Snow Leopards - The Ultimate Adventure
30th April 2013
I quickly peered through the viewfinder of my camera to glimpse the elusive Snow Leopard. As I pulled my head back - what was that? My camera moved back towards me. I tried to look to the left, then the right with the camera emulating each small move. What? My camera had frozen to my face!
What had brought me to this point in extreme photography?
It all started last year when I was in London to attend the BBC Wildlife Photographer awards. While discussing my incident with the rhino that had resulted in the photograph that appeared on the cover of the BBC Wildlife Magazine, Ben Cranke (ODP Safaris , London) and I started discussing extreme wildlife photography.
We recognised that amazing opportunities are out here for those photographers who are prepared to go to great lengths and face daunting conditions in remote areas to capture unique and memorable images.
The holy grail of an adventure like this must surely be an attempt to photograph the rare Snow Leopard, we concurred. Then that is what we should attempt we decided unanimously.
We were warned that Steve Winter had worked in the Himalayas for 10 months before sighting a Snow Leopard, that BBC and National Geographic photographic teams had taken months in trying conditions before their successes. Not only that, in the entire world fewer than 1000 people have actually glimpsed the extremely rare cat, leading some to doubt its very existence. The conditions are awful, you will not be able to do it, this is dangerous, we were told by many who shook their heads at our foolhardiness. Even if you go, what are the chances?
Ben and I looked at each other. The time has come to take extreme wildlife photography to the next level, and to fulfil a mutual dream - to see and photograph the highly prized Snow Leopard.
We recognised from the outset that the key to a successful extreme wildlife photographic safari is careful and detailed planning. To this end we started almost a year in advance.
There are so many factors to take into account. The inaccessibility of the area, the degree of fitness and stamina simply to reach the Base Camp, altitude sickness, appropriate clothing and bedding to survive temperatures of around -20C, transporting cameras and equipment, care of batteries ... the list is intimidating.
We made contact with, and then decided to work with the ground team in India that had organised previous trips for Steve Winter, Natgeo and the BBC Teams. The group of Sherpas and spotters with this team had previously worked with photographic teams that had been successful. They could also provide the pack donkeys and horses to transport our equipment to Base Camp.
I found that there were two more experienced and renowned wildlife photographers who shared the dream that Ben and I had formulated. Both Fritz Hoogendijk and Fanus Welthagen jumped at the chance to be included to be part of the first of our Extreme Wildlife Photography Safaris.
Then the physical training started. We embarked on a rigorous schedule at the gym. I started serious training about four months before departure. Five mornings each week saw me up at 04h00, followed by cardiovascular workouts at the gym to build stamina and to lose some weight. Each session would result in me burning between 1000 to 1300 KCal. As my fitness level increased and weight decreased by 15Kg I recognised that extreme conditions need extreme preparation measures.
There is so much to discuss about clothing and protection from the cold. Getting appropriate clothing proved to be a small challenge. As photographers, the usual bulky outfits worn by people visiting the Himalayan and other freezing areas are impractical as the bulk hampers movement and maneuverability is essential to a photographer. Finally we traced a dealer in the UK who could supply high performance extreme weather clothing. Although I bought my boots from a local supplier in South Africa, they were barely adequate and I plan to import my footwear next time.
And of course our camera equipment needed attention.
Our cameras and lenses needed to be weatherproofed for the -20C, snowy, wet, watery, icy conditions. Batteries do not fare well in such cold conditions, deteriorating rapidly in the cold. To overcome this we took a large supply of batteries, and slept with them close to our bodies. We had a generator which we ran for about two hours each evening, but as we had to stand outside with howling icy winds in the frozen landscape we kept this practice to a minimum. For this reason our laptops and battery dependent devices were put aside. This also meant that we needed a large supply of memory cards as we could not download our images after the day’s photography. I took a healthy supply of 128G cards.
Then the months of preparation were over. We were at the airport for our departure to Delhi. Frans and Fritz were thrilled to join our recce expedition and I must say that it was almost essential to have Fritz, a doctor, with us. We sure needed him, more often than we had supposed!
After the overnight flight to Delhi, we boarded a connecting flight for the first of our extreme experiences ... our flight to Leh. One of only four pilots who are capable of flying this route threaded our plane through a number of the narrowest of mountain passages. Our aircraft suddenly seemed too large to fit through, and when we were clear of one we found ourselves winding through yet another slim sheer-sided gorge.
The runway at Leh is 100 meters lower at one end than the other. The skill of our pilot in managing this challenge after squeezing us through those tiny dimensions made us realise that he is indeed a master of his art.
