THE QUEST FOR SNOW LEOPARDS
I had been planning this project for almost a year - photographing snow leopards and other rare Himalayan wildlife. This trip was planned as a recon trip, to get a lay of the land and figure out a strategy for getting good shots of each of the species on my list. And thus it was that on the morning on November 2, I, joined by Shay Cohen (a keen wildlife photographer, former Photo Safari India client and now friend), were sitting on a Kingfisher flight bound for Leh.
Now, going into the trip, I was aware that snow leopards would be hard to photograph - November is simply not cold enough for these elusive cats to come down from their rarefied heights into the valleys where there is a good chance of spotting them. However, hope springs eternal and I was hoping to atleast catch a glimpse of the leopard, if not get a photo.
We spent a couple of days in Leh, acclimatizing and doing the tourist thing. A very pleasant surprise was that despite the temperatures hovering between 0 and -10C, it did not feel that cold - the dry air, combined with the strong sun, meant that a good fleece and a woollen hat were all that it took to stay warm. And our hotel, the Oma Shila, used intelligent design (double paned glass bay windows facing the sun) to absorb and retain heat.
After a day and a half of rest, we took a trip down to Hemis Monastery, and a walk up to the Meditation Point. The walk started easily enough but the gradient soon picked up, and as this was my first high-altitude walk after 2 months of rehabbing from surgery, I was struggling for air all the way to the top. However, my pains were quickly forgotten when a casual look across the narrow valley revealed a herd of 10 blue sheep on the other side, Obviously somewhat habituated to humans, these hardy, hooved herbivores mostly ignored us as they browsed on the scant, stunted shrubbery (ok, I'll stop with the alliterations) growing on the hillside. The distance was perfect for shootingt; however, the light was less than stellar, so the photography was average or so, at best. Still, this was a much closer encounter than typical, and was a good start to the trip.
We also got a few bird species - the omnipresent black-billed magpie and great tits, rock and hill pigeons, white winged redstarts, a juvenile pallid harrier, common raven, red and yellow billed choughs and rufous-breasted accentor.
The next day, we were in business. We took a jeep to the start of Hemis National Park and from there, started the 3 hour hike to Rumbak Valley, which was going to be our home for the next few days. It was an easy enough hike along the river bed, criss-crossing the stream. We spotted numerous chukar en route, and an abandoned golden eagle nest, but not much else. Due to a late start leaving Leh, we only got into Rumbak by late afternoon, and by the time we gulped down the instant noodles and tea, it was too late to do much else. And once the sun dropped behind the mountains and shade descended on the valley, so did the cold. It was time for multiple layers, fleece and Goretex shells when outside. Sensibly, we spent most of the evenings huddled around the stove in the kitchen of the Ladakhi family in whose home we were staying. The rooms were very clean, very comfortable and provided a reasonable amount of protection from the cold. The food was simple, but wholesome. All in all, much more comfortable than camping.
We woke up fairly early the next day and after breakfast, decied to explore a couple of the valleys in the area. The morning walk did not reveal much, other than a large herd of blue sheep on a mountainside several klometers away. On the way back, we noticed another herd of blue sheep, much closer this time, and were able to have a good session observing and photographing them.
The plan for the following day was to hike along a second valley up to a high-altitude pass. However, all the plans went for a toss when Sonam, our guide, rushed over to us when we were having breakfast and uttered the magic word: "Shaan" (Ladakhi for "snow leopard"). Dropping everything, we rushed to the scope but by then, the leopard had dropped out of sight along the ridge of a peak on the other side of the valley.
Change of plans - we decided to climb the peak on our side and see if we could get a glimpse of the leopard from a different vantage point. Sonam went on ahead and we followed a few minutes later. Shay suddenly got very animated and started pointing at the next slope over - two red foxes, with their gorgeous, fluffy tails and thick furry coats, were scampering along the mountainside. Too far for my 400 lens, I set up my Televue 85 refractor (which, when paired with the proper adapters and spacers, gives the equivalent of 3000mm+ of focal length), but without a tripod, was unable to get critically sharp shots. Still, it was an exciting encounter - we lay flat on our bellies atop a crest while, a few hundred meters away, two foxes went about their business, oblivious to our presence. A moment to savor indeed - and that was good, because after this, we faced some of the most gruelling climbing I have ever done in the Himalayas: straight up the slopes at a gradient of 35-50 degrees, gaining 700m of elevation during this climb. And did I mention the loose rocks that slipped and slid below one's feet? Trying very hard not to think about the prospect of going DOWN on this slippery slope, and trying even harder to ignore my lung's desperate pleas for oxygen, I struggled up the slope, finally reaching the top of the ridge. And what a view awaited us - we were literally on the roof of the world, looking down on the mountains. We discovered fresh leopard prints, fresh leopard diggings and even damp leopard urine - but no leopards themselves. The cat on the other ridge was either gone or in hiding, and the only thing visible was a golden eagle getting mobbed by a group of pugnacious choughs. After a few hours of scanning the area, it was time to head down. The less said about that climb down, the better. Suffice to say, it was a miracle we didn't slip and fall, and my knees were sore for 4 days afterwards. Even Sonam, our guide and part mountain goat himself, muttered something about this being a pretty rough climb.
