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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.

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.

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