Notoriously elusive and in rapid decline, snow leopards have become a holy grail for wildlife tourists. Sarah Marshall braves high altitudes and seriously low temperatures on the trail of one of the world’s most captivating creatures

Undated Handout Photo of a snow leopard. See PA Feature TRAVEL Ladakh. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Exodus. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Ladakh.
Undated Handout Photo of a snow leopard. See PA Feature TRAVEL Ladakh. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/Exodus. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature TRAVEL Ladakh.

I’d been warned about it; the swirling black hole that sucks away all breath, body warmth and rational thinking. But here I am, coiled tightly into a ball like a startled millipede at the bottom of my sleeping bag, struggling to gasp the thin, icy air that circulates the mountaintops at 3,700m above sea level, while reminding myself exactly why I’ve chosen to camp in temperatures that dip to a mind-numbing minus 27 degrees at night.

Only the sound of hulking yaks snuffling for scant vegetation, metal bells clanging around their necks, is a welcome reminder that life can, against the odds, exist here.

Harsh, hostile but overwhelmingly beautiful, the Himalayan mountain range is a fitting habitat for one of the world’s most elusive and endangered big cats: the snow leopard.

According to estimates from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, there are between 4,000 and 6,500 of these mountain ghosts left in the wild, encompassing a range of 12 central Asian countries.

Coy, aloof and enigmatic creatures, they are notoriously difficult to spot, and at their home on the roof of the world, they rarely entertain visitors.

But one of the most accessible and opportune places to see snow leopards is Hemis National Park in the eastern Ladakh region of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state.

After landing amidst the snowy jagged peaks of the military airport at Ladakhi capital Leh we drive into the granite folds until we reach the end of the road. From here, our belongings are piled onto donkeys, and we slip and stumble along a frozen river, grabbing onto the frail skeletons of willow trees for balance.

Our simple eight tent camp is in the Husing Valley, with no running water or electricity, and the toilet - which affectionately becomes known as slum dogs - is essentially a hole in the frosty ground.

Snow leopard tourism is still in its infancy, and capturing the cats on film or video has become a holy grail for wildlife enthusiasts. When National Geographic photographer Steve Winter published camera trap images of the animals in 2008, interest in Hemis piqued, and in the past few years, winter visitors have increased from a handful to a hundred.

My guide, Paul Goldstein, an award-winning wildlife photographer with a fascination for predators, became hooked when he first visited Hemis last year - even though he didn’t see a single cat.

The conditions are punishing and the odds are stacked against us, but even the knowledge that these mountain ghosts might have drifted along the same ridge where I’m now sitting causes my heart to race with excitement.

After drawing a on our first full day blank first day, the following morning brings real excitement.

This time we awake to a welcome furore - news that a snow leopard has been spotted close to the camp. Tugging on base layers and pulling a down jacket over my pyjamas, I pick up my camera and race out. With no food and little sleep, I’m exhausted, and rely on our wonderful porters to haul me up the last few metres.

Ahead of me, cumbersome camera lenses form an arc along the ridge, like firearms on the front line.

And then she appears on the horizon, silhouetted against the blue daybreak sky, and flanked by her two princes, both one-year-old juveniles. Standing before us is a third of the valley’s snow leopard population. Paul is beyond desperate and breaks his tooth trying to set up his tripod in haste.

Using their muscular, bushy tails for balance, the trio drop down sheer escarpments and leap between ridges, traversing gaps several times their body length. Against a mottled backdrop of the sandy rock, their camouflage is incredible and we struggle to keep sight of them.

Finally, they settle in a cave, and even though they are 2km away, the excitement is palpable. For 22-year-old porter Stanzin, who lives in a nearby village, this is his first sighting of a snow leopard, and I know the goosebumps on his arms and neck have nothing to do with the cold.

We stand on a snowy 45-degree angle slope for seven hours, becoming intimately familiar with every crag, crevice and contour on the rock face, until the sun falls behind the mountain, pulling the plug on our electrifying show.

Although nothing more than mere specks in scopes, our sighting of snow leopards is worth more to me than any HD image beamed on a giant plasma TV screen.

Because this is real.

They may appear more intangible than supernatural phenomena, but these mountain ghosts are out there somewhere. Be patient, bide your time, and there’s a chance you might find that holy grail.