I am a little obsessed with cats, big and small. I was born under the Leo sun, and my name is Kat. Adventure is in my soul, and when I was younger, I made a promise to myself that I would find a way to see my favorite cat species in the wild.
Fast forward to the present: I am a passionate wildlife photographer who documents endangered species in their natural habitats. My profession might keep me behind the camera, but wherever my travels take me, I make a conscious effort to put my gear down and embrace my surroundings. You can’t translate everything to film.
For my most recent photo expedition, I headed to Leh, a high-elevation desert city in the Himalayas known for its Buddhist sites, trekking, and snow leopards. My goal was to catch a glimpse of these gorgeous creatures, so cryptic that the locals refer to them as ghosts.
The flight from Delhi was just over an hour, the view becoming increasingly enchanting as we edged toward our destination. We were looking across snow leopard territory in no time.
There is a peaceful charm about Leh, from its traditional homestays, amazing food, and incredibly friendly people, to its labyrinth of alleyways and hilltop palaces. As I wandered the bustling markets filled with trinkets, traditional jewels, pashminas, and assortments of nuts and dried apricots, Leh’s charisma briefly overshadowed the thought of seeing a wild snow leopard.
Not for long, though: The guide, other guests, and I soon made our way to the base camp located at Hemis National Park. The hike was challenging, and my lungs were on fire. Though I kept a slow pace up the gradual incline, I found myself stopping frequently to catch my breath. The excitement of knowing I would soon see a snow leopard was all that kept me going.
When we arrived at base camp, it felt like we were in our own little world, perched on the side of a frozen river with the Himalayas towering over us.
After many days spent scanning the ridgeline from camp, we managed to spot a cat about 100 meters away. For a few minutes, a mother and her two cubs—about 1 year old—honored us with their presence, their perfect fur blending with the rocks.
Not even a minute later, they were gone. We wouldn’t be lucky enough to encounter them again. There was silence among us, knowing that we shared a moment that we’ll remember for a lifetime.
Over the following few days, we found fresh snow leopard prints that indicated another individual was nearby. We planned to hike farther up the winding frozen river path the next morning to find it.
The evening before we left was bitterly cold, frigid air creeping inside my sleeping bag whenever I made the slightest move. I woke to a dusting of ice covering everything inside my tent. My breath was so thick I could catch it.
After a gear check and a quick breakfast, we set off with high hopes of seeing the ghost. We slowly made our way up the mountain, carefully following the footsteps of the guide, stopping from time to time to catch our breath and scan the mountain for any sign of the cat. Every breath burned my lungs, every step burned my legs, and my gear was getting heavier with each passing moment.
But I was determined. I knew she was there; I could feel her presence. Walking with purpose, I watched my feet crunch the snow. It was hypnotic, the sound echoing through my bones. I began to count my steps in the hopes that it would occupy my mind and ease the hike.
Finally, we came across a frozen landing. I fell back onto the snow, and my exhausted body surrendered to Mother Earth.
“Masala Chai?” I heard a familiar voice ask.
“Yes, please.” I opened my eyes and sat up, enjoying the tradition while refuelling my body.
As we rested, two of the guides continued up the mountain. It felt like they had only been gone for a few minutes when they came running back toward us, signalling us to hurry up the mountainside. They announced with a manly whisper, “There is a cat on a kill.”
It took me a moment to process the news. I gathered my strength and made my way along the frozen river, every step a challenge.
When I finally reached the summit, I could not find the strength to lift my camera. But there she was, the queen of the mountain in all her beauty. I silently thanked her for honoring me with her presence. I gathered the strength to lift my camera and capture her soul.
We think she had been sitting on the kill, a blue sheep, for a few days when we found her. At times, she behaved like a little kitten, wiggling her huge, fluffy tail while chasing the pesky magpies away. She stayed with us for two days, allowing us to witness her grace.
At the end of the trip, the sun silhouetted the peaks as I made my way back down to base camp. We celebrated our last evening telling stories of the past 10 days, sharing many laughs and wonderful memories.
The last morning came too fast. The distant sound of the mule bells echoed through my soul, and I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness as I let go of the mountains.
There is something captivating about this place and its people. I breathed deeply, filling my lungs as I began to make my way down the mountain. My heart was full.
For more information on snow leopards and Panthera's work to protect them in the wild, click here.
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