In search of the no leopard

I love to go a-wandering
Along the mountain track
And as I go I love to sing,
Rebecca’s knapsack, plus my own,
On my back. Val-der-ree…

A week ago Rebecca and I set off up valley to cross the 5380 metre Renjo Pass. It was ambitious of us, considering our rubbish fitness, the tough time we’ve had acclimatising, and my insistence that we do it without a porter or a guide. “Honestly, l’ll carry all the gear” I promised recklessly, quietly excited that we would be passing through some prime territory for spotting that fanged enigma, the silvery snow leopard.

Have you seen him, I asked the old codgers sitting in the sun as we walked out of Khumjung. Oh yes, oh yes. Sometimes you can hear him calling from over there at night, they said, gesturing behind the village to the sacred mountain of Khumbila which guards the village and upon whose slopes – conveniently for El L’Pardo – no man may set foot.

The folks in the village of Thomo said much the same the next day. You can see him in the jungle sometimes, said one middle-aged gent. He eats the yaks and is generally a pain in the arse, seeing as government compensation for a leopard kill is about 5,000 rupees short of the 15,000 rupee cost of a beast of burden. So do people shoot them?

Not unless you like jail, he said.

So I’ve been scanning the rhododendron forests ruthlessly as we walk, and peering amongst the junipers; seeking out likely sunny ledges, generally confident that I’ve alerted the universe as to my intentions and that it knows I’m ready for my moment: a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse of a wild snow leopard. Eight days later, this is what I’ve deduced:

  • If you spot, far in the distance and about a kilometre above you, a shape moving upon the high himalayan pastures, it’s a yak
  • If you see a trail of footprints crossing a steep section of turf, it’s a yak
  • But if you find a silver wisp of hair caught on a thorn bush way off the main trails – that, my friend, is also a yak.

There are a lot of yaks here.

However on our second day of walking, near the village of Thame, we did see a herd of Thar, which are a kind of mountain goat, and witnessed a proper little drama as Mama Thar tried to shepherd her Thar baby away from the attentions of – honestly – the biggest goddamned eagle I’ve ever seen. Blurry photos of both are below, and if I’d filmed the eagle catching the little one you can be sure this blog post would’ve been titled Thar’d and Feathered.

Side note: outside of the Himalaya, where Thar are becoming rare, the only place they live is in the Southern Alps of New Zealand as they were gifted to the country by, I believe, the Government of India, so that they could be gleefully gunned down by the hunters of Aotearoa [that’s you Richard]

The next day we walked a tough six hours to Lungden, sucking desperately at the thin air, and I saw the unmistakable three-toed print of a small predator crossing the trail, plus this little turd right in the middle of the path. I broke it apart with a rock (yes, I’m  that keen), to find that whatever laid the scat was probably not a cat, but had been munching – along with something furry – quite a few large beetles, which means it was probably a pine marten. An elderly couple who walked by agreed, saying that the nasty little buggers, which are relatives of wolverines (but without the adamantium skeleton), will actually kill yaks.

Caution: (lunch) spoiler below.

That night we arrived in Lungden totally bushed and spent the next day acclimatising to the higher altitude and shivering in our sleeping bags. In the morning we set out, feeling peppy, to tackle the pass. An hour in, Rebecca announced that she knew cat poo when she saw it, and showed me a scat which had bones and even a smallish ball and socket joint in it – probably from a baby yak. Interesting! We then pushed on, trudging upwards, sucking in four breaths to every step, and those pains in your chest – it’s no heart attack, it’s the muscles between your ribs yelling about the stretch they’re getting. Up we plodded, up – past the stunted plants, into rock and snow, and finally to the knife edge of the pass where torn prayer flags flapped madly in the wind and the sound of a couple of avalanches crackled up from below like giants noisily unwrapping birthday presents. We’d done it, and could descend for a few hours down to Gokyo and a rest.

As for big cats on the big trek, instead of a snow leopard, I saw the no leopard – though I’ll leave you with a photo of one set of footprints I found on the exposed sand of a dried-up lake, and let you draw your own conclusions. On the subject of yesses however…

…on the far side of the pass, with the hardest part of the hardest nine hours of hiking I’ve ever done behind us, I asked Rebecca if she’d marry me. As she put it in a text to her family when we arrived back in Khumjung yesterday, asking the big question at 5,000 metres was a cunning way of ensuring that when she gave her answer, her yes was breathless.


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