A Week spent seeking the Himalayan phantom in the harsh wilderness of Ladakh, adventurer and explorer Ajeet Bajaj recounts the Times Passion Trails Winter Trek
Snow fell in thick flurries as we watched spellbound, nature’s grand
spectacle unfold right in front of us. Sitting on a high ridge in the Tarbung valley, Ladakh, the smooth brown rolling hills, reminiscent of moonscape, slowly turned stark white. We scanned the mountainside intensely through our binoculars and spotting scopes, looking for the Himalayan Blue Sheep (Bharal) and the main prey of snow leopard. It was like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack – surely the elusive snow leopard, ‘the phantom of the Himalaya’, had seen us. “This is a natural high,” remarked Roopika Saran, one of our team members, “definitely a high point of my existence.”
As the ‘Experience Architect’ for The Times Passion Trails Winter Trek To Ladakh (Feb 14-22, 2015), in search of the snow leopard, I was overwhelmed with the tremendous response. Selecting 13 passionate adventurers out of 1,400 applicants, on an expedition to an extreme environment, with temperatures plummeting to as low as -25 degrees Celsius, turned out to be a humongous job.
Ladakh is a mountain desert and its stark barrenness is hauntingly beautiful. On landing in Leh, adventurers suffer not only from the effects of high altitude but also willingly suffer from SOS-‘scenic overdose syndrome’. After spending three nights acclimatizing to the altitude and cold in Leh, we headed up to the Rumbak Valley in the Hemis National Park. No mention of Ladakh can be made without saluting the brave sentinels of our borders- the Indian Armed Forces. It is one thing to spend a few days in Ladakh on an adventure trip and quite another to spend years in such harsh conditions, being eternally vigilant. While in Leh, we were fortunate to have spent a delightful afternoon with Ladakh Scouts. Meeting Siachen and Kargil war heroes was the icing on the cake.
The rewarding aspect of this trip other than trekking in the Ladakh wilderness, was undoubtedly an opportunity to see some rare species such as the red fox, golden eagle, Lammergeier (bearded vulture) and many other kinds of birds. We camped at a picturesque spot called Husing and since our treks depended upon the movement and signs and symptoms of this great elusive cat, we followed the principal of Nitwit travel, ‘no itinerary travel, wing it tours’. We learnt techniques to maximise the chances of spotting a snow leopard and made excursions to Tarbung and Khardung Valleys to study the natural habitat of the cat. As a team, we decided to ‘tread lightly’ and follow the tenets of the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria and a strict ‘leave to trace’ policy.
One of the highlights was the homestay in Rumbak, giving us an opportunity to get a glimpse of the lives of people in harsh conditions at one of the most remote comers of our country. Given the warmth, hospitality and cheerful demeanour of our Ladakhi hosts, we all wished that we had budgeted for more time in this Shangrila-like village. While at Rumbak we did a delightful hike towards Ganda Lapass (4,370 metres) to look for the Tibetan Argali, the largest wild sheep in the world.
As Chander Lall, a senior intellectual property lawyer from Delhi remarked. “People spend a lifetime searching for the snow leopard. There can be no instant gratification out to be a journey of self-discovery in the cold, harsh, barren winter wilderness of Ladakh. We returned as close snow leopard’ and a strong commitment to preserve our high altitude natural heritage.
-from Sunday Times, dated on May, 03, 2015