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. 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, 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 — the species' average gestational period, by the way — because, when I was too young to know this wasn't possible, I wanted to grow up to be one.
Snow leopards 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.
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 their worldwide population vary greatly, but the highest is only about 7,500. They're also solitary, camouflaged and not particularly large: usually less than 2 feet tall and, not including those fabulous tails, between 3 and 5 feet long.
Among wildlife watchers, snow leopards are called "ghost cats," "mountain ghosts" and "ghosts of the mountains."
Thanks to several residents who are master wildlife trackers, the Ulley Valley is among the most reliable places in the world to see a snow leopard in the wild.
I eventually amended my snow leopard dream: I would see one in the wild.
Twenty-nine years later I book a spot on a snow leopard safari. I find a trip organized by andBeyond, a travel company that specializes in wildlife-focused trips worldwide. Starting and ending in Delhi, it is 11 days and includes six nights at the Snow Leopard Lodge in the Ulley Valley and also the eagle eyes of wildlife spotters Tsewang Norboo and Tsetan Namgail.
I pick this trip because since andBeyond started running it in 2017, according to its travel planners, between 80 and 90% of groups have seen a snow leopard.
As many facts about snow leopards as I can spout, I realize quickly after arriving in Ladakh that I know little about their landscape. For starters, it's not super-snowy here. In the shadow of the Himalayas, the region gets only about 4 inches of precipitation annually. More challenging for snow leopard spotting is the landscape's scale and complexity.
Beginning the hunt
Before the start of the andBeyond trip, I arranged for what I imagined was 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 and there's little English and no running water but 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. 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. It looks like it offers great views, and also to be an achievable scramble.
Even though my body has not yet adapted to the 11,000-foot elevation, I head for it, leaving my guide watching me from below. I start slowly. Very quickly I get even slower. Wrinkles, undulations, outcrops, boulders and caves unseen from the bottom reveal themselves with every step. Breathing is the easy part.
I don't make it up more than 200 feet.
By the time I return from Hemis and meet the andBeyond group in Leh, Ladakh's most populous city (about 50,000 people), I'm mostly used to the altitude. Fresh off the plane from Delhi, none of the rest of the group is.
Shortness of breath isn't the only worry at high altitude, where the number of oxygen molecules you get per breath is about half of what you get at sea level. Altitude sickness, caused by going too high too fast, can cause headaches, nausea and dizziness and, at its extreme end, high altitude pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal buildup of fluid in the lungs.
Spending two or three nights in Leh, at 11,500 feet elevation, lessens the likelihood of getting altitude sickness when we move up to the Snow Leopard Lodge, which is at 14,300 feet.
Leh has Buddhist temples and Ladakhi historical sites including Leh Palace, home of the Ladakhi royal family from the early 1600s until the mid 1800s. The days pass quickly. Still I count the hours until our departure for the Snow Leopard Lodge.
When we pull into the lodge's dirt parking lot 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 free. Donkeys, goats and sheep are kept in leopard-proof mesh-topped pens.
Most lodge rooms have private bathrooms, and all of its bathrooms have running water and Western-style toilets. Every evening, staff members tuck bladders of hot water between guests' sheets. Every morning, a hot beverage of your choice is delivered to your room.
The first spotting session starts after lunch. Namgail, Norboo and Stanzin, Norboo's middle son and manager of the Snow Leopard 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. 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 back.
The presence of ibex, a species of mountain goat, bodes well for a snow leopard sighting. 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!"
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 acclimatization, I accompany Norboo on a tracking expedition to a low pass, a known snow leopard crossing.
It is a 1,000-foot clamber up steep, loose terrain to the pass. I struggle with trekking poles, but Norboo walks easily, even with a tripod and spotting scope slung over a shoulder. He stops to set this up and scan for wildlife just often enough and long enough for me to catch up. He also stops to point out signs of snow leopards.
At an overhanging school-bus-sized boulder, Norboo finds tracks in the dirt, seeing signs of a mom and two cubs. Next is a rubbing rock with several strands of snow leopard fur clinging to it.
Norboo lifts up 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 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.
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.
After a few days of searching the valley, Namgail finds the family while scanning from a spot a two-minute walk from the lodge.
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 top of a rock on the ridgeline and the cubs are running and jumping below her.
Through the scope I scan the visible section of ridgeline, but see no snow leopards. I see only the same empty, hostile landscape I've seen the past 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, mom finally becomes visible. We watch the cats until it gets too dark to see them anymore, about an hour. That night, childhood dreams fill my sleep.