Ladakh: In Search of Snow Leopards

with Jock Montgomery

  • January 15-31, 2016: 17 day trek from Leh into Hemis National Park

Introduction

Snow leopard tracks in the snow with a glove for perspective, Ladakh, India

The land is so barren and the passes so high that only the best of friends or fiercest of enemies want to visit us.
–Ladakh saying

I stood back, taking pictures in the pouring rain, watching my friend Andy dig a foot-deep hole in rocky soil at a spot overlooking a sacred Tibetan peak. He was making a small gesture for his neighbor and friend, a well-known author who had recently passed away. Into this earthen space he laid a few personal objects: a whistle, an amulet, a few seashells, some of the man’s ashes, and his award-winning book The Snow Leopard.

I first heard of this writer in college, as did most of the others in my university’s outdoor club. He had made a mark on a generation of Himalayan explorers and adventurers, including myself. In 1979 this book won the National Book Award for non-fiction. The title is a diversion of sorts. There is an irony in spending years writing a book about an object he failed to find. As a practicing Buddhist, Matthiessen certainly understood how poetic and inevitable such searches can be.

Andy placed the final shovelful of dirt into the hole and arranged a few seashells on top. There was a feeling of celebration of life amongst the group, nothing morose or melancholy. Such rituals that men perform for the death of other men offer closure. And yet, for me, the closure was not quite complete. After so many years living and trekking in the Himalayas, I have not yet seen my snow leopard.

My first attempt to view the elusive cat was over twenty years ago when I spent two months in the Himalayan mountains around Manang looking for a snow leopard who had killed a baby yaks in a nearby village. I was staying in town with a doctor and girlfriend, a volunteer for the Himalayan Rescue Association. While she tended to injuries and ailments of trekkers and locals, I spent my time hiking around the high barren mountains with a massive telephoto lens.

While I photographed dozens of bharral sheep—a main prey of the leopard—I only saw a few signs of the predator’s presence. Blending into the rocky landscape, almost always alone, the snow leopard is almost impossible to spot from a distance. Even up close, once they stop, they blend into the rocks like a ghost. While I could not see them, they were most likely watching me, scrambling around the hillside like a challenged mountain goat, attempting to hold steady a barrel of metal and glass, scanning the horizon for movement. If big cats have a sense of humor, I was the punch line.

After two months of daily forays, I temporarily abandoned my search and returned to Kathmandu to lead more treks, sure that someday I would see this beautiful spotted creature. Two decades later, I am still looking.

I invite you to come with me on a journey of discovery, into the winter mountains of Ladakh in Hemis National Park for our own search for the snow leopard. After acclimating ourselves in Leh and visiting some spectacular 15th-century monasteries, we will begin our trek up the valley to the immense Hemis National Park where we will camp out for more than a week. Now that the snow leopard is an endangered species with world-wide recognition, local guides have become quite familiar with their habits and scent markings. They will help point us in the right direction for a sighting, a level of assistance that Peter Matthiessen certainly never had. The likelihood that we will actually see a leopard during our time in the wilderness is now extremely high, especially since we will be there during the winter mating season.

In the vastness of these mountains, which initially seem barren, we may also find bharral sheep, Tibetan wolves, red fox, perhaps a Ladakh Urial, an Asiatic ibex, or brown bear. If we look up, soaring on an updraft we might see golden eagles, lammergeier vultures, and Himalayan griffon.

The camera helps us bring this landscape to life. Imagine time-lapse photos of white woolen clouds drifting in the sky as shadows dance across the land. Visualize long exposures of the night sky that absorb light from billions of years in the past. Point your camera, shutter open, at the North star and gather evidence we are indeed spinning on an axis. Envision panoramic photos that sweep from sky to earth allowing viewers to experience what it was like to stand where you have been.

I could tell you that the nights will be long and cold and that any snow leopard will be far away, but such details should not matter. Mostly, I want to share with you the excitement of searching for what slips away from our grasp. If you want to join me on this most unusual quest, contact me, tell me a little about yourself. I cannot guarantee a sighting of a snow leopard, but I can promise you an unforgettable journey. What are we looking for? Perhaps, like Peter Matthiessen. we simply want to “penetrate the secrets of the mountains in search of something still unknown.”

Jock Montgomery

Photography

Jock Montgomery will help you define your compositions, work effectively in different lighting conditions, and create compelling content. You will learn how to take in and personalize breathtaking moments that range from sweeping natural scenery to colorful human activities.

While in Leh, we will make time to edit your photographs. At friendly gatherings with the group, Jock will critique everyone’s work.

Trip Highlights

  • Receive guidance and critiques from professional photographer Jock Montgomery
  • Visit Leh Palace, a 17th-century structure modeled after the Potala Palace in Lhasa
  • Visit 17th-century Hemis monastery, the largest and wealthiest in Ladakh as well as the notable monasteries of Thiksey and Stakna
  • Opportunity to view snow leopards in their natural habitat as well as other rare species such as the Tibetan Argali
  • Learn how to shoot time-lapse and 360º panorama photographs
  • Compass Rose Expeditions will make a per participant donation to the Snow Leopard Conservancy, India.
A winter campsite by moonlight in the Ladakh Himalaya

A winter campsite lit by the moon

A Buddhist monk beside the entrance to the main chanting hall at Stakna Monastery in Ladakh, India

A Buddhist monk beside the entrance to the main chanting hall at Stakna Monastery

Headwaters of the Indus and Thiksey Monastery in the distance, the Ladakh valley of the Indian Himalaya

Headwaters of the Indus River, Leh Valley and the Himalayas

Recommended Reading

General

The Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard, Stories from the Roof of the World

Ladakh

Compass Rose Expeditions’ Reading Lists

Trip Detail

Novice Ladakhi Monk carrying firewood, Indian Himalaya

Young Ladakhi Monk carrying firewood

Consider this itinerary an outline. As with any trip of this nature we need to allow for  unexpected events, which could be anything from the weather to a unique photographic opportunity.

