04/27/16

Snow Leopard trip Feb-2015

I am writing this blog from my notes more than an year after the trip. Somehow, since the last some years, I was not in my usual frame of mind to pen my thoughts . Also, my photography was kind of curtailed. Well the jinx is off and here we go again !

For reference , link to my earlier snow leopard trip 2014 – To see a Snow Leopard in the wild,  be prepared not to see it – Tracking Snow Leopards at Spiti

18 Feb 2015

I finally managed to get hold of a 500mm lens  for this trip. The 600mm lens that I used or, more like didn’t use the last time was not available for this trip.  We made an easy flight to Chandigarh and got into two Toyota Innova’s for our destination, Narkhanda. Somewhere enroute, we stopped at a dhabha called NH22 for lunch. The food was ok ok but, there I got an idea of clicking some pictures of the kitchens enroute.

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Not much snow this time around, barely any actually till we reached Narkhanda. Short of Narkhanda, we caught a bit of slush & snowfall. The first of the trip. The first Innova climbed easily up the snow and incline to Hatu peak hotel. My driver was new to snow and, he tried to climb up in third gear , up a steep incline and in snow. Sure enough he got stuck. We got off and helped push the guy to roll again. I told him not to stop till he reached the top and, I followed on foot. I then called home and , as usual, mum and dad not happy with my trips . Been that way since I can remember.

We had dinner and an early night. NMB ” No Move Before” was 0400H the next day. Aim was to get to Kaza the next day. It would be a long 18 – 20 hour drive. The “kaza boys” with their Tata sumos would be there in the morning to pick us up and take us to Kaza.

19 Feb 2015 – 0400H

I met up my old driver from my last trip, Rapchick – Kesang.  It was great to meet him. I noticed that it was not as cold at 4AM as I remember it was in 2014. As usual we stopped for tea at Rampur. Then the next stop for breakfast was at Tapri bus stand. The dhabha guy was super with his “seva” (service) and the food was excellent too ! I took a lot of pics of the kitchen , which was part of a shack.

Kesang

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Breakfast @ Tapri

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Bad roads or no roads !

Bad roads to Spiti from krish photo on Vimeo.

The next stop was Nako where we stopped for tea. I took out my Sigma-150-600 and gave it a spin. Not bad I thought. I could try working this. Very hand holdable.

Nako Kitchen

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We rolled down Malling Nalla and into Sumdo. Sumdo was blocked by a landslide that happened in the early morning. We waited some thirty odd minutes by which  time, the road was cleared. All the traffic that  had stopped through the day, was finally getting through. Enroute, I sighted my first of the bharals for this trip. It felt great to be back in “Kibber mode” !

View from Malling Nalla towards Sumdo

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We crossed Tabo and it started snowing hard. Halfway to Kaza we encountered an broken down Bolero coming towards Tabo. All the vehicles stopped to help and after a dela,y we set off again to Kaza.The snowfall had worsened and it was hard to see the road.

Bolero Breakdown  enroute to Kaza

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It was coming down thick and heavy. Kesang expertly opened the road and got us into Kaza only to find the road blocked by snow just about a kilometer from our home stay.  It was 2030H now. We had been on the road continuously for more than 16 hours. We doubled back and  parked in the market and walked about a kilometer in the blizzard to the home stay where we were to spend the night. The main road to the home stay was blocked due to an avalanche that had happened, just a few hours ago. We got some locals to help with our bags and walked in the heavy snow to the home stay.

Alighting at Kaza market in the blizzard

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The dinner was hot and awesome. I ended up eating a bit more than usual. More than anything, it was most welcome. I pulled out my down sleeping bag to bed down for the night. Absolute life saver. The last time, I had not got my sleeping bag. The heavy blankets had kept slipping off and my bum kept getting stabbed with super cold air. This time it was not the case, I was setup pretty good. I woke up thrice through the night to drink water. Overall the usual and expected  slight headache induced by the altitude but, other than that, I felt  ok.

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20 Feb 2015 ( Planned rest day at Kaza)

Woke up at 0730H and straight gulped three glasses of water. The WX was pretty bad and still snowing heavily.

Bad weather and snowing in the morning

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The breakfast was “Bhaturu” a kind of “nan” with some very yummy veges. I had got along a print picture book of the 2014 trip and showed that to the group. Someone said that the pictures needed captioning and I borrowed a pen and wrote a caption under each photo . I was a little reflective and silently thanked the powers that be to make it possible for me to be on this trip and everything in life.

Around breakfast I taught the group  some snow exposure techniques ( as in camera exposure ). I got to know that there were some very experienced trekkers in our group. Someone mentioned the Great Lakes trek in Kashmir and, to me that sounded real good one to try ! The doc on the trip was passionate about the mountains and had done a lot of treks and expeditions. He said something interesting about the Sherpas, that they have 2x the mitochondria per cell than the normal average. Hence, their metabolism processes the lack of oxygen at high altitudes much better.

