Snow Leopard Expedition North-West India

Snow Leopard Expedition in India – February 28 to March 11th, 2018

Snow Leopard Expedition North-West India Land expedition

Size of the group: 6 participants and 1 tour leader

Duration: 11 nights/12 days

“Enigmatic”, “magnificent” and “rare”! Many words have been used to describe the Snow Leopard – all of them ring true, but none are perhaps as appropriate as “elusive”. The spectacular and rugged terrain that the Snow Leopard calls home plays a large role in making this “Ghost of the Himalayas” so exceptionally hard to find. Fortunately however we now have a much greater understanding of their behaviour and ecology, and our chances for locating this magnificent feline have therefore improved significantly over the last few years.

Our search takes place in the unequalled scenery that forms the backdrop of Hemis National Park in northwest India. Situated in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, in the fabled kingdom of Ladakh, Hemis National Park is a high altitude reserve that holds claim to being the largest National Park in all of South Asia, and is home to many special Himalayan mammals, including the impressive Blue Sheep (or Bharal). Not only is this cliff dwelling sheep a common and wonderful sight in the park, but it is also the Snow Leopard’s principle prey species in the area.

From the first major snow falls in late Autumn, right through the bitterly cold winter months, Blue Sheep descend from the higher altitudes to the more sheltered valley slopes and floors drawing with them the ever-watchful Snow Leopards. Our expedition combines up-to-date information from locals and experienced local trackers to hunt down views of the “grey ghost”.

Whilst the main focus of our tour is to experience the utter thrill of seeing a Snow Leopard in its spectacular natural surroundings, we also stand a chance for encounters with a selection of highly sought-after inhabitants of the Himalayas such as Eurasian Lynx, Grey Wolf, Argali and Ladakh Urial.


TOUR IN DETAIL:

Day 1, 28th February: arrival in Leh
Early this morning you will catch your flight (the only way in during the winter freeze!) to the ancient Himalayan city of Leh. Once the capital of the Kingdom of Ladakh, Leh is now better-known as a jump-off point for treks into the magnificent mountains that dominate the surrounding area. Indeed, the city and its towering palaces lie at an altitude of 3,500m (11000ft) and walking its dusty streets can feel much like a multi-day trek! For this reason we will dedicate the remainder of the day to resting or taking short walks in order to begin the process of acclimatization.

We will also use the opportunity to meet the rest of our team and discuss the events and details of our upcoming adventure, all over delicious Indian and Western meals and hot tea! Since we will be arriving at a very cold time of year, we will be staying in one of the few hotels open to visitors during the winter months. There will be the opportunity this afternoon to head out to the mighty Indus River which skirts Leh in search of the highly sought after Ibisbill and we stand fair chances for this unique avian delight, sole member of the family Ibidorhynchidae. Other birds we might encounter include the lovely Blue Whistling Thrush, rare Solitary Snipe, Brown Dipper and pairs of bright White-winged Redstarts.

Day 2, 1st March 2018: Leh – Excursion to Shanti Stupa and Thikse Monastery
In order to enjoy the surrounding area and continue the acclimatization process, this day commences at a slow pace with a morning excursion to Shanti Stupa, a peaceful Buddist monument overlooking scenic Leh. Later and making sure that we do not over-exert ourselves, we embark on a leisurely drive to the nearby monasteries of Shey and Thikse.

Taking our atmospheric buildings and bearing witness to their very devout monks, we will have the opportunity to test our winter weather gear and to marvel at the views that these unspoilt monasteries command over the surrounding terrain.

While there won’t be any chance to spot larger mammals, a handful of special birds remain in the area over winter, and training our eyes to scan over great distances we may spot such hardy species as the Golden Eagle, Lammergeier, Yellow-billed and Red-billed Chough and smart Robin Accentors. We could even catch sight of our first smaller mammals in the form of an endearing Large-eared Pika or an inquisitive Mountain Weasel, peering out from a rock pile.

Day 3, 2nd March: Leh to Hemis National Park via Zingchen (Rumbak Valley Campsite)
Today we begin our adventure into the heart of Hemis National Park. We commence with a drive to the end of the road at Zingchen. En route we stand our best chances of observing the rare Ladakh Urial or Red Sheep, a species of wild sheep that looks like a cross between an antelope and a goat. At Zingchen, our equipment will then be loaded onto mules and yaks for our trek into camp. Carrying only our packed lunch and other necessities (like our optics!), we will make repeated stops to scan the surrounding mountainsides in our debut search of Snow Leopards or signs of their presence.
We aim to arrive at camp once all our tents and equipment have been set up. Although only 2 miles, the trekking will be taken slowly and is nonetheless taxing due to the thin air at such high elevations; however, the outstanding mountain scenery and constant excitement of the “unexpected” is an excellent motivation for a tired body! Our camp will be set beside a stream in the scenic Rumbak Valley. Simple, but sufficient, the camp usually consists of a kitchen tent, a restaurant tent, a toilet tent and participant tents.
It is not uncommon to see a local yak herder or a monk passing by on occasion, carrying supplies on the back of yaks – a glimpse of the daily life of those who call Rumbak Valley their home.

