 meters straight up with very steep climb. One of my teammates –
Sagar … “hum nahi pahuch payenge, kal dekhte hai”
I told my team mates –
“The reason why we came to this place after so much of struggle and risk, is just there up on this mountain top.
The reason for which we prepared for this trip for the past 6 months, is just few steps away. The reason for which we pushed our body and mind beyond the limits, is right there on that mountain. “
And if you ask me – “ What will you do” ? I will say, “Whatever It takes” …
And I started climbing. Body was so tired. I was breathing heavily. I was counting steps and after every 10 steps i was taking a pause for a moment to catch up my breath.
Temperature was dropping fast.
Light was dying fast …
It was a race between Dream and Destiny …
Climb was so steep and snow was hardened , so it was getting difficult to get a grip.
I put everything in my legs whatever i could ..
Keeping my speed up…
Cramped Calf muscles started getting twisted with every step.
Throat became so dry that it started hurting …
Now our senior tracker reached and now he started signaling to come fast and snow leopard is right there ,,
Now i slowly started seeing tabletop of the mountain …
Last 10 steps to go and i was out of my breath completely…
I was not even able to stand ..i tried sitting on that steep slope but started slipping off ..
Again stood up … and was literally throwing my foot and stamping it firmly to get the grip.
One more ..
One more .. Praying to the mountain god, “Please god …. Just a little more strength to climb 2 more steps … please “
In the end crawled with using hands to grip something to pull myself up …
And there i was on the top ..
Breathing heavily .. not being able to talk ..
Nostrils were burning …
Not being able to hear .. not being able to see ..
For a moment i thought that would be end of it and i would go unconscious …
It took me few moments to come into my senses when i saw my tracker saying –
Sir ye dekho aapke samne …..
And what i saw was …………………
Moment of my life ….
Moment of truth …
Moment which was made for me …
Moment which was earned …
World’s rarest, majestic and most elusive creature with near mythical status, walking gracefully on the slope of the mountain in knee deep snow. Tossing the snow with its every step.
And it stopped …..and looked at me ……..
The Snow Leopard, The Myth, The Grey Ghost Of the Mighty Himalayas …
I first saw him with my bare eyes for quite some time and then sat on the ground to realise that it was not a table top and it was thin edge on the mountain top with slopes on both side .. I sat down at the same position and quickly setup my video cameras and still cameras.
Slope was so steep that i started slipping down the slope. I screamed for help .. Two of my trackers were quick enough to reach me and hold me from my jacket and one went to catch my Video camera that went way down the slope. I was still shooting … not missing the single moment …
The moment which i earned …
This magnificent cat walked down one edge and started climbing on another right in front and now it was right on the eye level.
I never imagined that i would be able to see it this close. As few of the initial shots of this cat was full frame at 1000mm with tail getting cut from the frame.
It kept walking in the deep snow taking pauses in between and turning towards me to look directly at me.
It turned 7 times. After reaching the adjacent mountain top it decided to sit there .. it sat and looked towards me … and i took my eyes away from my viewfinder to just keep looking at it.
It got up and disappeared behind the huge rock on the top.
Everyone started wishing each other ..
And I … went flat on the slope from the sitting position ..
Broke out crying ….
I couldn’t stop my self. Cried like a child …
For that moment
I saw myself struggling to fight with the negativity ,
I saw myself sitting scared at the edge of the seat of the vehicle for any landslide or Avalanche that could come and hit any moment…
I saw myself pushing my body beyond the limit while climbing to Kibber village that night in the snow storm…
I saw myself losing my breath,
I saw myself falling from the slopes in the snow zillion times ..
I saw myself talking to the God … Praying and begging to the Nature and Mountain Gods, Arch Angels to give me strength to make it possible..
I saw Myself trying hard to convince my team about making this happen..
I saw myself convincing myself at every step ..
I saw myself compromising on so many things ,
I saw myself away from my family who was worried about my whereabouts in those mighty mountains..
I saw myself for last 12 days upto this very moment .. struggling to be here ..
I saw myself fighting with myself to make my dream into a destiny …
How could I express all these without the purest of the emotions …
Everyone gathered around me and i was still crying …
My tracker patted my shoulder and said … “Sir, Badhai ho jee .. “
I took his hand in my hand and said … Thank You .. !!