Post lunch we ended up having a discussion on books. Stuff that I noted to read

  1. All 14 Eight thousanders – Reinhold Messner
  2. Himalaya through the lens of a sadhu – Swami Sundarananda
  3. Seven years in Tibet – Heinrich Harrer

The weather (WX)  was now better and the avalanche roadblock  to Kibber was being opened by dynamiting the snow. As the snow was being cleared there was another avalanche and it took down three people.  Luckily all three were rescued. By 1500H it started to snow again. So the plan was to stay put at Kaza for the night.

21 Feb 2015

I woke up real easy. The WX was clear, however the road Kaza – Kibber was not fully cleared an also the avalanche at the Kaza bridge was still to be cleared.

Clear weather

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To get to Kibber the vehicles would have to cross the avalanche patch since, that was the only road access.  Since our vehicles could not make of across the bridge, we scouted and got hold of a “gypsy” which was possibly used by some administration official. The gypsy was on the Kibber side of the bridge and we could use that to ferry us to Kee, which is half way to Kibber from Kaza. We took our bare essentials and loaded up into the gypsy.

Gypsy

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Road opening in a loaded Gypsy

Gypsy opening road in snow from krish photo on Vimeo.

The bags would have to come in later since there was only so much space in the vehicle. The snow as real bad and the fully loaded gypsy had to be expertly driven to cut through the snow. It was a 4×4 drive all the way.  After a share of stops and slides we reached Kee.  The road upto Kibber was still bad due to heavy snow. Somehow the folks at Kibber managed to drive down a tractor to Kee. So there would be transportation change at Kee. We had to hop on to our tractor for the final push to Kibber. I met our old friends Sheru and Sushil at Kee. They had come down with the tractor to meet us ! We loaded up and rode the slipping and sliding tractor to Kibber. A couple of places the tractor tilted precariously but the driver managed the situation expertly.

Tractor

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Kee Monastery

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We got into Sheru’s home stay and grabbed a quick lunch. Just as we finished lunch, Tenzing came down to tell us that there was a snow leopard  sighting and that we should move up to the ridge. We quickly kitted up and started up the mountain. My tripod and 500mm lens and one bag was still to fetch up, so I had only my Sigma 150-500 that I had carried with me to use. I thought I would be able to do the climb in some 2 hours but , I surprised myself by doing the climb in 1 hour 15 minutes ! The cat was on the far slope and I had a hard time spotting it despite looking through a spotting scope ! Finally I was able to spot it. And then it moved and came into some gorgeous evening light and I grabbed some pics with my D3 and then switched to the D800.

The snow leopard

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Remembering the last trips diffraction issue since I had used F14,  I limited myself to F8 and bumped up the ISO to maintain a high shutter speed. Since my tripod & bags were still at Kaza and  had not fetched up, I ended up shooting hand held. By now my sweat was beginning to cool me down and I began to feel very cold. I pulled on my big down parka and decided to move down. The snow was not as high as the last year and it was much easier to walk on the trail. The trail was actually walkable without gaiters, which was not the case the last time we were here in 2014.

The bags were still stuck at Kaza because of the road block. So all in all an intense day, Gypsy- tractor rides on fresh snow blocked mountain roads, a hike up the mountain to look at the “Phantom of the snow” , I was pretty knackered by the end of the day and,  crawling back into my sleeping bag was most welcome 🙂

22 Feb 2015

I woke up to my second amazingly clear morning. I decided to take it easy an rest the day. We spotted a red fox on a cliff from our room. The pleasant warm sunshine and a good breakfast put me to sleep. I slept soundly till 3 PM ! Rahul too stayed back because of a bad cough. We had a lazy lunch and by that time, the Doc was already back down from his hike up the mountain.  No sightings reported. We then watched the India- South Africa cricket match . The generator was acting up and Mr. Nene from our group promptly fixed it up. That night I had a hard time sleeping since I had a good sleep during the day. Something to keep in mind for the future  I thought. The bags has still not fetched up due to the heavy snow on the road that was not yet cleared for traffic.

23 Feb 2015

Early morning, I finally was able to get a few shots of the snow finches and finally a Greater Rosefinch in the snow. Yippe !

Greater Rosefinch

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Robin accentor

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Snow finches

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Breakfast today was “english breakfast”. After that we had the local soothsayer  Kalzang come in and pray for good luck. Kalzang goes into a trance and speaks “bhutia” which an interpreter interprets. Kalzang does not know the Bhutia language otherwise in his normal non trance state.

Kalzang

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We kitted up and went looking for the Ibex. The Ibex were in a gorge that separates Cheecham and Kibber villages. We spotted two families of Ibex.

Ibex

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Also spotted snow leopard tracks

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Walking at 14000 ft and snow is hard ! from krish photo on Vimeo.

