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Stalking One Very Cool Cat
The snow leopards of the Himalaya are among the most elusive predators on Earth. But even their amazing stealth may not be enough to save them. On one of the first commercial expeditions to see the cats in winter, our reporter investigates whether adventure travel can make a difference. By Paul Kvinta

Photo: A male snow leopard on Karlung Ridge in mountainous Ladakh, India.
HELLO KITTY: A male snow leopard on Karlung Ridge in mountainous Ladakh, India.

Hour after hour we scan the tortured Himalayan ridgelines, sunup to sundown, valley after snow-covered valley, first the Rumbak, then the Tarbung, now the Husing. Our binoculars trace and retrace the same jutting cliffs, the same craggy outcrops, the same scree slopes, over and over. Our eyes are red, tired, and bleary, and at nearly 13,000 (3,962 meters) unacclimated feet, we're more than a bit woozy.

I'm studying a handful of wild blue sheep on the near slope. They're grazing leisurely on tufts of sage, and one ram is particularly magnificent, his massive horns spiraling in on themselves. They're not picky eaters, blue sheep, which is good, considering this moonscape of rock and ice. I inch the binocs just above them, and there he is. A cat. A snow leopard. No doubt about it. He's crouched low, moving bit by bit. Then, suddenly, his long tail shoots straight up, and he's charging down the slope, rocks flying, limbs spinning, snow flaring. "There!" I cry, dropping the binocs and pointing.

Before anyone can respond, before I can be proven a fool, I look again. The sheep are still grazing, heads down, jaws working. Above them is poised a serrated granite outcrop, solitary and still. There is no cat. "Nothing," I say. "It's nothing. Forget it."

"Another one of those moving rocks," says Rodney Jackson, in his quiet way, scanning the opposite slope. "Just be patient."

I can't imagine that shape-shifting granite is what the Buddhist oracle had in mind, but who knows? We'd made a pilgrimage to the village of Sabu specifically to see her at the beginning of our quest, as she was said to be the most powerful healer and fortune-teller in all of Ladakh. The Dalai Lama himself is supposedly a devotee. She would tell us if our search for the snow leopard would be fulfilled. After graciously seating us in her kitchen alongside several ailing pilgrims who'd traveled far for her curative touch, this diminutive 82-year-old grandmother disappeared behind a cloud of incense and for 30 minutes underwent a dark transformation. In a slow swirl of drum beating, rattle shaking, and saber waving before an altar of burning candles, she began to yip and yelp, to grunt and groan. She wailed plaintively and flailed her arms and donned an elaborate golden headdress bearing the images of holy lamas from centuries past. Then, eyes rolled to the back of her skull, she spun around to face us, speaking in a gravelly baritone. This new entity, this denizen of some shadowy netherworld, quickly set to work. She pressed her lips to the stomach of a woman with an injured foot, emitted a loud sucking sound, and then spit a green, gooey substance into a bowl. The patient sighed, apparently satisfied that the pain had been sucked out of her. Then she turned to me. Draping a white kata, or scarf, around my neck, she assured me, "You will see the snow leopard. He lives high in the mountains. Whichever mountain you go up, you will see him."

I wanted to dismiss this as her merely hoping to please a friendly foreigner. But then she proved her unearthly power beyond a doubt. She grabbed a red-hot iron from the wood-burning stove, and, without flinching, slowly licked it.

If the laws of nature submitted to the will of this woman, who was I to doubt her? And yet now, cold and a little frustrated, I'm beginning to wonder. Then photographer Ami Vitale knocks me from my stupor. "There!" she cries, pointing at a particular juncture of razor ridge and blue sky. "Something moved! I know it moved!"

Map: snow leopard map

We fumble for the high-powered scopes and examine the spot.

Nada. Another moving rock.

Then someone notices the blue sheep. They are no longer grazing. They're staring intently across the valley, at the exact spot where Vitale had seen movement. We hurry down to the frozen river and investigate along its bank when Jackson stops suddenly. There in the snow lies a set of heart-shaped tracks. Cat tracks. Fresh ones. "They might be 30 minutes old," he says, eyeballing the tracks where they progress up the bank and cross the ice. He slowly scans the impossibly vertical slope opposite the river. Then he scratches his head. "I have no idea where this snow leopard is," he says. "But in all probability, at this moment, he's watching us."

Get a hold of a copy of the August 2005 issue of Adventure find out whether Paul Kvinta was successful in spotting a snow leopard.

Photo Gallery: See photographer Ami Vitale's outtakes from Ladakh, India. Enter the gallery >>

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Photograph by the Snow Leopard Conservancy
Map by Computer Terrain Mapping

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, August 2005

• Instant Alaska: Four explorer-worthy fly-in trips.
Hell-Bent for the Arctic: Emerging Explorer Kira Salak takes the ultimate Alaska bike trip
The Map of Us All: Geneticist Spencer Wells's plan to use DNA clues to retrace the origin of humankind
Stalking One Very Cool Cat: Writer Paul Kvinta searches for snow leopards in India
There & Back: Mountaineer Ed Viesturs summits Annapurna
Pelton's World: Our man on the scene explains why he travels alone


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Related Web Sites

Snow Leopard Conservancy
Check out more photos of the cats in their natural habitat and learn more about Rodney Jackson's efforts to preserve them.

Rare Snow Leopard
Learn more about the snow leopard and see how new measures are being developed to track its population.

Paul Kvinta's "Stomping Grounds"
Read Paul Kvinta's Daniel Pearl Award-winning story on the wild elephants of Assam, India.

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August 2005

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