Snow Leopards: Gray Ghosts Of The Himalaya

When you hike the world's highest peaks in search of the legendary snow leopard, be prepared for the unexpected.
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When you hike the world's highest peaks in search of the legendary snow leopard, be prepared for the unexpected.

When a baseball-size rock came tumbling down the scree slope the first time, I chalked it up to chance. Then another zoomed by our knees, and my personal alarm system screamed, "Avalanche!" Two more boulders careened by before my friend Ellen and I dove for cover behind a small outcropping. We peered up at the dun-colored cliffs hemming the canyon, searching for the source of the rockfall. Nothing moved.

As we waited for another volley, I chuckled over the irony of our situation. Ellen and I had worked hard to get to the trail where we were currently pinned down. We'd waded patiently through India's bureaucratic maze to get Inner Line Travel Permits, which enabled us to hike in the restricted-access zone near India's border with Tibet. We'd endured a harrowing 24-hour journey involving a decrepit bus, a precipice overhanging the raging Sutlej River, and a driver who clearly put great faith in reincarnation. Now, on the very first day of our hard-won trek into Pin Valley National Park, with buses and bureaucrats safely behind, nothing but glacial runoff and 20,000-foot peaks ahead, would a crumbling cliff prematurely end our hike?

After a few moments, another rock clattered by. If this was a landslide, we figured, it was happening in slow motion. I looked up at the cliff again, and this time my eyes caught a blur of movement. Then the whole scene came into focus and I could suddenly pick out a dozen brown-yellow hides of Asian ibex perched 150 feet above us. We watched in awed silence as the ibex casually defied the laws of gravity, leaping from one invisible foothold to another, before vanishing behind a parting salvo of falling rocks.

I interpreted the ibex encounter as a fortunate omen, since we'd come to this remote valley in the hope of spotting the legendary gray ghost of the Himalaya, also known as the snow leopard, the ibex's primary predator. When we resumed hiking, following the Pin River's green-white torrent into the heart of its namesake valley, the barren, lunarlike landscape suddenly seemed alive with the possibility of watching eyes.

Though politically located in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, Pin Valley and the surrounding region (Spiti) are geographically on the Tibetan Plateau. Tucked neatly into the rain shadow of the Himalaya, this high desert consists of valleys that average over 12,000 feet at the bottom, a sea of ice-encrusted peaks, rocky canyons, scores of glaciers, and a sparse population of Tibetan Buddhists.

The 420-square-mile park (with a buffer zone twice that size) was established in 1987, opened to foreigners 5 years later, and by all appearances is still waiting for them to come. There are no teahouses here. No trail signs. No guidebooks. Not even a good map. Just a handful of villages, a few nomadic shepherds who drift into the high meadows come summer, and pure, cloud-piercing wilderness.

A week into our journey, Ellen and I set up camp on the banks of the Parahio River, a tributary of the Pin. ("Go that way," a shepherd had told us days before upon learning of our wildlife search, "it's more jungli> up there.") We had climbed to over 14,000 feet, following a semi-improved goat track upstream as the canyon walls squeezed in and the mind-boggling peaks, still a vertical mile above, piled into dizzying stacks that challenged our heretofore quaint notion of mountain terrain.

We'd seen no people for days--just a few skittish pikas, some lone ravens, a herd of bharal sheep, and more rock-flinging ibex. Nor had we seen a leopard, even though biologists estimate that about a dozen inhabit the park.

So there, beside the Parahio, we gave up our search. The next morning, as if on cue, a blizzard descended, trapping us inside our tent for 24 hours. When the flakes finally stopped flying, I unzipped the fly and took a half-step out. And there, in the new snow, not a yard from our door, was a perfect set of feline paw prints, each distinct impression as big as the palm of my hand.

On the happy hike out, Ellen and I decided that real adventure--the kind that makes your soul sing--is a lot like searching for a snow leopard. The best you can do is put yourself in the right vicinity, and hope it finds you.

Expedition Planner

Pin Valley National Park, India

Permits: Inner Line Travel Permits (required) are available at government offices in India, or by arrangement through an outfitter (see Outfitter below). For visa and permit information, call the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC, at (202) 939-9806, or go to www.indianembassy.org.

Route: Several routes lead from the Sutlej River in Kinnaur to the upper Pin River. Expect to cross passes higher than 15,000 feet and hike 50-plus miles.

Access: The Pin Valley is in northeast Himachal Pradesh. Two roads access the mouth of Pin Valley. The southern route (through Kinnaur; start in Simla) is open from approximately March through December. The northern route (through Lahaul; start in Manali) is passable mid-July through September. Within Spiti, you can take a bus as far as the town of Sangam (depending on season), then hike up either the Pin or Parahio River.

Season: July through September is best for open roads and passes, wildflowers, and wildlife spotting in the high country.

Guide: Himachal Pradesh Sheet #6: Kalpa-Kinnaur, Spiti, and Shimal Area, Leomann Maps (order from Cordee Ltd., 011-44-116-

2543579; www.backpacker.com/

mapstore; $10).

Outfitter: Ibex Expeditions offers Pin Valley treks for $1,995, excluding airfare. Contact: (800) 842-8139; www.trekibex.com.