The Ladakh people are Buddhists who regard themselves as part of Tibet and Nepal and many have relatives in these areas. We noticed a large military presence and security all around. As the area is at war with neighbouring Pakistan this should not be surprising, but appears quite contradictory in that amazingly beautiful and seemingly peaceful spot.
When we left Delhi the temperature was 25C, so when we stepped out of the plane into -15C it literally knocked our breath away!
Leh is a beautiful city nestling in a valley high in the Himalayas. The vistas are incredible and we spent he first while pointing in all directions. Look at that! Wow! Look over there!
We were obliged to spend two full days in Leh to acclimatise. I totally resented this. What a waste of time, I thought. I want to be out photographing, not languishing around the city.
Hah! I was in for a shock!
As I climbed the few easy stairs to our second floor accommodation at the guest house I quickly realised why we needed to stop. I, who was so fit that I could run up multiple stories as easily as walking along a paved pathway, could not reach the second floor! I was out of breath! What?
So the four of us spent our sojourn in Leh gasping for breath as our bodies realised the situation and furiously started producing the extra red blood cells required to transport oxygen to the heart and as far as the extremities.
By day two we were already feeling better and could venture out to enjoy and photograph the fantastic scenery. Visits to a few of the monasteries in the area provided interest and a focal point. We ended up really enjoying the stop.
After the two day break we felt ready to continue on to Hemis High Altitude National Park ... a remote Wildlife Park in a remote area deep within the Himalayas. We followed a winding narrow road higher and higher on a road that barely clung to the side of the ever steeper mountain. The road follows a river that starts at road level, and as you climb, the river drops away. It is stunningly beautiful and we filled memory cards with magnificent photographs. The road was just wide enough for one vehicle and with a sheer drop less than a meter away plunging into the depths of a ravine the situation was enough to make us feel quite breathless again. Whenever we came to a bend and could not see around our driver stopped and hooted loudly, then waited for a return hoot which would signify another vehicle, before inching slowly around the hair-raising twist in the road.
We continued like this until the road petered out. Here Sherpas were waiting for us with pack-horses and pack-donkeys.
And now the three hour hike up to Base Camp. The route follows a beautiful river that was completely frozen over. This was quite tough as for a lengthy part of the journey we walked - or scrambled - on the iced over river itself. The slippery ice was difficult to traverse at times, but we hardly noticed as we marveled at the indescribable magnificence around us. Each step opened up new vistas and this together with the excitement of being here made the journey easier than expected.
Base Camp is indeed very basic! There is a large tent which doubles as a kitchen and as sleeping quarters for the Sherpas. A second large tent stores food and equipment and serves as the mess tent where everyone meets for meals. Small two man tents, measuring only a meter tall and with just enough space for two sleeping bags provide sleeping quarters for two adventurers. The temperature inside and outside the tents equalises meaning that a -25C sleeping bag is a minimum requirement. Anything that needs to be kept at a non freezing temperature, like camera batteries and toothpaste, is packed under the sleeping bags to take maximum advantage of body temperature. This is rather uncomfortable but better than frozen toothpaste or no batteries!
As we arrived at Base Camp we were given a treat! A treat? A cup of boiled water? We looked at each other with raised eyebrows, bemused. My water is usually served with a few ice cubes floating gently, so what was this? We learned very quickly. Hydration is essential in this area, and even moderate dehydration can have severe consequences and even Altitude Sickness is exacerbated by any degree of dehydration. We quickly learned to discipline ourselves to drink regularly from the heavy duty metal flasks that we brought with us, even though we seldom experienced thirst in the cold, damp conditions. And how quickly we learned to relish that boiled water!
As the first shards of light pierced the sky each morning we would be wakened in our tents with a cup of steaming hot, very welcome coffee.
A simple task - getting dressed - became a formidable task as we wrestled our way into clothes that were frozen stiff. Forcing unwilling feet into frozen boots provided an unthinkable challenge.
After the exhausting task of getting dressed we would either choose a short hike up to one of the closer ridges to return later for brunch or we would have an early breakfast and then set out for the further reaches.
There are four valleys in the area, and three or four accessible ridges, giving us a choice of seven or eight routes to choose from daily. The area has plentiful wildlife, with Blue Sheep, Chukar Partridge, Golden Eagles, Lammergeyers, numerous other bird species and the ever-present chance of spotting a Himalayan Lynx or a Himalayan Wolf.
Fritz and Fanus were delighted to see a Himalayan Wolf, giving me a momentary pang of envy. This was because each day we would split into two groups and follow different routes to increase our chances of sighting the Snow Leopard. Each group was accompanied by a Sherpa and a Spotter with a very powerful scope.