Days 4 to 8, 3rd March – 7th March: Hemis National Park (Rumbak Valley Campsite)
For the next few days we will explore the valleys branching off from the main Rumbak Valley where our camp will be situated. Since the early mornings in these shadow-filled valleys can be cold, we will begin each day with a hot breakfast and warming cups of tea or coffee, after which we will begin our scan for Snow Leopards from the comfort of the camp itself. Being situated in the heart of prime Snow Leopard territory, there is always the possibility of spotting one while standing a mere stone’s throw from our tents. Indeed, one was spotted whilst eating breakfast on a previous trip! Once we’ve geared up for a full day’s hike (good hiking shoes are a necessity!), and we’ve satisfied ourselves that no Snow Leopards are around camp, we’ll begin our slow treks into the neighbouring valleys. The idea is not to cover a lot of ground, but rather to scan the hillside thoroughly from various vantage points along the way. This might require prolonged periods of sitting on a rocky slope while staring at one rock after another, in the hopes that a leopard appears! We will also use the opportunity to look for other, less elusive inhabitants of the Himalayas, and will keep our eyes peeled for Blue Sheep, Mountain Weasel, the Tibetan race of Red Fox and cute Large-eared Pikas.
Of particular interest are the amazingly light-footed Blue Sheep, as they are the main prey species of the “Grey Ghost”. Should the Blue Sheep suspect the presence of a Snow Leopard, they will alert us by uttering a distinctive three-note whistle, while further assisting our search by facing in its suspected direction.
Since we will be undertaking our treks with expert local trackers, we will also be in touch with local communities who will inform us of any recent attacks on livestock or kills made in the area. It is for this reason that we maintain a very flexible schedule, and it is important to note that we might make changes to our daily itinerary on a regular basis.
Since we usually cover up to 5 miles (8 kms) in a day, loaded with equipment, we will not be carrying packed lunches but will rather be met by an energetic group of porters who will run up to meet us with hot tea and warm meals!

Day 9, 8th March: Hemis National Park – Rumbak Valley Campsite to Kandala Pass (Kandala Pass Homestay)
Today we trek to a higher altitude within Hemis National Park to increase our chances of encountering different wildlife including Eurasian Lynx, Woolly Hare, Argali, Himalayan Snowcock and more.
Besides the spectacular scenery and the possibility oF encountering new species, one of the highlights of this part of the tour is a chance to experience the local culture when we stay in a cosy traditional home at the foot of Kandala Pass. This is far from a departure from the land of the Snow Leopard, rest assured, we will continue our search for this magnificent animal! Indeed, on our first Snow Leopard tour, we had a view a Snow Leopard walking along one of the ridges bordering Kandala Pass.

Day 10, 9th March: Hemis National Park – Trek to the top of Kandala Pass (Kandala Pass Homestay)
A trek to the top of Kandala pass is a strenuous affair but offers the only opportunity to observe the Tibetan subspecies of Argarli (Ovis ammon hodgsoni). Argarli is the largest wild sheep species on earth and seeing an impressive male Argarli with their magnificent spiraled horns will undoubtedly make the trek worthwhile! For those folk reluctant to hike to the top of Kandala Pass, a stay at the traditional home in the mountains offers equally rewarding scenery and with a little luck, the possibility of getting a long distant view of these magnificent animals in the surrounding mountains!

Day 11, 10th March: Hemis National Park to Leh via Zingchen
After a leisurely morning’s breakfast, we will return to Zingchen along the Rumbak Valley. If we have not seen Snow Leopard by this day, we will take the opportunity to scan a few more areas before reaching our vehicles for the drive back to Leh.
Before departing the park, we will also take the time to bid farewell to our amazing team of porters, cooks and guides who make such an expedition possible.

Day 12, 11th March: Leh and depart
Today we depart Leh for our onward flights home.

PRICES:

The fee for the 2018 Snow Leopard Expedition is US$3,775 – £2,869 – €3,435 per person sharing.

The single supplement cost is US$425 and will be charged if you wish to have single accommodation. If we cannot provide you with a rooming partner although you choose to share, the single supplement will become applicable. We will make all reasonable efforts to ensure that a rooming partner is found if you do wish to share.