Please note: three meals a day are included in the cost except for first and last days as noted in the itinerary.

Map of our Journey

Day 1: Arrive Delhi

When you arrive in Delhi, you will be greeted by a company representative who will take you to your hotel. You will be on your own for the rest of the day (no meals included). The last night of the trip will also be spent in Delhi.

Day 2: Arrive Leh

In the early morning, you will be taken to the airport by a local guide and will then fly over the Himalaya to Leh airport. Be sure to book a window seat (either side of the plane is fine) and have your camera handy! You should  book Air India flight AI 445 departing Delhi 05:55 and arriving Leh 07:25. If the flight cancels and you must overnight in Delhi, I will arrange transportation back to the, but you will have to pay for the hotel and any meals. 

*Please be aware; although I have had good luck in the past, Delhi to Leh and return are Himalayan mountain flights with weather that can sometimes be unpredictable. Flights may be delayed or even canceled while the plane is on route! We have added time at the beginning and end of the tour to accommodate the unexpected. 

Day 2 – 4: Leh

The next several days are very important for acclimating to the altitude:  3,524 meters (11,562 ft). During this time, you will have the opportunity to visit Leh Palace, the Old Quarter of Leh, and the monasteries of Shey, Thiksey, and Hemis.

In the evenings, Jock will offer friendly critique sessions of your photographs. There will also be interactive presentations on wildlife and conservation efforts in the region.

Day 5 – 13: Hemis National Park

In the morning, we drive to Zingchen, a dramatic entrance to Hemis National Park, and camp around 12,000 feet. For the next nine evenings, our trekking and camping will revolve around sightings of snow leopards as well as other exotic Himalayan animals such as the Tibetan Argali and wolf.  Along the way, we will explore local villages

Day 14 – 15: Leh

We will return to Leh late in the day and check back into our hotel. We have built in an extra day to accommodate the occasional cancelation of flights due to weather.

The group will have a chance to prepare their photos for our final slide show and critique. 

Day 16, 1/30: Delhi

In the morning, we will fly to Delhi. We check into our hotel and have the rest of the day for leisure and optional activities. (Today all meals are included.) Return flight is Air India flight AI 446 departing Leh at 08:00 and arriving Delhi 09:20 (am).

Day 17, 1/31: Depart Delhi

Stay in Delhi on your own to visit Taj Mahal at Agra (we can arrange optional activities for you), or board a flight to an onward destination. Due to possible delays, flights out of Delhi should be scheduled for the late afternoon or evening.

Leaders

Jock Montgomery

Jock Montgomery shaving with the help of a Ladakhi friend

Jock shaving with the help of a Ladakhi friend

Jock has been leading trips in the United States since he was a teenager. In 1983, he moved to Nepal to lead river expeditions, mountain treks, and train local guides.

After living in Kathmandu for twelve years, he moved to Bangkok. Through his company Compass Rose Expeditions, he now leads river running, sea kayaking, trekking, mountain biking trips, and expeditions across the Himalayas, North America, Greenland, Patagonia, and Southeast Asia.

Jock is also in demand as a commercial and editorial assignment photographer.

More about Jock Montgomery …

A snowy foot print on clear ice

A snowy foot print on clear ice

Winter Trek in Ladakh

Pictures of Leh, the upper Indus River valley, and a recent winter trek in the Ladakhi region of the Himalayas–not far from where we will search for snow leopards.

Dates

January 15-31, 2016

Prices (in US$)

  • 4-6 participants, contact Jock
  • 7-8 participants
  • $500/single supplement

Payment Schedule

  • Deposit: $500
  • Balance Due: 90 days prior to departure

Cancellation Fees

  • Deposit is non-refundable
  • 61-90 days prior to departure 50% of land cost
  • 60 days or less prior to departure 100% of land cost

What is Included

  • Expert leadership, instruction and support staff
  • Airport and other transfers
  • Ground transportation, minibus, van
  • Transportation fees and taxes
  • Entrance and zone fees, “special” permissions
  • Porter tips
  • Accommodation as specified

What is not included

  • Travel insurance is required for emergency medical needs. Trip cancellation insurance is strongly recommended
  • International airfare from home and your flights from Delhi to Leh and Leh to Delhi (mentioned in the itinerary)
  • Customary but optional tips for local guides
  • Visas and Immunization
  • Personal expenses, including laundry, snacks, drinks, alcohol etcetera
  • Overweight luggage charges

1) Send Deposit

An invoice will be sent by email with instructions for payment. A non-refundable deposit is required to hold your place on a trip. If paying the full amount, an itemized invoice will be sent. (Same price for cash or credit.)

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3) Send Copy of Passport

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