Our routine would start with a 40 minute to an hour steep hike up to the first lookout point on a ridge or convenient spot where the single pathway flattens and broadens, dropping steeply back to Base Camp. There we set up our equipment to scan the area for Snow Leopards, or even signs such as tracks which could indicate a suitable area to continue the search. The hike was tough and quite sheer in places. On the first day I thought, well I can manage this. I am so pleased that I trained so hard at the gym, so now I can manage.
I had no idea what was waiting ahead. Each day we would venture a little further into more difficult and challenging terrain, with steeper and steeper climbing. At times we would take a step, slide back three or four steps, clamber up again, and slide again. The progress was slow, but the rewards, the scenery and the sense of achievement were phenomenal.
Meanwhile the Sherpas would return to Base Camp to fetch lunch for us. As we struggled along with our heavy back packs we watched in amazement as they clambered with ease up the mountains with double the loads we had. They were equally agile going down, sprinting back down with the agility of mountain goats while we gingerly felt our way step by tiny step as we lumbered along. They looked at us pityingly and smilingly encouraged us as they carried as much of our gear as they could - both up and down.
Cheetah made an impression on us. When we first arrived at Base Camp it was snowing, our noses were running with the cold, eyes blurring, frost bitten, out of breath and really quite awkward. We met Cheetah who was wandering around in Crocs, relishing the return of the -20C warmer weather!
Regulating one's body temperature proved to be another major challenge. The heavy exercise causes one to start sweating and sweating in such extreme conditions is very dangerous. As soon as one starts to sweat it is imperative to slow down. Stopping is impossible because within moments the sweat will freeze, causing severe hypothermia very quickly with dire consequences – confusion, disorientation, and muscle incoordination.
This happened to me on the first day and not only was I alarmed at how quickly things can go wrong, I realised how tenuous the line between being OK and in severe danger can be.
We rushed back to the Camp in the evening having remained out a little longer than anticipated and in our eagerness to avoid being stuck on the mountain in the dark we hurried. I started to sweat somewhat and when we arrived safely at the Camp I sat down for a cup of delicious steaming hot coffee. With incredible speed things changed for me. I felt completely detached from my body and remember gazing at my hands in awe, wandering what they were holding, and how to direct them. Rational thought deserted me as I fumbled to control the coffee cup and then to decipher the intricacies of opening the tent flap. Mmmm I thought. Cold! A jacket. Yes, a jacket. As I reached for the jacket the thought came to me ... what is this, what am I doing. Ahhh, my jacket. A jacket? Why? I must put it on. But how? What is this? Why is it here? A jacket! Put it on. Cold. Put an arm .. where? Why a jacket? What am I doing with it?
This confused thinking continued on and on until some subconscious urge for survival surfaced and realizing that warmth was now a matter of life or death I somehow managed to struggle into the jacket. The danger occurred so quickly and so unexpectedly and it was only when I recovered and regained rational thought that I realised that a situation like that can rapidly lead to devastating outcomes and even death. I had learned a grim lesson and was extra careful after that harrowing experience.
On our first full day out we climbed up to the nearby ridge, about 100 meters above the camp. The circuitous route took us around the mountain only to end up back in sight of the camp which we could see nestling below us. From here we could choose a route to hike further up into the mountains.
We stopped and scoured the area. This excellent vantage point meant that we could see the mountain tops surrounding us and the intervening valleys.
We searched and searched.
And there she was!
A female Snow Leopard was resting on a ridge, watching the valley below her, checking out any movement that caught her attention. She stood out from the ridge's profile, which was why she was visible. She was too far to photograph, but the thrill of seeing her was indescribable. I could not contain my scream of sheer delight which echoed across the valley! This was why we were here. To see a Snow Leopard in the wild ... in her own back garden as it were. We stared and stared through the scope. She was beautiful!
Then, as if that was not enough, just below her we saw two sub- adults. One male, already larger than his mother, and his sister, almost as large as her mother. We were enthralled – and overjoyed.
As we watched in delight, the mother slowly stood up, stretched, and then jumped down into a rocky area and disappeared. Their camouflage is so good that even if the cats are fairly close by they can be difficult to spot. Even though we could no longer see her or her cubs we delighted to know that she was there.
Our routine now started to develop and each day would see us venturing higher and higher into the mountains. What had felt like a really stiff climb on that first day now became a short introduction to the real business ... an arduous ascent at times almost sheer and vertical with our rucksacks filled with equipment strapped firmly to our backs.
I had thought that I had achieved an optimal level of fitness before leaving South Africa, but the daily excursions where we pushed ourselves further and further to optimise our chances of seeing the leopards increased our fitness to levels that I had not thought possible for me.