I wore  my ski pant for the first time. The hike was not much by distance but was a steady climb. I was profusely sweating in my new ski pants. I was dog tired by the time we reached back. The last time in 2014, the wind was so sharp that my legs froze. This time, no wind and a bright clear day,….. oh well 🙂 . When we go back to the house the bags that were down at Kaza had been ferried to us via the tractor. The road was still “iffy”  and not fully open. Finally I was reunited with my 500mm lens in its original case.

A good lunch and we were looking up our “pulseoxymeter” readings at Kibber. Mine was 85% saturation with a pulse of 62 per minute.    80% is the cut off and one should not move to a higher location below 80%.   I was strolling around the house in a thoughtful mood. My head was real clear and I felt good about my new start on my work front and form a great team that cracked some brilliant work. I also was clear that I need to work on some automation stuff if I wanted to hit my goals.

In the mountain you take the WX real seriously. Soon we got news of very heavy snow predicted for the 25th and 26th. So the plan changed to leave Kibber on the 24th itself.

24 Feb 2015

We woke up leisurely  and strolled around the village looking for the red fox. The trackers went up to the ridge to try and spot the snow leopard. Around 1130H we got news of a snow leopard.  We hiked up the ridge in 1 hour flat ! Not bad I thought ! The cat was moving up and away. The WX was partly cloudy. I used my 500mm for the first time and got a couple images. However the cat was real far and I thought my AF Fine tune was not set for the 500 with the D800. Note: Never use fresh new gear that you have not fully tested on a trip. Old lesson that I had not really kept in mind this time, had come back to bite.

Second snow leopard sighting

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It was cloudy and the sun was behind the clouds.  Not much in terms of images but super super thrilled  to see the “Shan” again !  We then made it back down to the village,  in flat 45 minutes.

By this time,  this time the GREF  “dozer guy” (General Reserve Engineer Force – GREF is part of the Border Roads Organisation that maintains the roads in this region ) was pleaded with to help clear the road from Kaza till Kee, which he helped out , thankfully.  Kee to Kibber was still not motorable. The Kaza avalanche had by then been cleared. We decided to move down to Kaza at 1500H.  It began to get cloudy and the barometer reading went down from 622 to 619 HPa. We again used the tractor but, not all would be able to take a ride. Some of us hiked down and,   the remainder bags were man ported down to Kee with us. When we trekked down, we found Kesang  our stud driver was able to push the Sumos, about a kilometer beyond Kee towards Kibber. He was ferrying some rations to Kibber so wanted to get as close to Kibber as possible. Anyway, the long and short of it was that  both the Sumos got royally stuck in the snow. It took a good two hour plus to free them,  and then turn them around on the narrow mountain road piled with snow. We loaded up on the Sumos  and reached Kaza by 1900H.

Turning the Sumos around

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It was decided to move to Rampur after dinner. The WX was getting worse even as we ate “Thupa” for dinner.

Tense moments at Kaza

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2200H departure from Kaza in snow

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It has started to lightly  snow. We wanted to really hot foot before the snows piled up and blocked our return. We drove through the night and crossed Malling Nalla at 3 AM.  Hats off to Kesang and the drivers for the superb night driving while snowing. We wanted to keep going to Rampur and hoped to cross “Pangi Nalla” ( which is a bit ahead of Spillow on the return leg towards Rampur) a landslide prone section at the soonest. We crossed Spillow at around 6AM and about some 10KM short of Powari we hit a major landslide.  There was no way we could cross that and the road was completely buried under  huge rocks.

Kutang bridge

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The landslide

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So far the snow had been light but by 7AM, it began to snow hard. There was a small tea stall catering to the GREF and we huddled inside. We had some hot tea and some parantha  and noodles. by now we had already been 12 hours on the road.  At around 0730 Kesang called for two vehicles to fetch up from Rampur to Powari to pick us up. No way these vehicles could cross the landslide. We would have to  trek our way down to Powari and quickly. Kesang had some local girlfriends along hence, wanted to head back and cross Malling nalla to Kaza before the snow shut down the road. We transferred our bags to the second sumo. But since we had to trek down we picked up only our most essentials,  donned our outdoor gear and manported.  For me it was only my camera gear that was most important. I carried a smaller rucksack and got help to man port the 500mm in its hard case. I improvised by making free a duffel bag and putting the 500mm with hard case in it , so that it could be man ported. Sounds easy now but, was extremely difficult in a cramped vehicle in  blizzard conditions to reorganise packing. Most of the luggage would be left behind and later brought down and couriered to us . With the help of the drivers and some back up staff, we started our trek to Powari in heavy snow and sleet.

But first we had to cross the landslide. The scramble through the rockfall was scary. Small rocks were still falling and you never know when one could smash into you. As luck would have it one of our members ( Sriram sir ) got  a rock hit on his knee. But despite the pain he managed somehow to Powari. Hopefully this wasn’t too bad.  This was one serious rockfall and ahead there were a few smaller ones and also a patch of large mudslide. Everyone waded through knee deep mud mixed with snow and ice. There was no letup in the snow and sleet. The slog was wet and cold, and not easy while also watching for landslides and carrying some weight. The weather was so bad that none of the GREF personnel were out clearing the road. Everyone was inside their huts huddled from the cold. Thankfully we were now at 6500ft , down from 13500 ft. Hence it was not too bad while walking.  Atleast you did not have to worry about altitude issues !