After asking for so much … it was time to thank almighty … I thanked god and all those who wished.
I got up and found everyone to be very happy and they were celebrating. We hugged each other tightly to share that moment which completely belonged to us.
We took a group Photo. It was almost the last light as we started our descend from that tallest mountain around to deep down to village Kibber. It was very very steep slope and we realised how fast we climbed it initially ..
Senior tracker said … “Aur koi hota toh nahi chad pata itna … “
He said that we could get such a close sighting only because we decided to climb up else we could have just got the glimpse from a very long distance.
Everyone was happy and congratulating each other. It was like everyone was charged up even after the most hectic day. Trackers would have covered almost 30 KMs walking for scanning all adjacent mountains searching for the cat for the entire day and they were dead tired.
We reached, Everyone checked their images and videos to find them amazingly awesome and everyone was on cloud 9. As soon as i reached i called up my wife, they were waiting for my call. They were so happy to hear that at last i got to see that cat. My son was so excited and happy.
We threw a party and invited the whole team of cooks, porters, Guides, Trackers …. Everyone for a dinner the next day. It was them who helped us the most to make this happen.
One of my teammate opened his photo of a snow leopard and kept looking at it for hours admiring the sheer magnificence and beauty of this illusive Cat.
Our trackers were confident that they could again track this snow leopard the next day by following the tracks. So we got super excited for our second encounter.
Body was dead tired though .. But excitement and satisfaction took over everything including food and sleep. 🙂
For the whole night i just couldn’t sleep. I knew that this day “Feb 3rd” will always be celebrated as one of my best days of my life.
Got up in the morning. There were strong winds. It was onset for snow storm. But we decided to go.
We started our trekking. We followed the tracks of the snow leopard we saw last evening but tracks disappeared due to flowing snow in the snow storm and it led us to the mountain ridge which is way below the Kibber Village in terms of altitude.
We reached the vantage point on the opposite ridge. Wind was getting stronger and stronger. We Spotted couple of Ibex on the opposite ridge.
We again waited at the same spot , but i guess as it is said, everyday is not a sunday …
It was not our day.
During our way back snow storm started and it was getting tougher and tougher to walk.
Body was completely wore down … i was the slowest that day at certain point i was not being able to walk even for 8 steps in a go … i was taking a break after every sten steps …
Storm became so strong that i was not being to see anything in the front.
And i guess it was the day where my body decided to stop responding to my mind which was forcing it for so many days. I was feeling sorry for it to have stretched it this much.
But i had to reach and reach before it gets dark. I kept walking and snow storm was getting stronger and stronger. There was snow everywhere on my face, on my jacket, on my cap. I dragged my body some how upto the village where others were waiting for me to come. I almost decided that it would be last day i would do the trekking.
After we reached, i was feeling so exhausted but it was time for the celebration and after a brief rest, we all gathered in the Redfox main room for a party. It was so good to see everyone extremely happy and satisfied that evening. We spoke about the entire sequence of that sighting.
Everyone told us that we were the first amongst tourist who came all the way walking from Kaza to Kibber that too in Peak winters. Everyone praised us for our courage and our positivity to make this happen. So our success was celebrated over the local wine and some amazing local food.
After the Party and dinner,
finally we decided to not to go searching for snow leopard the next day as the snowstorm had become worst by night. So we decided to conclude our trip with the last day for local village walk.
Somehow i had a very peaceful sleep that night. I was still getting nightmares of the day we climbed to kibber that night.
I woke up in the morning even before the alarm. As a routine, i fired up the Tandoor as it was extremely cold. After setting up the tandoor i entered the blanket again. After sometime Room became warm. It was 5.00 AM in the morning. Light was just about to break out.
I opened the curtain of the windows that there was a strong wind outside with snow flowing everywhere. I just kept looking at the last house on the ridge of kibber village.
I saw something jumping on lower edge of that ridge. Initially i tried relating the shape and size with the dog .. but it was way bigger. It was brushing itself against the rock.
I quickly grabbed my binoculars … opened the window and checked …
Freak my guess was right ..
