By Senior Adventure Specialist John Holahan
The morning sun crested the eastern ridge of the Sham Valley, warming the contents of its path. It peered through windows, past half-closed curtains, and pried sleeping eyes from the last bits of dreaming. Legs stretched, fingers wiggled, bodies stirred. A new day arrived: one holding anticipation, promise and hope. I sat up in bed and listened to the gentle patter of feet above me on the second floor. My knees and ankles cracked as I stood. I walked to the window and peeled back the fabric, exposing the heart of the valley. A mélange of burnt orange, violet and burgundy filled the sky. I wanted time to stop; I wanted the entire world to see this glow.
It was late March in Central Ladakh, and I’d accompanied a group of travelers to Mangyu: an ancient village tucked away in the northern reaches of India. The journey was filled with reasons unique to each traveler: serenity in the Zanskar Mountains, the promise of equanimous Buddhist temples, nature’s soothing balm on chapped minds. Yet we all drank from the same cup. We were in search of the elusive snow leopard and made our journeys to the mountains like religious pilgrims to a holy site. High-altitude snowfields and rocky ridgelines filled with prey stand as the cat’s natural habitat. The region brought promise, and we’d come for a hopeful glimpse. We were fully aware of Mother Nature’s penchant for disturbing plans, as well as her indifference to our desires. I wanted it this way–owed nothing except a sliver of a chance.
I slipped on my wool socks, weathered khakis and a fleece jacket. I tip-toed to the door and gently leaned into the silver handle, careful not to wake those in nearby rooms. Pulling the door shut, I walked to the main lodge entrance and stepped into the brisk mountain air. The early morning felt like a juicy secret, private in its construction and waiting to be savored.
The cool breeze hooked the inside of my collar and shot chills down my spine. I rounded the corner and found two local spotters perched near the edge of the driveway. Their scopes were aimed toward the ridgelines of the surrounding valley walls like surveyors shooting a laser plane. The naked eye is ill-prepared for spotting in this terrain. 25-50x magnification eyepieces, along with apochromatic HD fluoride glass elements, do the heavy lifting—or so I am told. The spotters do the real work. Without them, wild snow leopards are mostly phantom ghosts of history: mythic creatures discussed around campfires or found on the occasional camera trap image.
The finest scopes on the planet are still insufficient in this terrain when operated by an untrained eye. Disturbed patterns, erratic movements and “out of place” elements are what catch the attention of a spotter. Most spend their entire lives in this valley, knowing the weight of the air in the afternoon or the smell of 6 a.m. as it climbs from the Earth. For days on end, they’ll inspect the surrounding valley ridges like jewelers with a loupe, searching diamonds for a flaw. They leave only during harvest season, assisting family and friends with crops in the lowlands—a communal endeavor coming at the cost of their income. But heritage and support are their own forms of wealth, and the spotters are flush in this currency.
I stood near the scope, pre-caffeinated and hazy. The spotter stepped back and gestured with his torn glove to the massive wall on our left.
“Bharal sheep,” he said.
“Where?” I asked, squinting toward the wall.
“The scope. Look through the scope,” he smirked.
Of course, I thought, feeling dull as a butter knife. I leaned forward, bringing my left eye to the rubber. My right eye closed naturally, relaxing my vision. A halo of darkness drew a circle within the sight as if peering through a porthole window. The outline of my eyelashes cut lines in the top of my view.
“Ah,” I said. “Three of them on the ledge. Beautiful.”
I pulled back and gave a thumbs up. He smiled softly and dipped his eye back to the scope, searching again with generational patience: a byproduct of being born in a remote, 800-year-old village. I scanned the scene. Snow-capped peaks and arid bluffs cast a cinematic backdrop behind the simple clay homes that made up the village. Every structure in sight was topped with tattered Tibetan prayer flags flapping gently in the morning breeze.
I returned to the lodge and slipped off my shoes. I walked the stairs to the second-floor common room, basking in its emptiness and settling into my routine. Benches topped with soft cushions ran half the periphery of the space. Coffee tables sat covered with unfolded maps of the region, displaying topography, distances and contested borders. A refreshment table of coffee, tea, milk and biscuits sat along the wall, inviting everyone to warm their insides with a hot beverage. A dining table set for eight rested on the far side of the room. Sunlight flooded the air through its many windows, inducing familiarity like a T.V. room in grandma’s house. I walked to the corner hearth and warmed my hands around the cast iron stove. My fingers were stiff and welcomed the heat. I curled my knuckles into loose fists and blew warm air on my joints—cold being a timeless reminder of human fragility.
I walked to the table and poured myself some coffee from the carafe. I splashed a dollop of cream against the darkened surface, watching it brown to the color of a paper bag. I pulled a cushion off a bench and climbed the next flight of stairs to the roof. I cracked the door, allowing the air to seep in, then stepped back into the morning. The rooftop felt like a perfect sanctuary to eviscerate any vestige of stress I’d lugged along from the U.S. No email, no phone, no computer. I plopped the cushion on the earthen surface, sat cross-legged facing east and sipped my coffee. The mountain to my right held a blanket of snow on its shoulders, with gullies running down its chest like the wide vertical stripes on a button-down shirt. Tops of naked poplars gave depth and texture to the landscape, while cream-white Buddhist stupas topped with golden spires stood sentry over the length of the valley. I inhaled deeply and closed my eyes, exhaling obligations, expectations and impatience.