Snowing enroute

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We reached Powari around 1240H. Powari is a GREF unit headquarters.  Some of us managed to knock on the door of a GREF soldier. He turned out to be from Pune. He opened his home and offered us much needed warmth and hot tea.

GREF camp Powari

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Meanwhile an empty Bolero came by and five of us hitched a lift in it till Karcham. At Karcham, the two vehicles that Kesang had requisitioned from Rampur arrived shortly after we reached.  We piled into one and moved to Rampur via Tapri. The second vehicle moved to Powari to pick up the others. At Tapri, we just had to stop at the awesome dhabha and grab a much needed meal and, also try and dry ourselves a bit.

It had been snowing and heavy sleet all through our trek from the landslide to Powari. None of the GREF personnel were out on the road given the bad weather and scope of more landslides. All the GREF shacks had a sick sweet smell of “weed” :-). My camera gear in my Kiboko bag , my 500mm in its hardcase in another duffel and a smaller 36L rucksack with a change was all brought down along with me. The bigger luggage would come down as and when the road opened. We were tired and wet by the time we reached Powari. My down parka and my ski pants, though completely wet, held up well on the snow and sleet. My gloves however did not do well. the snow had slipped inside the goretex gloves and made for a wet and cold hand. I think in the hurry I mad a mistake of not putting the parka sleeve over my gloves and velcro them down. Had I done that, the snow and water would have slid outside my glove. My sleeve of the parka ended up inside the cuff  of the glove and, no wonder the snow got into my glove.   Note: Do carry a poncho for the mountains. A poncho is lightweight and will cover you and the rucksack in wet conditions and prevent clothes and jackets from getting soggy and heavy when in rain / snow sleet.

At Tapri,  we stopped at the same dhabha where we had stopped for breakfast on the way up. We spotted a “Thali” meal that looked delicious and we ordered that “seva’. All of us were wet and soggy and the kind dhabha owner set us up a small fire to warm ourselves up.

Warming fire

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Hot rotis, Kadi,  Malkha ki dal and potato -cauliflower subzi with sliced onions is what the Thali was about. Super tasty stuff and I am salivating as I type this !

The dhabha “Thali”

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The dhabha guy was super efficient and kind. He used to replace the cold rotis on the table periodically with hot ones. A nice hot coffee and all we paid for all five of us was, just Rupees 570 for the unlimited meal. After this lunch we got moving towards Rampur. Our driver kept hitting every stone and pot hole and ended up breaking the rear road spring of the vehicle. I urged him to keep moving since we were in the middle of nowhere and told him we could stop where we find a workshop or mechanic.

Enroute we had to ford the river across a small patch to get to the road to Rampur that was across the river. I was scared that this was a perfect place for a flash flood given the recent snow & rain from where we had come.  Luckily the water was still fordable and we made it across to the other side. Later , we would come to know that this patch had become a raging river and became unfordable for days. Meanwhile the second vehicle had reached Powari, and picked up the rest of the group. The made straight for Rampur without stopping at Tapri since the road condition was deteriorating.  At Jakhri, about 10 Km short of Rampur, our driver got hauled by the cops for not wearing a taxi driver uniform. While at Jakhri,  the second vehicle caught up with us and we exchanged notes.

Jakhri cop

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The video of the landslide and the trek to Powari

Landslide trek from krish photo on Vimeo.

We were at the HPTC hotel at Rampur by sundown. I chose the old room 304 from my earlier 2014 trip. This room overlooks a garden and there is a ficus trees which enable some birdwatching opportunities.

View from Room 304

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Great barbet from my window

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I wasn’t too hungry after our fabulous lunch at Tapri. A quick dinner and a much needed cleanup we hit the sack around 2230H.

We had been on the road for 28 straight hours. So from 24th morning we had trekked down from 13500ft drove some 350Kms in the night in snow and mountains, trekked again in snow and sleet for about 10Kms and finally hit the hotel at Rampur on the 25th at 1930H. It had been a hard and rough two days and I was mighty glad for the heater in the room !

26 Feb 2015

I woke up at 8AM and opened the window for some much awaited birding.  I saw Rufous Sibias, Himalayan bulbuls, Whiskered Yuhinias, Plum headed parakeets, and the great barbet , all from my window. I heard the yellow billed blue magpie but did not spot it.

27-28  Feb 2015

We recuperated at Rampur the whole of 26th and moved from Rampur to Chandigarh on the 27th. Enroute we stopped at Solan  to see the  famous Mohan Meakin Brewery where the “Old Monk” rum is manufactured.