Our daily ventures also taught us much about maneuvering in that tricky and often dangerous terrain. Traversing obstacles, negotiating narrow ridges as wide as a boot with a sheer drop on either side, learning to control a slide on ice, and balancing with a heavy load on ones back became easier with each passing day. And as we ventured into higher and higher areas the previous days obstacles became routine as we faced a new set of challenges.
But the reward!
Each day we managed eye-level shots of Snow Leopards and each day brought us closer - and ever closer to the magnificent cats. The eye-level shots were possible because we would be on a ridge opposite the leopard. A deep valley and the intervening 100 meters meant that the cat was unperturbed by our presence.
As our confidence grew, we could climb further and closer, while the leopard would remain unconcerned and seeming unaware or uncaring of our presence.
In this way we literally stalked the Snow Leopards. We would climb a ridge out of sight of the leopard. Closer and closer, and closer still. Then we would peer over the ridge, careful not to break the skyline, and then slowly, carefully raise our cameras above our heads to get the shots.
One day we almost saw a kill. We were photographing one of the magnificent male leopards when it started stalking and hunting some Blue Sheep. We noticed that an injured sheep was very close to the cat which approached, ears flattened and in a flat crouching stance, to within about 15 or 20 meters of the sheep. We managed to capture some amazing series of that scene. Then just as we thought the leopard would spring, and we were holding our breath with anticipation, the animal turned and walked away.
We realised that he would continue his hunt, but the sun was close to the horizon and not wanting to be out in the dark we made our way back to camp. As it was, we arrived back after dark, and eagerly reached for the hot coffee waiting for us.
We returned to the spot the next morning to see if the leopard had made a kill. When we arrived, all was peaceful, and no sign of a leopard anywhere. We scoured the area, searching, searching. Surely .. ?
The suddenly there he was - right in font of us. His camouflage was so good that he had come onto the scene without any of us noticing - or maybe he had been there all along? He was beautifully placed on a slope and at our eye-level. He climbed onto a rock, stretched, then rolled on his back, stood up, gazed around, peered imperiously into the valley and then rolled again. Bliss! Our cameras did not stop for a second. Then he lay down and rested for a while, cameras clicking. What an experience. He could not have posed better for us even if we had scripted the whole event. Then to top it all he stood up again, stretched and yawned - a long, leisurely yawn! Our delight could barely be contained!
Back at camp we heard reports of a Snow Leopard kill in quite a remote valley. Excellent news for our next step ...
The next morning saw us up before dawn for the long, tough hike through thick snow and along a frozen river. As I clambered over a ridge my hiking stick, essential for prodding to find secure footing and for balance, suddenly gave way and I tumbled face down to be buried in about a half metre of powdery snow, pinned down by my rucksack. As I lay there I decided that this was all too tough, and it would be simpler to just stay there ... no more excruciating climbs, no more slipping, no more cold,or superhuman effort - just peace!
But no! As they say, I told myself, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time I answered myself. So how do you reach an amazing Snow Leopard to get the photos of a lifetime? One step at a time I replied to myself.
And with that I forced myself up and with renewed vigour I attacked that almost impossible mountain terrain! One step, there we go, that is one step closer! Now another! That is two steps less. And so I coaxed myself along ... literally step by step!
And again the rewards were equal to the effort!
In the past days we had achieved sightings of four different cats on eight different occasions. And the ninth sighting was to be the best ...
We arrived within 200 metres of a magnificent female Snow Leopard on a Blue Sheep kill. Slowly we inched forward, taking long agonising minutes for each step, careful not to spook the wary animal. Slowly we gained her trust. Each movement, slow and deliberate, brought us closer and closer. She was unfazed by our presence, and other than an occasional glance at us she busied herself with her kill. Magpies had arrived to share her feast and she spent a lot of her time chasing them away. Then crows and other birds arrived, keeping her attention away from us and allowing our slow approach to continue. We were almost afraid to breathe as we inched nearer and nearer.
Finally, we were able to take full frame photographs with our 600mm lenses (no converters), and we took full advantage of the opportunity.
Meanwhile the birds were continuing to be a nuisance to the cat, but providing some of the most amazing shots ever for us. She would move away from her kill, then look back over her shoulder and return to shoo the birds away. And each precious second recorded on our memory cards.
Our feelings of jubilation could not be contained. We had come so far, given up so much, so much physical preparation and strain, mental stresses, everything pointed to this moment!
We had done it!
Tears streamed down our faces as we shared that moment. My biggest dream had come true. We had been rewarded with some of the best photographs ever taken in the wild of the shy, elusive, mythical, wonderful Snow Leopard!