My god ..
It was had to believe what i was watching …
On the top of my voice i screamed …..”Snow Leopard”
My room partner thought i am making a fun of him …
I ran to my camera bag, grabbed my camera pointed out .. ooops no battery ..
It was kept for charging..
I quickly inserted the battery .. pointed the camera …
One Burst … Trrrrrrrrrrrrrr
And it went on the other side of ridge ..
My room Partner came running, and i showed him the photos ..
It was indeed a Snow Leopard.
OMG… It was hard to believe.
I screamed so loudly that, even my tracker who was living down the slope and others in the village heard the scream. My tracker came running to my room. I showed him the photo and exact spot where i saw one. He said no one in the village has ever saw the snow leopard actually coming in the village. He also said that he has never seen a leopard going pass that ridge on the edge of the village.
Locals came running as well, they confirmed that they never saw snow leopard coming this closer to the village. Many started wishing me for my sighting right from the window of RedFox homestay.
It was still windy and snow storm was on. Still Our tracker said we will go immediately and there are good chances that we could see this cat.
Next moment we were all ready and i was the 1st one to rush with my lens on. On the way i could see that the news had already spread that i had spotted the cat and everyone was wishing me and they were also coming to see the Cat.
It was first time for many in the village as many of the villagers were yet to see this cat. Cat coming this close to the village was like opportunity not to be missed.
My tracker signalled that Cat is resting just under the same ridge on the other side.
There was a steepest slop to reach from the other side so that we could see it.
So I literally went sliding straight down at the bottom of the ridge into the deep gorge. Again Climbed on the opposite ridge to come to the level where the cat was resting. It took me a lot of time to climb as it was very steep and snow was very deep. At some places it was more than knee deep.
In this Adeline i realised that i actually forgot to wear snow gloves and while sliding down, snow went inside my thin gloves … My left hand started to freeze.
As i set up my tripod and camera, I realised that there is absolutely no sensation in my hands … I started stamping my hand on nearby rock .. and there was no sensation. My tracker saw me doing this and he realised it. He came running and asked me to remove those thin gloves and started rubbing it with all his strength.
Finally there was some sensation in my right hand .. and i started shooting. My tacker was still rubbing my left hand as it had become like a hard ice. My finger was refusing to bend. Somehow i started clicking and found the shots to be out of focus and realized that its my thumb is still not reacting to operate the back focus button, i changed the setting to AF on shutter button and started shooting.
Snow leopard was so camouflaged on that ridge that it almost felt like a rock. Snow Storm was still on and snow was flowing with strong winds.
Wind was so strong that, it was getting all white so much so that i couldn’t even see person standing next to me.
Snow was going inside the hood so i stopped shooting and kept the camera covered.
After sometime the intensity of the storm reduced and my cameras were out.
I shot good amount of video and stills and then saw people in the village started gathering on the top of that ridge. Some started climbing down to see the cat.
Local dogs started barking and Snow leopard was looking at them. I realised that cat won’t stay there for long and it would make the movement.
We quickly went down in the gorge and decide to wait so that if leopard moves from the top of the ridge we can get some shots.
We waited in anticipation that leopard would walk on the top of the ridge and would go to other side. We all started looking up on the ridge… 5 mins , 10 mins…
And our tracker screamed … “Sirrrrrr!!! Snow Leopard aa raha hai …!!!
I started scanning on the top … But to our surprise …
It was actually coming from down the gorge where we were standing….
Snow Leopard Sprinting towards us … with snow flying everywhere …
Dream like ….
I pressed the shutter at will …
It surprised to find us in the gorge and immediately changed the way and taking big leaps in the knee deep snow, disappeared behind the adjacent mountain ridge.
I just can’t describe how I felt ..
It was too much to sink in whatever happened…
To see the snow leopard right from the window and then this … such a close encounter with this majestic cat that, we could hardly get him completely in the frame.
We were not at all ready for such a close encounter as we were anticipating that it would cross from the top of the ridge. We followed the tracks ahead on the adjacent mountain but he went very far on opposite mountainside. And snow storm was getting stronger so we decided to return.
It was too hard to believe whatever happened.