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The 27th night was spent in Chandigarh. We were in full winter clothing and snow shoes and did not have much in terms of a change. On the 28th we had our flights back to Mumbai. I just used an inner as a tee shirt and continued to wear my snow boots all the way to Mumbai !

Our bags fetched up some good twenty days after we were home. The roadblock where we started the trek  had not been cleared for almost 10 days since the weather was continuously bad. Also, the fording point was now a gushing torrent and the vehicles had to wait till the waters subsided. But the luggage reached safe and all is well.

Kudos to the entire team &  especially drivers  at Spiti who were able to pull this off in very tough circumstances.

All in all an absolutely unforgettable experience, especially that I went on this second trip to thank the mountain for giving me clarity of thought 🙂

“Hump a load up a mountain at 15000ft for a few days – Get clarity of thought.”    Well, sure works for me,….. everytime !

Link to my earlier 2014 snow leopard trip ” To see a Snow Leopard in the wild,  be prepared not to see it – Tracking Snow Leopards at Spiti”

If you want detailed  info on cold weather clothing and trip preparation, please read my link above.

And to organise your trip, do connect with Spiti United

03/16/14

To see a Snow Leopard in the wild, be prepared not to see it – Tracking Snow Leopards at Spiti

“To see a Snow Leopard in the wild,  be prepared not to see it” – Krishnan 🙂

I think it was sometimes in school when I first read about Snow leopards, “the phantoms of the snowy mountains”.  That book was, Peter Matthissen’s – Snow Leopard.  I absolutely loved the book and identifed with it. Since then, there has been this great desire to see them in the wild. I had made no effort as to fulfill that desire until now. The last two years, I had actually been planning on a Chadar trek. But the Chadar and the Snow Leopards were very much a toss up choice in my mind.

A month ago I got a call from Rahul if Id be interested in an exploratory trip to track some Snow Leopards in the Spiti Valley. I jumped at the offer. Keyword “exploratory” . The Chadar ( Zanskar River , Ladakh) I had already done albeit on a rafting & Kayaking expedition in 1990. Spiti was new area to explore, so Spiti it was to be.

Day 1 – 26 Feb  2014 (Mumbai- Chandigarh- Narkanda – 173 Km )
We started on a flight landing into Chandigarh. Hopped into two vehicles and scooted to Narkanda.  The Innova drivers had a selection of local punjabi music and it pretty much got into my head for the trip ! Check this one “Nikki Nikki Song” ( Youtube video – Nikki Nikki Song) and also some others like this , by a “Miss Pooja Driver Song” .

Nikki Nikki – Approaching Shimla from krish photo on Vimeo.

Reached Narkanda about 6PM and checked into our hotel. It was a super decision to have a halt here. Narkanda is is at 2708m (8884 ft) above MSL and would be a super point for the first acclamatisation halt. Also, it was snowing and the first exposure to the cold happened here. The woolens and jackets came out, as did the parkas & gloves. We grabbed an early dinner and got to bed for a very early start the next morning.

The roadmap

The map

5 Am tea at Rampur

Rampur Tea halt

Day 2 – 27 Feb 2014 ( Narkanda – Nako – Spillow – Tabo – Kaza – 362 km)
Woke up at 2AM and got ready to roll at 3 AM. It was snowing and the weather did not look too great. We changed cabs and got into two TATA Sumos . This vehicle is the only prefered vehicle for this terrain. All the drivers swear by it. My driver wasKeysang. Wow ! What a guy. I bet he will beat Schumacher any day on these icy narrow scary himalayan curves. He swears by the Sumo ( more about this later). We had tea at 5 AM at Rampur. The reason we had to start early was that the Rampur – Pooh route was prone to many landslides and roadwork which could result in huge delays. The road gangs would start work by 10 AM and if we had cleared the worst part in the morning, we would be good. Besides, in the mountains, an early start,  is the way to operate. Gives one some more hours of daylight to make use, incase needed. We crossed the mighty Sutlej and wound our way in bad weather ( snowing) across the stark barren mountainscape and reached Spillow. The road is a mess ( just a dirt track ) due to the big dam project.10 Am and we were hogging some wonderful paranthas and omlette with some hot tea. The “Bhojnalaya” lady was super efficient and rolled up the dishes super quick.

Spello or Spillow

Spello

The Bhojanalay lady pouring tea

The bhojanalay efficient lady

Snowfall at Spellow from krish photo on Vimeo.

This is where I first pulled out my 300 + 1.4 TC combo on the Greater rosefinch that sat on the barren tree. There was also a White wing redstart  usually found much higher elevations but now found lower due to the cold and snow. I missed the Redstart while Rahul got it with his ever ready Canon SX50HS.

Greater Rosefinch in on a barren tree while snowing

Greater Rosefinch

Landslide being cleared from krish photo on Vimeo.

