This incredible expedition took us to one of the most wonderful and impressive places on Earth – “The roof of the world” as it’s known. It had been over fifteen months almost of planning to make sure everything that could be planned went well. Precarious climbs, steep falls, bone chilling cold and heartwarming sights, just some of the words that come to mind from this incredible trip to the Indian Himalayas searching for the elusive Snow Leopard. I was working with the best team on the ground there, providing me with years of experience and logistical support. Nothing was promised with such a rare big cat but I always believe in what you give to nature , nature will give back to you.
We flew from London to Delhi at first and then spent the night in the Pride Plaza hotel in Delhi before heading to to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. Due to heavy snowfall in the Himalayas though we were delayed by 24 hours. Due to the incredible team I was working with in India though they were able to book us onto one of very few planes the following day in order for our expedition to begin.
Once we landed and picked up our luggage you really feel the extra attitude almost straight away but your body adjusts just as quick really. We were picked up by my team and we headed to our hotel in the town center of Leh.
This wonderful place is situated at a height of 3500m.It is believed that Ladakh was once under water centuries ago, and a Buddhist saint, Dha Chomba Nomegung came from Kashmir and prayed for the existence of human life there. His prayers were listened too and water receded, giving way to mountains and valleys.
We spent the mandatory two days acclimatising in Leh to allow us to adapt to the height. Leh is a high-desert city in the Himalayas, the capital of the Leh region in northern India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. Originally a stop for traders over the centuries. Well known for its Buddhist sites and nearby trekking areas. Massive 17th-century Leh Palace, modeled on the Dalai Lama’s former home; Tibet’s Potala Palace, overlooks the old town’s bazaar and maze like lanes. The people were extremely friendly and its an amazing place full of so many different cultures and people.
On the second day we visited the Hemis Monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery of the Drukpa Lineage, located in Hemis, Ladakh, India. Situated 45 km from Leh, the monastery was re-established in 1672 by the Ladakhi king Sengge Namgyal. This special place is revered as the largest monastic institution in Ladakh district of Jammu and Kashmir in north India. The monastery has more than 200 branches with more than 1,000 monks in the Himalayan region. Situated in the foothills of the Hemis National Park, one of the high altitude national parks in the country where its imposing mountains almost surround and protect this monastery.
The monastery is the wealthiest monastery in India and famous for its rich collection of ancient remnants. The Tibetan Buddhist monastery belongs to the Drukpa Lineage or the Dragon Order of Mahayana Buddhism. The Tibetan style architecture of the monastery is very colourful and attractive. It is divided into two parts – the assembly hall known as Dukhang and the temple which is called Tshogkhang. The whole place was just stunning and while we were there the monks were clearing away the recent heavy snowfall.
After those two magical days in Leh we left civilisation as we knew it the following morning and headed out to Hemis National Park in our quest to find the Snow Leopard. The team packed our vehicles with the massive amount of gear and equipment we’d need. The nerves started to bite alittle at the thought of seeing one of the worlds rarest big cats as fresh snow started to fall.
Hemis National Park was established in 1981 initially to save the Rumbak and Markha catchments. Named after the famous Hemis Gompa, it is located in northern India, part of the Jammu and Kashmir State. The park measures 4,400 sq. kms, and is the largest National park in the south Asia region. Hemis Park is home to six villages, Rumbak, Kaya, Sku, Shingo, Urutse and Chilling which inhabit about 1,600 people. It’s also home to one of the highest densities of wild Snow leopards anywhere in the world.
As we left Leh and the comfort of our hotel for the past two days we headed along narrow roads towards the national park passing mules and other animals along the way. Once we drove pass the official sign that welcomes you it becomes very apparent that the landscape changes dramatically with steep sided mountains and long drops to the valley below you. The size and remoteness just overwhelms you at first it really does.
We traveled for around an hour then the road ends as you come to a dead end. You then have to walk the rest of the way while the pony man and his mules load up your gear to carry it to your camp. When we reached this point we had a group photo before we headed into the Hemis National park on foot.
