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February 2002

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.

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.

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