After Pooh, the road climbs up to Nako and crosses over into Spiti valley via the Malling nalla gap. We got a little stuck at Malling nalla pass (1330H) where the road  was icy and snowing. Keysang stopped the vehicle and we got help from another vehicle behind us to scrap sand under the wheels for traction. Finally we then made it safely across. All the drivers know each other and there is great co-operation when any vehicle is stuck.

Narrow road to Malling nalla

Narrow mountain roads

Stuck on the ice. Throwing sand to get some traction on ice.

Stuck on Malling nala ice

Stuck at Malling Top from krish photo on Vimeo.

1600H we were at Tabo. The initial plan was to stay the night at Tabo but for some logistics reasons we decide to move on to Kaza the same evening. But before that, we were given some very welcome Soup & noodles with hot tea. These mountain folks were so welcoming into their homes. Much welcome hot lunch indeed.

Welcome hot noodle soup

Hot noodles at Tabo

The Tabo – Kaza leg was a very snowbound and icy leg. We made it into Kaza at around 7 PM. It was now snowing hard and we had a tough time getting into our rooms. Luckily there was one room with a working toilet and that was assigned to the ladies. Next morning I expected headaches and nausea due to the altitude and acclamatisation. Kaza is at 3650m ( 11975ft) above MSL. All such places have dry toilets, a running toilet is an impossibility in the sub zero temperatures.

Finally reached Kaza at 7PM. We had been on the road since 3 AM !

Finally 7 Pm Kaza

Day 3 – 28 Feb 2014 ( Kaza – Kibber – 19 Kms and a steep climb)
Sure enough woke up after a fitful sleep with a mild headache. I had low appetite and went on the check on my better half. Cold and frozen “supported with” nausea but, holding up was the report.I brought her a cup of tea which was promptly “thrown up”. A disprin and  “Avomine” were administered. Such is the acclamatisation here. I too wasnt in the best of shape. I did have a mild headache and low appetite. All the same we pulled ourselves outside for an acclamatisation stroll in the still snowing morning. At about 10 AM we packed up again into our vehicles and started towards Kibber. It was to be an easy 19 Km odd climbing road. The first of the blue sheep  were encountered here.

Kaza Monastery

Kaza Monastery

Highest petrol pump

Kaza Indian Oil Petrol pump

Blue Sheep

Blue Sheep

On the way, we stopped at the Kee Monastry. We got to see their not open to public, old archives and their precious tankhas which were hundreds of years old. We had hot tea & biscuits with the monks and got their blessings. The view from the monsatery rooftop was spectacular and the sun peeped out for a few moments in between. We rolled into Kibber at round 2 PM where Sheru, Lama & Sushil welcomed us into their village. The remainder of the day was 100% room bound and for rest. Kibber is at some 4100m or 13500ft above MSL

Kee Monastery in the snow

Kee Monastery

Monks walking

Approaching Kee Monastery from krish photo on Vimeo.

Day 4 – 01 Mar 2014 ( Hike No 1 )
We woke up to a clear day. All of us had slept lightly and were cold. However the overall acclamatisation process was going on well. But before we started, we had a small blessing ceremony by the local soothsayer. They call it “devta baitahna”. Basically one person ( Kalzang)  goes into a trance and prophesises in pure tibetan language ( a language which he does not know when not in his trance) and his associate, Tinkoo translates. The Devta asked us to look in the Northern / North western direction for our goal which was where the trackers would look.

Kalzang (The Medium) & Tinkoo

Kalzang the medium & Tinkoo

Kalzang the medium praying to the spirits for good luck from krish photo on Vimeo.

But for today, the plan was to hike down to the road below where some Ibex were spotted and the hike back. Some 4 Km route. The route down was ok , but the heavy snow the previous day made the hike back a really tough proposition. However with a lot of support and encouragement, everybody made it back. En-route we saw a red fox pair, a Lammergier and Ibex. The Ibex had got down into the gorge and we had to climb down through a vast snowfield to see them. I was operating the 300mm, F2.8 VR  with the 1.4TC on the D3. At one point I thought something had happened to the rear LCD, but it became Ok after a while. Probably condensation but, I am not sure.

High altitude trek from krish photo on Vimeo.

Himalayan Ibex in the gorge below

Himalayan Ibex

The snowfield that we had to cross to get to the edge of the Ibex gorge

The snowscape with Lamji

Day 5 – 02 Mar 2014 ( Hike No 2)
The plan today was to hike up to some 14500 feet above the village to scope for the Snow leopard. The ladies were too tired hence stayed back. The gorge above the village was a good place to sight the trackers told us. The weather was playing spoil sport and it was snowing lightly. In good weather , the cats come out to sun themselves, and, that’s the best time to see them is what they told us. It seemed like a long time to climb the trail. Took up the better part of two hours whereas the locals do it in some 30 to 40 mins ! Plod-wheeze-stop and the cycle continued.I carried my 300 2.8 VR +TC combo and the 600mm lens was bagged. I didn’t have any option or inclination to open the 600 in the bad weather & cold. It was hard enough just standing there. About 2 PM we turned back for the village.