The area around the Rumbak catchment is one of the best places in the world to see these mythical cats. Snow Leopards are generally found at elevations between 3350-6500m, and this epic adventure took us through stunning Himalayan alpine and sub-alpine zones where vegetation is sparse and temperatures are extreme. Accompanying us were expert local guides whose expertise in this harsh terrain and their intrinsic training to look for the minutest evidences like pugmarks, scrapes and scats to track this elusive cat, was impeccable.
Once we had everything we set off on foot into Hemis National park and my heart was racing. everywhere I looked I could see rocks that were almost the identical colour of Snow leopard fur and when you look so intensely at things your eyes often play tricks with you so I was double checking every little rock I saw and focused on as we walked into this truly inspiring place. As we walked the place welcomed us with falling snow, it was magical. We had about an hours walk to our camp that would be our home for the next several days.
Once inside the park we turned the first corner and there was a small family of Blue Sheep feeding. Our guides pointed at them and we stopped and got out the cameras and nervously set up hoping these stunning animals would stay. Blue Sheep are a main prey item for Snow Leopards and form the majority of their diet. Its a good sign when you come across them as there maybe Snow Leopards in that area watching.
Making sure my clients were set up and in place we all just let off a few images and the Blue Sheep just carried on feeding and going about their lives. often crossing the small path to our front and stopping momentary to look at us before climbing up on the rocks around us. It was a wonderful encounter and a privilege to see these wonderful looking mammals at close quarters.
Once they had passed through we packed up and carried on our steady walk to our base camp. We slowly climbed up and were surrounded by steep mountains either side of us as we walked. It was incredibly impressive and something that I find hard to explain in words. Once we got to our little camp the snow was coming down heavy and the sun was slowly disappearing behind the dense snow clouds. We were allocated our tents, unpacked and had a warm drink in the dinning tent and discussed the plan over the next several days.
As we went about that first day you only slightly notice that you’re taking deeper breaths and becoming out of breath sometimes. This for me didn’t last long and found its own level. None of my clients throughout the trip experienced any form of attitude sickness or any illness which was brilliant. Having those two days in Leh to get use to the air is so important. Never rush though and just take your time with everything and this helped everyone adjust. That evening was filled with great excitement as we had our first evening meal and planned the next days events.
We made our tents as comfortable as we could and went to sleep in our four season sleeping bags. I didn’t sleep well that first night, I never do when somewhere new and I’m a very light sleeper also. Before dawn I was up and decided to go out with my guides and trackers high up on the ridges overlooking our camp. I followed Gurmet as Gylason the main guide went high up to the left. The place just blew me away with its scale, you were completely dwarfed by the sheer scale of the place as the mountains seem to encase you inside this most beautiful of landscapes. The following images captured that first morning in Hemis National park.
Over the next several days our routine didnt really change as the guides were scouting for Snow Leopard signs and possible sightings from first light until last light. We visited the junction of Husing Nala and Tarbung nala including the high ridge lines. On each day after breakfast we hiked up the main Lato Nala vantage point at Rumbak Sumdo and spent the day scanning the Kharlung and adjoining areas. It became very apparent from the moment we entered this beautiful yet hostile terrain that it would be very difficult to see a Snow leopard.
Our guides spent the whole time just watching for clues and signs through telescopes. While we were looking for the Snow Leopard, we had many opportunities to observe and photograph the other mammals that inhabit these mountains. The Bharal or Blue Sheep is the most common, and we also saw Wolly Hare, lots of birds and tracks of red Foxes during our daily hikes.
From when we first arrived we had heavy snow and the whole place looked so beautiful but it was really cold. At night it dropped to around minus 25 plus and it was really tough. Last February my team said it wasn’t as cold due to little snow fall. All my clients were brilliant and braved the extreme weather conditions as we carried on looking for the elusive Snow leopard. Trekking through some of the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever seen. We walked through valleys that were just stunning and walked up to ridges overlooking mountains and the whole team and clients were amazing.
On one such day while we were waiting and hoping to see a Snow leopard a lone Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier as they are often called was soaring above our heads against the bluest of skies you could have ever imagined. Later from nowhere a rare Himalayan Griffon Vulture also soared above us often crossing the same flight path as the Bearded Vulture.
