A trek of a lifetime to spot the Snow Leopard in Rumbak valley, Ladakh
It is the most elusive cat to spot, the snow leopard or the grey ghost or the ghost of the mountains or as the locals call it, the Shan. This very elusivity drew us to undertake an adventure of a lifetime, braving harsh terrains and sub-zero temperatures, to trek all the way upto the Rumbak valley in Hemis National Park in Ladakh in search of the snow leopard. With 30 tiger safaris under my belt without having spotted a single tiger till date, the trek was an attempt to spot the rarest of the wild cats and break my wildcat jinx. And boy! Did my jinx break and how!
There is a reason the snow leopards are called the grey ghosts. Snow leopards live in an extremely difficult terrain, walking along cliffs and slopes and living in sub-zero temperatures in high altitudes upto 6000m. They usually feed on blue sheep for Bharals and in those high altitudes, they need to be agile and have impeccable camouflage and that makes it really hard to spot these cats.
Without any serious trekking experience under any of our belts, my group of friends and I set out to do undertake this moderate to hard 10 day trek in the bone-chilling cold winters of Ladakh. The Rumbak Valley is the mecca for snow leopard spotting. Every winter, the severe cold drives the Blue Sheep, the staple diet of the snow leopards, to lower altitudes in search of vegetation to feed on. This in turn draws the Snow Leopards down the high mountains, enabling the visitors to spot these elusive creatures at lower altitudes. Between Jan to March, scores of nature lovers descend upon Rumbak Valley to get a chance to spot these elusive creatures. We also arrived in Leh this March in search of this Grey Ghost.
After a 2 day acclimatisation at Leh, we drove to Zinchen, the last point of the motorable road to Rumbak. After that is a 5-6 hour hike to Rumbak Valley passing by the Husing campsite. The hike passes by frozen streams and picturesque mountains and loads of Blue sheep could be spotted on the way.
Upon arrival at the valley, we had a packed lunch and we were welcomed with spotting on a scope set up to track the Lynx. The Lynx is even more rare creature to spot than the snow Leopard in these parts of the world. I was hopeful that with this spotting, my wildcat jinx was broken and was eager to spot the snow leopard.
We progressed to our homestay in Rumbak Village. As the night approached, the temperatures dropped to -15 to -20C. Our only saviour was the Bukhari or the Ladakhi room heaters which burn wood to keep the room warm. After a difficult first few hours contemplating if I had mountain sickness with the body ache and headache, I passed out into a restful sleep.
The bright next day brought hope and we made our way slowly to the spotting point after an hour’s trek. The whole morning passed uneventfully with the no signs of any movement of the wildcats except the spotting of the blue sheep by the dozens! We struggled to keep our hands and toes warm in the severe cold. We were about to give up but with setting sun, we were rewarded with the spotting of out lifetime! A male snow leopard walked on the ridge of a mountain a km away for almost 30 mins! It was a young male and it’s mating call reverberated through the mountains! It was an experience covering sight, sound and motion!
Now that we had seen what we had come looking for, the next 4 days were spent trekking to different directions from the village in the hope of spotting more wild animals. Though we didn’t see any more snow leopards, we saw much more fauna of Ladakh. On one day, we trekked west from the village and saw a Red Fox at quite a distance, basking itself in the sun. On the way back, we saw a dead red fox, which was being fed by the Black-billed Magpies. The remains of this red fox were the object of the fight between a Lammergeier and the Magpies which kept us enthralled all afternoon. One another day we trekked up to Yurutse Village, a one household village on the Markha Valley trek route, for an up-close encounter with the Lynx. We ended up sighting many other animals like a Yak, Wooly hare etc and some of us had some fun skidding down the frozen river on their bums. We also spent time birding and capturing many birds of prey like the Griffon Vulture, Golden Eagle, Lammergeier etc. After 5 days at Rumbak, we trekked back to Zinchen and drove to Ulley where we were rewarded with spotting of Himalayan Wolf & the Ibex. With so much that we saw, I couldn’t have asked for more, especially since my wildcat jinx was now finally broken!
How to get there & where to stay:
Leh is connected by flights and can also be accessed by road from Srinagar or Manali. Rumbak Valley is in the Ladakh region. The motorable road ends at Zinchen from where one needs to trek to Husing Camp. Further up after a couple of hours trek is Rumbak village. Rumbak Valley is famous for snow leopard sightings. Either stay at Husing campsite or in one of the many government regulated homestays in the Rumbak village.