Scanning the gorge for snow leopards

Scanning the gorge

Day 6 – 03 Mar 2014 ( Hike no 3 )
We woke up to a clear and glorious day. After a wonderful breakfast with some amazing chutney & tibetan bread we started back up the mountain. This time we had organised two yaks for the ladies. The idea was to alternate walk and yak 🙂 Since the weather was clear, it was biting cold. I wouldn’t be surprised if the temp ( combined with wind chill ) was in the minus 15 or there about. By 12 noon it was already getting too difficult to stand on the ridge. We decided to come back down due to the cold. However, Sushil had mentioned that we should stay on till evening. But, non of us felt we could stand in the cold, that long. Later when I analysed I think we would have had a fair chance to see a snow leopard had we stuck on. Oh well.. But, we did manage to see the Golden eagle and a few griffons.

The trudge up the mountain cleared my mind. I had been struggling ( to put it mildly)  on the work front for the last few years primarily due to a lot of unnecessary negativity at my workplace.  I had been  pushing myself to give it more time and had been  accommodating and carrying  on. Even after plain speaking and explaining to improve the situation multiple times, things just had not improved.  However on this mountain top today, I got clarity that there was nothing that I could do to change the situation and that I had to move out. That would be the only way if I had to solve my situation.  I was so relieved at my decision that I had tears streaming down my cheeks. Sometimes, good to be alone on a mountain  indeed ! I also decided right there that I would be back next year to thank the mountain.

Kibber sunrise panorama

Kibber panaorama

Yak help

Yak trip

Yak help from krish photo on Vimeo.

The shadow of the Golden eagle

Golden eagle in the gorge

The Himalayan griffon

Himalayan Griffon over the gorge

Yak Ride from krish photo on Vimeo.

Evening the sky was clear and one could see the milky way. But, couldn’t garner enough courage to get out in the cold to shoot star trails. I chickened out unashamedly !

Day 7 – 04 Mar 2014 (Hike no 4)
Bad weather and snowing, but we climbed back to the ridge. Our timing was improving and we made it inside 1hr and 15 mins. not bad ! The bad weather forced us back to the village early. The was also “Dachang” a local festival. A lot of feasting, drinking happens as does some bows and arrows which the kids love. The festival starts with the trance person blessing the village via his transient spirit that is supposed to have possessed him. Kalzang and Tinkoo were the stars of the day here !

My Northface Chilkat boots held up well in the snow.

My Northface Chillkat shoes  performed perfectly

Dachang festival

Kalzang at

Dachang Festival – Kibber from krish photo on Vimeo.

Day 8 – 05 Mar 2014 ( Hike no 5 & 6)
Wonderful breakfast and out to the mountain again. Bad weather again. Kalzang was brought in to prophesise. The spirit said maintain the northern & north western lookout. It was snowing but it began to clear up towards noon. The it again started to get bad. But in this all, Sushil spotted movement in the gorge below. By the time he handed the binoculars to Rahul, the Snow leopard had turned the corner and had vanished. Some of us managed to to get a glimpse of the “Grey Ghost”. Finally something ! Sushil in his excitement, then went down all the way into the nullah ( gorge) to try to track the cat. It took almost two hours for him to get into the gorge. There he found tracks but, no snow leopard. The ghost had vanished. Meanwhile Kalzang had come running up the mountain to inform us of some sighting in a village 3 hours away. We decided to wait for Sushil to see if something could be tracked instead of rushing to this village. Good decision indeed. With no further luck, we turned back.

Bad weather on the ridge

Scanning the ridge

The Gorge on a bad weather day

scanning the ridge from krish photo on Vimeo.

Back in the village Sheru & Namgyal  had made some amazing “Momos”. They use “Gymen” an elm tree something to flavour. What taste ! We downed it with some of Namgyals super hot chutney. The chutney literally made one hot enough to take off one layer of clothing in the extreme cold ! Absolute rocket fuel it was. We liked it so much that we told him to make us some to carry home !

Momos

Delectable Namgyal's momos & Chutney

“Gymen” – the elm tree seasoning for momos

Gymen - The Elm tree additive in momos

In the evening we got news that there were Ibex next to the road below and we suited up and plodded down. Just as we reached, Lamaji informed us that the local dogs had scattered then back down the steep gorge. Bummer. A quick evening hike but, no joy nad the hard work to climb all the way back. But we made it back in 30 mins which was super going ! The acclamatisation Id say at this point was pretty good !

Day 9 – 06 Mar 2014 ( Hike No 7)
We started early in Tenzing’s vehicle for his village where the Snow leopard was sighted. Finally a clear day but very cold day. The Sumo was started by heating the fuel pipes with a kerosene stove. After three hours of ride, we got a very picturesque village and were given hot tea and biscuits at Tenzing’s home. Some search by Sushil & Lama and it turned out to be a tibetan wolf and that too hidden in some bushes and hard to spot. We quickly got back into the vehicle and got back to Kibber.