Then after those first few days had passed we were having breakfast and we heard shouting outside our dining tent. I got up and went outside and the guides told me there had been a sighting of a Snow Leopard on the mountain overlooking our camp. I went back to the dining tent and told all the clients. Everyone then made a scramble to their own tents to get their camera gear and get properly dressed. I cant describe those few moments as it seemed like a blur now looking back. We soon got all our gear and were out on the small path adjacent to our camp.
Our guides were looking through the powerful telescopes and each one of us in turn looked through to see this amazing big cat. First he went over the ridge and out of sight, then he returned and just lay down in the morning sun without a care in the world. My guides were pointing up and helped us all set up our cameras to locate the Snow leopard high up on the mountain ridge.
He didn’t move a great deal and spent the next several hours just sleeping and lazing around, before getting up and walking back over the ridge and that was the last we saw of him. Everyone was overjoyed and speechless really at this very lucky encounter and I was really happy for all my clients. We’d had no sightings for days then this and words cant express how we all felt at seeing one of the worlds rarest cats and also one of the most beautiful ones.
In the sky above him there was a Bearded Vulture once more and this time he was flying with what looked like the remains of a Blue Sheep. Perhaps killed by the Snow Leopard sometime earlier and the Vulture was doing what they are known for and cleaning up either way it was a action packed day and one I will never forget.
When everything had calmed down we all looked at each other and couldn’t believe how lucky we were. The rest of the afternoon and evening seemed a blur really as we carried on with our daily routine over the next few days. Could our lucky carry on? I said to myself. Over the next few days we all walked and trekked over frozen rivers and steep valleys and ridges once more to the places the guides knew and had seen Snow Leopards at in the past. Even though we didn’t get lucky the landscapes and other wildlife we came across were just amazing. Each day returning to our little camp nestled inbetween the mountain ranges of the Indian Himalayas.
All our food was cooked fresh and served to us warm wherever we were. If we were close to camp we’d come back and eat outside with the Himalayas as our backdrop (weather permitting). If we were some distance from camp then our team brought the food to us. Having warm food while it was cold helped us all and the service was second to none. The food was better than alot of hotels I’ve stayed in, it really was. also our waiters ; Stanzin and Rigzen were just brilliant. But a massive thanks goes to the chef; Lobzang who cooked everything on a small stove inside the cooking tent.
Our little camp can be seen in the bottom left hand corner of the image below. Where we stayed was hard for me to describe due to its remoteness and beauty, this image I hope goes someway in conveying that.
During those treks as we walked through some of the most wonderful landscapes I’ve ever seen we’d come across different species of wildlife, eagles and vultures soaring above us it was truly magical. Blue Sheep appearing from the shadows, watching us then carrying on with their lives all in full view of us.
On one of the days where we’d walked up to a vantage point or pass as they are sometimes known we visited a homestay high up around 4500m above sea level. One of my guides; Gurmets sister lived there with her husband and children. It was a bit of a walk to get too and the going was slightly tough as the oxygen seemed to be disappearing the higher we got. Once we’d reached the small buildings we were invited inside for a warm drink. Once inside we sat down and we amazed at how wonderful the rooms looked and the kitchen etc.
I also made a friend there, he was the nephew of Gurmet one of our guides. He loved seeing his face in my camera and I showed him the ones I took of him to which he was fascinated. Thank you Kat, one of my clients for taking the image of me showing the little fellow photos of himself on the back of my camera. Once we had finished we said our goodbyes to them all and the cute little boy and headed back to our camp.
On our last day in Hemis Natinoal park before heading back to Leh we had packed up and the whole team had taken down all the tents and loaded everything onto our mules and donkeys for the walk to our pick up point which would take us around an hour. We set off before our gear and mules and had only been walking for around ten minutes when to our front we could see some sort of commotion and shouting. Once we got closer our guides told us that another Snow Leopard has been spotted not to far from where we were.