Half an hour later, I returned to the communal area, finding a room full of waking faces slurping tea and coffee. They smiled as they poured over the spread-out maps. The room was filled with purpose, and I drank it in. Here was a collection of travelers bound by shared excitement and a collective effort. We were all eager to get moving, so the guide arranged a hike along the road from the base of the lodge. Spotters continued canvasing the valley and beyond, sifting through its camouflaged surfaces for any fleck of evidence we might follow. Every hour or so, updates and feedback would crackle across the radio to our guide, noting potentially promising areas to explore:
“A snow leopard was spotted there five days ago,” a guide would share.
“An ibex carcass from a kill was left behind. Maybe it’ll return,” another would say.
While awaiting their call, we collected as a group, packed our day bags, and took to the road to search the low walls of the valley, hoping for a nearby sighting.
We followed a trickling off-shoot of the Indus River as it snaked south through the valley. Any sound or movement in the distance would cause us to stop and pull our binoculars from our chest to our eyes, scouring nearby scree fields and rocky talus shoots for any sign: a spotted tail, some fishing line whiskers, tufted ears above peering eyes. Urial and blue sheep sauntered across notches in varied cliff faces and over spines between adjacent mountains. No snow leopards, though, so the search continued.
We returned to the lodge for lunch, enjoying sauteed vegetables and stewed lentils seasoned with hints of cardamom, nutmeg and cumin. Heaping mounds of jasmine rice were passed back and forth, along with freshly baked naan and lightly charred roti. We ate, talked about travel and reviewed the morning’s finds. After lunch, some retreated to their rooms for a short rest; some sat reading and journaling in the warmth of the afternoon sun.
A few hours later, our guide appeared in the common room, pinched with nervous energy. I watched his hands’ wretch back and forth like he was wringing out a dishtowel. He rubbed his palms and cracked his knuckles. He whispered to the lodge manager with polite suspicion. He was equal parts guarded and eager, and I sensed he was ready to volley his excitement like a hot coal right into our laps.
“Good afternoon, everyone. I hope you are enjoying a lovely rest,” he said. “We’ve just received a radio report from the spotters near the lodge in Ulley. They have located a snow leopard about 45 minutes to an hour from here. There is a chance it may move by the time we get there, but I believe we should go,” he explained.
What a weight it must be to try and meet such expectations, I thought. This guiding team would turn their own skin inside out if they thought it’d yield a snow leopard for the group. Silent prayers seeped from his skin like perspiration. Please stay put, I thought. For the sake of our guide, his blood pressure and his potential sleepless nights, please stay put.
The news electrified our common air. We took 10 minutes to throw together our packs for the journey: camera, binoculars, water, jackets, hats and gloves. Seven thousand three hundred miles of travel to this very spot, for this very moment—and now, on a brisk Tuesday evening, hope was morphing into reality.
We hustled to the vans, strapped on our seatbelts and held our breath. The sun would set in 1.5 hours, casting shadows over the valley and helping the day with its vanishing act. The guide impressed the urgency upon the drivers, which sent us ripping from the driveway, spraying stones and dust as we climbed in speed. The roads were rugged, vertigo-inducing one-lane arteries, linking village to village over ancient mountain passes. The drivers were impervious to it all—laughing and joking as they stomped between gas and brake. Their motions seem to predict every inch of the road ahead as if imbued with some prescient internal coding. The views of the valley felt timeless, exotic and hostile.
Forty-five minutes into the drive, a crackling voice came through our radio.
“Slow down,” it said.
We were closing in. The vans eased their pace, turning the last corner and gave way to a group of spotters glued to their scopes. We crept to a halt, gently pulled open the sliding doors and piled out in silence. The scopes were pointing to an angled snowfield in the distance, strewn with varied boulders and scree swept up in a morass of brown. People were smiling, spotters were beckoning and mouths were agape.
I lifted my binoculars to a collection of rock, scrub brush and snow patches. Making sense of the landscape felt impossible. Where the heck were they looking? A group pointed with confidence. Others gazed stoically toward the mountainside.
Just then, a gentle hand in its torn glove grasped the rounds of my shoulder. I looked back to a warm smile stretched across weathered skin—my spotter from the morning. He gestured toward the wall:
“Snow leopard,” he pointed.
I glared toward the tangled mass of incline and rock. “Where? Toward the snow or the boulders?” I asked.
“The scope,” he grinned. “Look through the scope.”
Of course, I thought, as he looked on with a smile. Still dull like a butter knife. I bent my head forward to the eyepiece, bringing my left eye to the rubber. My feet shifted, settling into the stones along the roadside. I exhaled slowly. The guide leaned toward my ear and walked me through the coordinates.
“Right of the snowfield. Two large boulders, one above the other. An ibex is below in the clearing. On the lower boulder, a head,” he said.
I followed his directions. Right of the snowfield, two large boulders, an ibex below in the clearing. The lower boulder, the lower boulder, the lower boulder………… “A head!” I gasped. The tufted ears, the fishing line whiskers, the peering eyes.
“Hunting ibex,” said the spotter.
I inhaled, nearly choking on the excitement. Be present, I thought. I am here, right now, seeing this. The enigma of these mountains and valleys. There he is. The leopard began rising with its own sense of generational patience, exposing shoulders, chest and forelimbs.
“So beautiful,” I said, beckoning the spotter back to the scope. I stepped back, taking in the full mountain with the naked eye. No details leaped forward, only a mass of timeless beauty. A complete picture of nature stood towering above us in that quiet valley, indifferent to passing fads, political winds and pressing deadlines. I was part of this landscape—we all were, and the bifurcation of artificial boundaries between normal life and nature peeled away. The snow leopard was not the prize but a catalyst for awakening. Nature, in all her grandeur, was why I came.
The spotter leaned forward, orienting himself once more before the easel of his scope.
“Ah, moving,” he said. “Good day.”