As we returned to the village, local villagers said that this is the older leopard which had attacked their livestock in the past but no one had ever seen him this close to the village. And I was the luckiest one. Local Lama said, Believe in Karma, Whatever you do…Comes back to you..
When we saw the 1st leopard after such a hardship and we were super happy and satisfied with whatever we got, this whatever happened on 5th march 2017 was difficult to be explained and i guess it was destined to happen with me and my team.
Next day, 6th March we returned from Kibber to Kaza. Again we had to come back walking till Key Village as due to snowstorm there was a lot of snow deposition on the road. It took us another 2 days to reach back to Chandigarh due to landslide at Maling Nala and again we were stuck in Maling village. I returned with so many precious moments, tried body, weightloss of 7 kgs, severe constipation, burnt nose, infinite cramps and nightmares from that night on 30th Jan when we climbed upto Kibber. I still get those nightmares sometimes.
But Whatever happened on Feb 5th 2017 will remain as my luckiest day ever. Just can’t thank god for choosing me for it.
High Resolution SnowLeopard Images Here – http://www.sagargosavi.photography/index/G0000yu.EGyhDUeM
There is an extension to this story of 5th Feb 2017. It was necessary to write this as unfortunately there is a lot of confusion and misconception spread due to series of events which happened after we left Kibber on 6th Feb. I am writing this with the 1st hand information on the whole event from people from Kibber.
This older snowleopard again visited the village for couple of times between 8th to 12th Feb.
On 14th Feb it was seen in very weak condition with some injuries, on a ridge adjacent to the village and it was not able to even move. Some local villager had his donkey died of a disease and he offered the dead donkey to this leopard.
During this time there was some team of photographers who photographed this leopard on the donkey carcass claiming to be the closest sighting ever and even days later it remain at the same place.
Unfortunately on 22nd feb, this leopard died. The reason of the death was given as old age. The same was covered by Bedi sir.
The news published by Snowleopard Conservancy – Report By Kalzang Gurmet, Field Coordinator NCF India, Spiti
Report Says –
One February morning, after a heavy snowfall , I was busy clearing up my terrace when I suddenly heard a boy scream. Assuming the boy might have spotted something at the cliff, I decided to ignore him and focus on finishing my task of clearing the snow. But just a short while later, to my surprise, I saw a gentleman running towards the cliff with a huge lens on his shoulder, followed by a local carrying another set of lenses to assist him.
“The Boy” who screamed (in the report) was me, on Feb 5th, when i saw this leopard coming to the village for the very 1st time. “The Gentleman with huge lens(in the report)” was me.
When I sighted it, it was in good health without any injuries and we saw him running swiftly with big leaps which nowhere looked like a weak leopard.
We Saw 2 different leopards as we matched the features. This is not for the “race for numbers” but species with status of Snow Leopard deserves serious documentation.
This Extension is for few souls who think that, whatever i photographed was the staged sighting and it was a baited leopard. 🙂 Many even started putting posts on social media.I have only one thing to say to such souls –
Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.
Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.
Wish you all the Success.
Detail Video Documentary on the same –
- Is this mean Snow leopards are no more Elusive ? – Read the blog and you will understand.
- Now you won’t find any snow leopard easily near kibber since this old leopard is dead ? – http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/in-a-first-3-snow-leopards-spotted-together-in-spiti/articleshow/57968339.cms
- So is it dangerous to go to Spiti in Winters ? – not always. Somehow situation during my trip was the worst. Heaviest snowfall Spiti has received in last many years.
- Does this mean that its easy to spot a snow leopard ? – Easy provided you do your best to make it easy. Snow leopards are there, you just need to do your best to increase your chances of sighting.
- Are Snow leopard numbers increasing ? – Probably, Yes. As now local communities have stopped killing these cats. Instead many communities are now helping to save them and their habitat. Kyrgyzstan is the best example.
- Snow Leopard Tourism ? – Its actually helping locals to make a living out of tourism which in turn helping in saving Snow Leopards as many communities now turned towards tourism instead of killing the snow leopards to save their livestock.
This all was not possible without the limitless help from the RedFox Team from Kibber Village. Big THANKS to all of you. Also Thanks to my team in believing in me.