We followed Gylason and Gurmet our guides, my heart was racing, everyone was sort of dumbstruck that on the day we were leaving our luck shone once more. We soon went off track and headed almost vertical up a really steep hill. The Snow Leopard was on the mountain opposite but it was impossible to see until we stopped and checked. There were a few other people there all pointing to where the Snow Leopard was, so we quickly got sorted and everyone set up their tripods and cameras and scanned the mountain.
How they spot these elusive big cats I have know idea because they are almost invisible to the naked eye due to their fur pattern and colour which is identical to the rocks and cliffs in which they live in. We set up and both guides showed us all where he was which sounds easy when you type it but trust me it still takes alot of time to see them. Upon looking for a few minutes I saw him and said “wow” out loud. Sitting their all majestically, fur in tip top condition he was just stunning.
We spent the whole day until it was dark watching him. He didn’t move or do alot apart from sleep but it was a privilege and a great honour to see, watch and just marvel at one of the worlds rarest big cats. Many people told me I’d never see one on my trip as they are so rare and that I was mad putting on such a trip for clients because of how difficult they are too find and see.
Well we saw two and I still cant believe it really. This image shows my whole group- clients and guides on the hillside waiting and watching the male Snow Leopard who was sleeping on the opposite mountain. What a day and what a memory. I had the best 2 guides and a great team helping us all, all of which I cant thank enough.
This image below shows the small path we were walking on that morning when we were told another Snow leopard was spotted. This was our view all that day and it was stunning. A tough vertical walk upwards but it was well worth it. There are no vehicles allowed into Hemis National park these small roads are used for people and their animals really and the whole place has very strict rules and restrictions on the permits each day/week keeping numbers to just 35 which is good for the place but more importantly good for the wildlife minimising any disturbance.
I was willing and hoping he’d move but just like the first Snow leopard we’d seen early they don’t seem to do alot apart from sleep so the day went by and he’d move alittle then go back to sleep. We lost the light early on in the afternoon as it goes behind the large mountains. Occasionally he’d get up and yawn then go back to sleep and that was the pattern until we completely lost the light and had to drag ourselves off that mountain and say goodbye not only to him but to this incredible place that had been our home over the last several days. I was really sad to leave and I said goodnight to him as we carefully made our way down to the path and walked out of Hemis National park to our awaiting transport.
The image below was my very last one before we packed everything up and set off. He sat up and it was almost like he was watching us and had been the whole time. Absolutely stunning animals and it was such a real privilege to see them and spend time with them. It was cold and tough going at times but these big cats are special and live in one of the most testing environments anywhere in the world. Perfectly adapted to that life they are true masters of this place and they demand your totally respect.
As we walked out I kept looking back I didn’t know what to think really as the whole place was beyond words. I was overjoyed all my clients had seen this incredibly rare big cat during their time there I really was. It was nice to get back to our hotel though in Leh, I can remember just turning the shower on, turning the dial to hot and standing underneath it for a very longtime as it had been many days since any of us had had a shower as that’s the one thing we don’t get while camping.
We spent the next day relaxing there and clients brought some presents and souvenirs before our flight back to Delhi and the hustle and bustle of urban living. The people of Leh and the surrounding areas were very kind and really nice people. Everyone we met couldn’t do enough to help us all, they were wonderful.
Once we had landed in Delhi and were back at our hotel I had arranged a day trip around Delhi so clients could see some of the amazing places this city has to offer. Over the many years I’ve traveled to India I’ve visited the capital a number of times and each time it always surprises you with something different. Its not for the faint heated due to its noise and vast population but I love old Delhi and so did all my clients during their sightseeing trip.
Then as though it was a dream it was our final night there before our flight home in the early hours back to the UK. It was truly an amazing and unforgettable trip and I’d like to thank all my clients for their company and putting up with all the cold. Everything that could be planned went really well and that’s thanks to the team I was working with in India. Sanjay my friend was amazing and we’d spoken and planned this for what seemed like ages then in no time it was over. I can’t thank him enough for all his hardwork and the rest of the team headed up by Renu.
