Sitting on the Himalayan mountaintop, I couldn’t believe the moment had come. The road to arrive here had been challenging, but there I was, capturing the Snow Leopards in a moment rarely seen in the wild, and never before photographed. It was a great gift from the universe, coming at the end of a journey on which all the forces of man and nature seemed to have conspired to keep me and my companions from the peak we were standing on. Words can not express how grateful I was to be there, witness to the tender majesty of these beautiful predators.
From the first moment I saw the cats, a mother(right) and her two year old cub, I was transfixed by the vision in front of me. I never expected to see — much less capture — such tender, loving and gentle behavior from a predator as notorious as the Snow Leopard. Of course, I was optimistic that I’d see the cats, but not like this, showing us the most gentle expression of their physical power. Here is the brief story of how I came to have the great privilege of photographing for you this distant cousin and scaled-down doppleganger of the pre-historic Saber Tooth Tiger, rarely seen in the wild by people, and never seen like this.
(Click on any picture to open higher resolution image)
Regardless of how rare or beautiful the cats are, only a few adventurers care to experience the frigid beauty of these peaks, some 4,150 meters (12,500 feet) above sea level.
“To say it is terribly cold in the Himalayas during winter would be an understatement.”
The rivers were frozen, of course. Daytime highs ranged from 40F(-5c) and sunny to -14F (-10c) with snow and wind.
At night, it was snowy and cold. Temperatures dipped down to -13F(-25c).
To the left, my friends and I are waiting for the Snow Leopards, like usual, atop a cliff located 12,500 feet above sea level. I would like to thank BigAnimals’ guests, Nelson Campbell and John Hall, who could not have been better companions. They were tireless and intrepid in their pursuit of the cats.
Pictured from left to right:
- Amos Nachoum
- John Hall
- Nelson Campbell
- Mauro Maltagliati
- Sanjay Pant
- Gyalson, our guide
At the time I captured the cats, I was shivering despite my many layers of clothing, my toes were tingling, and my fingers had lost all sensation, but I was watching my local guides, who clearly knew something I didn’t.
They continued searching through their scopes and I did the same, focusing through the 500mm lens with a 2x extender.
There was no way I was leaving, it had been too long a road to get here…
Going back in time a bit, at one point it looked like this expedition would not take place.
The day I was set to depart I got a call from the tour operator in India telling me the park had been closed to visitors for a dignitary visit. I chose to ignore it and went anyway, arriving almost on schedule.
I wanted to be there no matter what roadblocks local culture or mother nature threw in my way.
My four years of research had led me believe that I had pinpointed the Snow Leopards’ prime mating season, and I was certain this was the best time to photograph them.
After flying to India, I spent a few days acclimating to the thin air in Leh, concerned and wondering what was going to happen.
After a little time in Leh, our fortunes turned for the better. My companions and I learned we had cleared all the visa hurdles, allowing us to do what we were there to do— photograph the snow leopards at Hemis National Park.
The park is located along a valley that stretches about 20 km, from Rumbak village in the south to Zinchen in the north.
There are at three major observation peaks. Tablung to the north, Husing in the center, Khalung to the South.
The Rumbak stream, which was frozen during our stay, acts as the spine, forming the backbone of the whole area.
It was along this frozen waterway that we decided to set up our base of operations.
Our group hiked three hours along the stream, into the area where we were to search for the Snow Leopards.
We ultimately elected to position our campground in the mid-section of the search area, down the hill from the Husing view point.
“These foreboding, cold and rocky peaks give no indication of the wildlife treasure they hold within.”
We owe a tremendous thank you to our guides, particularly Gyalson and Gurment; they found the cats for us.
Every morning, our two master guides left, equipped with radio transmitters, at 6:30 AM,to scout the mountains around for telltale signs of the Leopard’s resting area after its night of hunting or traveling.
Each guide team chose one of three main sighting positions, sharing information via radio, thus covering the whole section of the valley. That way everyone along the valley was able to share information so that we might be able to finally see the wily and elusive feline. By 9:00 AM the guides would either return to camp with sighting information, and we would all depart together, or they would call us to join them.
We were looking for a sign when the majestic animal would awaken and reveal itself, which it would have to, eventually.
Like most predators, they are active in early morning and from early evening on. It was after 6pm and darkness had begun to creep over the peak we were on. The air was sharply cold and thin, making it painful to even breathe.
I had already changed my ISO from 800 to 6,400 to accommodate the dimming light. Someone whispered, “it’s happening,” and we all quickly got behind our cameras.
The wildlife guide made a slight motion toward the rocks on the opposite peak and suddenly a young, male Snow leopard came into view
Deftly emerging from his hiding spot behind the rocks, the youth made his way with the agility only a cat possesses, over the steep hill and rugged, rocky terrain toward a female who had been in our sights since early that morning.
“There is little in life as rewarding as bearing witness to one of nature’s more closely held secrets and to behold the majesty within its coarseness.”
As the cub started to move, the female rose, emitting a deep guttural noise. A calling of deep familiarity and acceptance signaling a family reunion. Within seconds her cub was next to her. She tucked her chin under his strong neck and closed her eyes while he fixed his gaze in the distance, a moment frozen in time and a perfect picture of the love found only between a mother and child. The only sound on the mountain at this point was the rapid-fire shutter clicks of the two cameras remaining on the mountain.
My perseverance had paid off and I was rewarded with an epic, utterly unforgettable moment (which stunned even our guides) that I was able to photograph and share with you here. It is moments like these that remind us how precious and inspiring is the wilderness, and how we must be kind to mother nature. If we are, the dividends are enormous.
I hope you enjoy these images as much as I do, and stay tuned for details on next February’s adventure!