Inclusive:
• All accommodations as specified above;
• Ground transportation;
• Three meals daily, and teas and coffees;
• Professional guiding services from arrival in Leh on day 1 to departure from Leh on day 12;
• Excursions mentioned in the itinerary;
• Gratuities for local staff;
• Water, juice, teas and coffees;
• Park entrance fees.

Exclusive:
• International airfares to and from Delhi/Leh;
• Sleeping bags which can be hired for US$50 for the entire camping section of the trip;
• Passport, visa fees and airport taxes;
• Airport departure taxes;
• Beverages other than those mentioned above;
• Phone calls, laundry and items of a personal nature;
• Any items not included in the inclusions above.

Tipping:
As noted in our itineraries, tipping (drivers, hotel staff, porters and restaurants) is included on all tours. However, if you feel that your leader and/or any local guides have given you exceptional service, it is entirely appropriate to tip them. However, we emphasize that such tips should be at your own discretion and based solely on the level of your service satisfaction.

Small party supplement:
Rates are based upon group tariffs; if the tour does not have sufficient registration of 5 participants, a small-party supplement may have to be charged. It is always possible to share a cabin and all of them have windows and private facilities.

ARRIVAL AND DEPARTURE DETAILS:

The tour will start from Leh on day 1 of the tour. Further meeting details in this regard will be forwarded to you in due course. The tour will conclude in the morning in Leh on day 12. As our guests come from all over the planet we do not include international flights in our tour prices. We have the capacity to advise you on the best route according to your preferences but your local travel agent will best be able to book these flights for you.
However, please DO NOT book your international flights until you have consulted us for confirmation on the status of the tour.

NOTES:

We strongly advise ALL guests to purchase travel / medical insurance for this trip.

A VALID PASSPORT is essential to all international travel; please check the expiry date of your passport, and ensure you have a sufficient number of blank pages for Visas, entry/exit stamps etc for the entire intended duration of travel.

PLEASE NOTE: While the terrain and distances covered on each day’s walk will vary, it’s always challenging due to the low oxygen content in the high altitude air. Scree slopes, rock slides and rocky embankments are constant, and walking can be arduous and difficult. Please ensure that you have the correct gear for such hikes and that you are fully aware of the often-strenuous nature of this tour.

For those who wish to stay in camp, or to return early from walks, there will always be someone at hand to accompany you. If you feel the need to rest and remain in camp, please bear in mind that you are still in fantastic scenery and that you hold an almost equal chance of spotting the elusive “Ghost of the Mountain” from the camp itself! As mentioned above, hiking in all areas visited during the tour will be challenging due to the terrain and high altitude. Participants should therefore be in good health and reasonably fit at the very least. An exercise regime prior to the tour is recommended.

Temperatures throughout the tour, but particularly in Hemis National Park, will be well below zero. While heating will be provided in the dining tent, we refrain from providing gas heaters in sleeping tents as this lowers the available oxygen content. We recommend that you travel with sleeping bags and bedding designed to keep you warm in such extreme environments (we can organize these for you on request), but we will provide hot water bottles. Please ensure that your hiking gear includes a good-sized bottle to carry your drinking water on your hikes. Warm water is often preferred, so please insure that your water bottle is suitably insulated.

Due to the unpredictable movements of Snow Leopards, it is very likely that we will make changes to our itinerary at short notice and on a regular basis. Enthusiasm, adaptability, flexibility and a good sense of humour are excellent “extras” to bring along on this exceptional adventure!

While we make every reasonable effort to provide comfort while camping in Hemis National Park, please be aware that squatting is required when using the toilet tent in camp, and no toilet facilities are available on hikes. Also, due to the low temperatures, showering may be infrequent.

Your tour leader will provide a telescope for the group to share, but it is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED that you have your own telescope. If you feel you will not be able to carry your scope, along with any other equipment on hikes, there will be porters available to help.

Whilst we have chosen to stay in one of the best hotels in Leh for the nights prior to and following our expedition to Hemis NP, the town of Leh is at the mercy of environmental conditions, particularly the cold. It is not uncommon for water in the town’s pipeline to freeze during cold winter days, ceasing flow to all establishments, including hotels. During these times, heated water will be provided to you in buckets, upon your request and at any time, day or night. The hotel and its rooms do have central heating and all other amenities are on a par with the standards to be expected.

Although lunches will be carried by porters, you do have to carry your own drinking water for hikes.

Equipment needed for trek (see our pre-departure pack for more details):

Sleeping bag, torch, sun cream, cap, sunglasses. Warm clothes and trekking shoes. Medicine for altitude, diarrhoea and water purification pills (optional). A spotting scope is highly recommended and will add great value to this tour.