Two clients have already sent through their testimonials on my trip which you can read below –
“I cannot thank Craig enough for the experience he has provided during my time in the Himalayas. From the instant I met him he was such an intelligent, kind and knowledgeable guy and has taken an enormous amount of time and careful planning to put together an unforgettable trip of a lifetime. The Rumbak Valley in which we spent most of our stay here was surrounded by pure beauty, but it was very cold, with temperatures dropping as low as -28 at night but during the day when the sun was shining it did reach about 5 degrees, which was pleasant. The food we received and the care up on the mountains was outstanding, our guides were unmistakably the best of the team, we couldn’t have done what we have without them. We were extremely lucky as we came across 2 snow leopards within 3 days of one another and the array of wildlife in-between was spectacular, but throughout this entire trip Craig was beside me helping me with my camera settings, any problems or queries I had he would be helping me instantly and I could see a huge difference in my pictures. The knowledge I have come away with has been more informative than a 6-week photography course I did. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone who doesn’t mind being cold and doesn’t mind being immersed in some of nature’s finest work. Thank you Craig”
Kat Deeley, Australia
“Myself and my wife, Gwyn have just returned from a trip to the Himalayas with Craig looking for snow leopards. The scenery was utterly spectacular, what a fantastic place! We can highly recommend one of Craig trips, the work he puts in to the organisation of it all is amazing, every detail is thought of. The guides, the food, the whole team of helpers were just brilliant. During the trip Craig was very helpful and always willing to offer advice and help without hesitation, his professionalism and knowledge about wildlife and photography is truly excellent. We were lucky enough to have two separate sightings of snow leopards as well as many sightings of the other wildlife of the area, it was a magical experience to see these magnificent big cats in their natural habitat. Gwyn and I enjoyed this trip so much we have already booked on to another two of Craig’s trips, we thoroughly recommend a trip with Craig. We would like to say a big thank you to Craig and his whole team it was really a remarkable trip.”
Jacha and Gwyn, North Wales
I’d like to thank my whole team I worked with while trekking and camping, I’ve had the privilege of working with many great teams but none have been so “together” and hardworking as this team. Thank you Gylason and Gurmet my two dedicated guides. Thank you to Lobzang the amazing cook. Thank you also to Tamchos and Sunny our porters, Stanzin and Rigzen our waiters and helpers I couldn’t have done all this without your brilliant help and I look forward to working with you all again next year.
Also I am very lucky to have a number of companies that help and support my work and I’d like to thank them all for providing me with the best gear. As a brand ambassador for Sealskinz I took the latest products to keep my feet, head and hands warm. I also used their brilliant dry bags to keep my camera gear completely dry. The temperatures were extremely cold at times and even when the sun was out it was still really cold but through all that their products helped me do the best job their I could. I’ve used this gear now for many years and for me they are the market leaders.
I’m also a brand ambassador for Zeiss. I took their incredibly sharp Zeiss 28mm F1.4 Otus wide angled lenses with me and the results were stunning I also took incredible Victory SF binoculars with me they are the best ones I’ve ever used and the performance and clarity is second to none.
I took alot of gear with me on this expedition from Paramo clothing. I’ve used this clothing since my time in the armed forces and its amazing, hard wearing and hasn’t ever let me down in the field. I’m part of their Nature Pro Scheme which is a brilliant scheme and one I use a great deal. I took my Velez trousers, my Halcon jacket for the walking and trekking in the daytime, Torres Gilet,Bentu Fleece, and lots of their baselayers. Each item was tested to the limit in this harsh environment and never ever let me know. Keeping me warm yet keeping out the cold and wind.
I hope this blog has in someway transported you to this place and showed you just how incredible it is and the stunning Snow leopard. Its hard going there and you need people you can trust and rely on there in India in order to do this trip safely. I have those people in place and I’m very lucky. My Snow Leopard Expedition 2018 dates are on my website now and it’s the same trip , same team etc so if you’d like to join me from wherever you are in the world then see this following link for all the details.
I’m only taking five people and I have two people already booked, if these dates don’t suit you or you would like a more bespoke, private trip then I can offer this throughout the year as part of my bespoke/private packages. Over the last few days I have relived this truly breathtaking adventure and I cannot wait to get back there already, many thanks.