The next few days were similar - lots of walking and scanning. We spotted argali, more golden eagles, a few lammergeirs and of course, plenty of blue sheep. But no more foxes and no shaans. But we were able to scout out a couple of good locations for setting camera traps - Sonam had also guided the National Geo team that had set up the camera traps which produced the winning images in the 2008 BBC Wildlife Awards, and that greatly helped in narrowing down the choices: while NG can put up 25 traps, your truly can only afford 1 or 2, at most, so I have to make them count.
After this, it was time to try for wolves, in Tso Kar. Thus, a couple of days after our return from Rumbak, we were off, crossing Tanglang La (at 5200m) and then descending into the high-altitude Moray Plains (4500m), where Tso Kar is located. Now we were in a different league of cold altogether. I was wearing a base layer, 2 additional layers including a thick, windproof fleece and a heavy duty Goretex shell on top of all this, and the wind was still cutting through me like a knife. Exposing any bare skin even for a few minutes meant numbness. And right at the onset, we got some unfortunate news: the homestay where we were planning to stay was closed. So we had to take over an abandoned building with broken windows and a door that would not stay closed. Yes, it was cold. The only redeeming fact was that we did most of our wildlife searching from the jeep. I did spent 30 minutes by the lakeside waiting for a photograph, and then had to spend the next hour or so sitting next to a stove to thaw.
Kiang (Tibetan wild ass) were plentiful in Tso Kar, but very shy and did not let us get too close, even inside a jeep. Ultimately, I had to take over the wheel from our driver and spend a good amount of time in carefully approaching them in order to get a few good photos. We also saw golden eagles, horned larks, lammergeiers, an unidentified accipiter, Tibetan sand grouse & bar headed geese, but of the wolf, there was no sign. After a couple of days, we moved to another village a couple of hours away, and this turned up a bunch of pika (small rodents) but same luck when it came to wolves. According to the local shepherd, no wolves had been sighted in the region for a while. Thus, it was a very deflated bunch that was sitting in the jeep as it wound along the road, climbing towards Tanglang La. I was looking out of the window, trying to ID a flock of larks which were flying alongside the road when both Sonam and I spotted something moving in the plains. The gait was unmistakable. "Wolf", yelled 2 excited voices as the driver brought the jeep to a screetching halt. We sat and waited, and soon, the solitary wolf trotted onto the road, gave us a look, and then kept trotting. TOUCHDOWN! And to make things even better, a scant 10 km away, we saw a red fox on the road!
The next stop was Ulley, where the target species were red fox and ibex, along with a chance at snow leopards. However, I had been struggling with a stomach bug before coming to Ladakh and in Ulley, I made the mistake of having some locally-brewed beer with our hosts - and that night, the stomach bug was back in force. So we had to cut short this segment of the trip and return to Leh. By the time the stomach bug ran its course, we were running out of time and as with all good things, our Ladakh trip had reached its end. But for me, this was just the start of what is shaping up to be a multi-year project.
I have one rule in the mountains - keep it light. There is nothing worse than carrying a heavy load at high altitudes, where the thin air and low oxygen make every extra pound seem like ten. Not only does it make the hiking much harder, but the additional fatigue from carrying all this heavy equipment means that one is less likely to be in a receptive frame of mind for photography.
So I left the 500/4 and 1-series bodies at home and packed, instead, a 400/5.6 and a 50D. For wideangles, I took a 17-40/4L and for general shooting, a Ricoh GX-100. A pair of Pentax 10x42 SP binoculars and a Pentax PF65ED scope with 30x eyepiece mounted on a Gitzo 1228Mk2 tripod and Arca Swiss head rounded off the rest of my gear.
I also took a Televue 85 astro scope with me but did not use it much, as we were moving too much to make shooting with a 8lb setup practical.
The 400/5.6 was useful from a jeep, but for general wildlife, it was far too small. Ladakh is long-lens territory - however, this has to be balanced against the practicalities of carrying heavy gear and hiking at high altitudes. A good compromise would be a high-quality digiscoping setup, I think.
In high altitudes, a few rules need to be adhered to strictly - first of all, make sure you acclimatize properly. Do not rush it,, no matter what. Keep yourself hydrated, keep a basic first aid kit on you at all times (including a splint) and above all, keep yourself warm and dry. When hiking, one tends to sweat a lot - and when activity ceases, this moisture evaporates and can cause quick hypothermia. -20C is not THAT cold, in the grand scheme of things, but when you don't have any opportunities to warm up the body's core temperature, it is cold enough to cause severe problems if you are not ready.
Ladakh is slow going when it comes to wildlife. You have to be a nature or wildlife enthusiast first, and photographer second. If you are merely looking to check off photos, you are best off going elsewhere. On the other hand, if you are able to appreciate the beauty of unspoiled nature even if you don't get a photo to show for it, if the journey is as important to you as the destination, this is truly paradise.