It was a fantastic experience. After many years and countless attempts, I managed to photograph a wild snow leopard close up. It was the longest and most strenuous trip I’ve ever done to photograph the rare and shy cat.
At the start of the tour in December 2016 the conditions on site were anything but favorable, because snow was only sporadic available. So I spent a week of acclimatization in Leh – the provincial capital of the Indian state Jammu & Kashmir which is located at about 3500 meters above the sea level – without snow. Shortly after my arrival at the “Kushok Bakula Rinpoche” airport, my body reported the normal “alarm signals” caused by the big difference in altitude, such as, for example, headache. From the previous trips to the region, this response of my body and how to cope with it was still good in my memory. So I pulled back and started to move very slowly. In the first days I took around three litres of water and tea daily and made only short walks in the city. So my body adapted quite quickly to the already enormous height. Of course, I could hardly wait to go into the wilderness and to the cats, but a good acclimatization was first and foremost because there were almost four months at even higher altitudes in front of me.
On Christmas Eve 2016 the adventure started, a driver took me to the first area I had selected, almost one hundred kilometers away from the provincial capital. With forty kilos of equipment, spread over two backpacks, I faced the first big challenge. The complete equipment had to be brought up to the mountains at more than 4,000 meters in height, alone on my own without any helpers. It was a first day with incredible effort. Each path had to be crossed twice, because I could not carry the enormous weight of the two backpacks at once up into the valley. So I had to do it bit by bit, put one backpack as far as I could up into the mountains and then walk back to pick up the second one. After more than five hours, I had found a suitable location for the tent and set it up. One rarely finds sites which are flat for the tent and so I had to fight with gradients and stones. Due to the frozen ground, it was not possible to create a balance. So many sleepless nights followed, ISO mat and sleeping bag just did not stay in their place.
The routine I gained in my previous journeys came back quickly. At about five o’clock in the morning, watch the surroundings around the tent through the camera and then, when the sun did warm up the tent around ten o’clock in the morning, leave the tent briefly to dry the sleeping bag and get about two litres of water from the small trickle. I kept the times outside the tent deliberately very brief, the valley should look “safe” as always for the wild animals and so I did spent hardly more than thirty minutes daily outside the tent.
The field of view from the tent was very small due to the used large focal length of 500mm and the small opening in the tent and so I was always afraid that the cat could move around the tent and I wouldn’t see it. It was a very stressful and painful endeavor, because I had to sit constantly with twisted upper body in the tent to be able to look through the viewfinder of the camera.
And then a first small highlight in the end of December ‘16. In the late afternoon, when it was almost too dark to be able to take pictures without a huge picture noise, I heard a well-known sound. Stones rolled down the rock wall and it was not a single animal but many who were there. They came out of the rock wall to the small plain on which I had set up my tent, to get still existing grasses and bushes. I could not see them at first, but after a few minutes, I had the first visual contact. Several Ibex stood directly in front of my tent and looked suspiciously in my direction. They had instantly recognized that something was wrong here, and after a little thought, they performed the typical alarm calls to tell the other members of the group that it’s dangerous to stay and instantly they started to run away down the valley – a terrific spectacle…
A week later arrived in the new year, I had a further and very important success. During a short stay outside the tent, I could see the first traces of the snow leopard in the valley, a bit lower from my tent. An exciting and exciting moment! I did choose the right valley, the cat was here at night! Now it was necessary to find out if and when the cat would use this path once again and be ready at the decisive moment. In order to have a better overview on the surroundings of the tracks, I decided to change the position of my tent. This was a complex undertaking, because the entire tent must be removed and set up again. Fortunately for the first time it was snowing continually, a great advantage, because it allowed to see the traces of the cat much better.
The temperatures at night were as low as -15 °, which is obviously above those I had experienced years ago in this season. This is probably a result of the climate change. To spend weeks camping in solitude without contact with humans and with less than 1000KCal of food daily is not easy, one loses very fast body weight and the run out of energy is also very quickly noticeable. Thus, one’s own body is almost always in the emergency mode and confined itself only to keep the important parts of the body warm.
Now it was just waiting, an incredibly grueling wait for the “King of the Himalayas”. Would the cat show up again? Or was it just a short meeting in the valley? The planned time in this valley was coming to an end, soon I would return to the provincial capital for a short stay, and after two or three days move to another valley. I could not see the cat, no traces or hints that it was still here. But then, when I had almost given up and let my mind dream of standing under a warm shower in the accommodation in Leh, the king appeared in front of my tent. In the late afternoon and twenty metres in front of my tent, he paused and looked suspiciously into my camera lens. I stared – motionless, I stared through the viewfinder and almost forgot to press the trigger in the excitement. For several minutes, the cat was standing in front of my tent, trying to figure out what it was about, and whether danger threatened, then to take a leisurely step to the little trickle that I also used as water supply to quench it’s thirst.
It was an incredible experience, an incredible sense of happiness and a great compensation for all the efforts.
Only one more time I would get a close view on a wild snow leopard in this tour before this exciting journey ended. And after almost four months and with almost fifteen kilos less bodyweight I returned to Germany.