Dorje was visibly upset. “You’re late! I’d told you to be here by 9 o’clock. There were fresh tracks this morning. But now the animal has moved on.”
Those words weren’t the easiest to hear that morning. But then, this was no other place. It was Kibber, a small village high in the Trans Himalayan region of Spiti Valley. Dorje was the Scanner – the person tracking a very elusive animal. And we were not talking about any other animal. It was the Grey Ghost of the mountains – the Snow Leopard.
The first morning at 4300m altitude had not been the easiest to wake up to. We were still getting used to the rarefied air at these altitudes. Temperatures in the home stay were comfortable, but it had taken a lot of courage to step out into the below-freezing cold. And then, there was the trial by snow – climbing down the mountain for a couple of hundred metres in knee-deep snow. Slipping and regaining balance, we’d reached a road that was, in some sense, the staging point for the day’s exploration. And we were 45 minutes late.
Of course, like most people of the mountains, Dorje also quickly forgave us for the lapse. He said there was another place that he wanted to check and walked along. As our hope started catching up, we decided to catch up on our breath too. And that was the time we noticed the scene around us, with mountains and villages draped in snow. Beautiful curves of the mountain ridges, with the jagged edges of the steep cliffs and a river flowing below in the valley – the stuff of dreams. After resting briefly, we decided to go ahead to try and find the Himalayan Ibex.
No sooner had we started walking than we saw Dorje waving his binoculars bag enthusiastically out to us from a distance. He’s seen something there! Adrenaline did the job of transporting us over a kilometre in no time. The snow crumbling under our feet, we gasped for breath as we hurried over to the cliff where Dorje was standing. He pointed out to the other side of the valley. Why is he pointing at a rock?
As I stared, the rock manifested into the Grey Ghost! Basking in the sun, it had blended into its surroundings! Was this an illusion of Her Elusiveness? An animal as legendary as the Snow Leopard had manifested within the hour on our first morning in the mountains. As we stood gaping in disbelief, we had to be reminded that we had carried cameras along for precisely this moment.
We decided to walk down to another cliff to get a closer view. As we approached the edge, the Snow Leopard stirred. Possibly sensing something was amiss. It opened one eye to get a good look at us.
And then, to all the oohs and aahs from this ridge, it slowly got up, stretched itself and started walking.
What struck me was the pace of the cat. An unhurried amble giving it a regal air in its mountain kingdom. Its every move seemed well-calculated, as it negotiated the various features of the cliff. Time and again, it would stop – to contemplate or to mark its presence on the mountain. And throw a glance at us, as if to acknowledge us.
For what seemed to be an eternity, and a rapidly filling memory card, the animal walked, climbed and jumped along the mountainside. And soon disappeared behind a ledge.
A few minutes earlier, I had wondered what I was doing in the mountains, struggling with the vertiginous heights, breathing heavily at the altitude as the biting cold threatened to chill me to my bones. Staring into the eyes of the Snow Leopard, all existential questions were wiped clean off my mind. And a warm blessed feeling took over…