Heating the fuel pipes with a kerosene stove.

Stuck near Mane and heating the fuel line with a kero stove

Heating a frozen diesel fuel tank from krish photo on Vimeo.

Wonderful hospitality at Tenzing our driver’s home at Mane village. Real cosy room , hot tea &  biscuits. Lovely “namkeen chai” Salty tea a tibetan staple drink.

Cold and stiff but warming up in Tenzing the driver's cozy home

A quick lunch and we had our only chance. Sushil suggested we go back up to the ridge I was actually in two minds but, since it would be our last day before we left Kibber, decided to go to enjoy the plod up the mountain in the snow. I decided not to take my 600mm ( Bad decision it was to be). What I hauled was, the D800E + 300mm + TC 1.7 giving me 500mm focal length. We told Sushil to go ahead and start a scan of the area and that we would catch up. Just a bit from the tip of the ridge we saw Sushil gesticulating wildly for us to rush. I sprinted but had to stop after about 15 steps to catch my breath ! We then waited a bit and fast tracked to him. He mentioned he saw three snow leopards near the rocks. I scannned the rocks on the far side of the gorge but, no luck ! It was then he mentioned they were approaching  the rock and I saw them ! What joy, Not one, but three tracking through the snow in one line ! Pure joy and a huge wish come true. I grabbed my camera and started shooting wishing I had carried my 600mm. Sushil then ran off to call the others. Soon I realised I needed to shoot a video. Tried video on the D800 but could not maintain the frame since the light was so bright and I could barely make out anything on the LCD. My frame was drifting in the cold and there was no way I could shoot video effectively. Need a tripod for the long lens video on a DSLR without an articulating LCD. That was a lesson. I quickly saw if my histograms were ok. I dialed in F14 to compensate for any focus drift at that distance. I know I was in the diffraction zone but that was ok. F14 needed me to boost ISO so I did that keeping very high shutter speeds to compensate for any blurs due to shooting. The Snow leopards were about a kilometer away on the other side of the gorge and were mere spots. I am sure sometimes they would be walking on the very ridge we were standing on too, but not this day. I then grabbed a Canon SX50HS a super zoom , zoomed all the way to 1200mm on the 1/2.3 inch sensor and shot videos and stills. We had a sighting for almost thirty minutes. These were a female with two cubs. As soon as the snow leopards got into the rocks, the disappeared. So perfect is their camouflage.We took turns in “keeping bead” on the snow leopards. It was tough to re-accquire them if one took our eyes off the camera or binoculars. We saw the snow leopard charge on some blue sheep but the light was falling and we lost the snow leopard in the rocks. No chance of photographing it in that situation !We stayed till the sun began to set and then got back to camp. Great joy all around !

Three snow leopards tracking on the ridge

Three Snow leopards

Three snow leopards sitting in the evening sunlight.

Three Snow leopards sitting

No tripod and handheld long range video, no way I could be steady or even see the LCD, so just not workable to shoot a video. So just a fluke clip here

Snow leopards from krish photo on Vimeo.

The folks set up a party and all the pics were pooled into a laptop and shown to all. Kalzang was brought in again for giving thanks to the spirit that had given us guidance. The ladies cooked us some wonderful meal and everybody got high on “Ara” a local brew made out of Barley. Sushil was “the happiest” and he was majorly relieved that his efforts paid off.

An elated team on spotting the snow leopards. Tenzing the tall one facing the camera.

The glorious evening when we saw the three snow leopards

Excitement on seeing the pictures on a laptop back at camp

Excitement on seeing the pictures in the evening

The next morning ( a cold crisp Kibber morning) we started back for civilisation ( Kibber- Rampur). A three day “de-induction” to get back to Mumbai  on the 9th March

I am sure the Snow Leopards were now on our side of the gorge. Sigh …..!

The stay
Must stay at Sheruji’s hotel. Amazing hospitality, comfort & food.

The Heros
Sushil & Lamaji : The Uber trackers on our trip.
Sheru: The ever smiling and accommodating hotel owner
Namgyal: The Superb Chef who can make some rocket fuel chutney with red chillies. This Chutney is to die for !
Tenzing the tall one : The tall superman who can fly over the rocks. He made a recce over the far side of the gorge and I thought he was moving like superman !
Tsering : Our very caring support who helped us with our panting halts and encouraged us to keep going. Rock solid person on the mountains.
Kesang : The Michael Schumaker avatar on icy mountain roads. Must have as a cab driver. Fast n Furious but confident driving with great control.
Tenzing the driver: The ice cool senior driver of the second cab. Rock solid smooth and confident driver. A huge asset to have on a trip.

Photography Learnings
*Get the longest lens.
*Set manual exposure . EV +1.5 off the snow and check histogram.
*Ideally get a super zoom bridge compact for instant shootings ( Canon SX50HS or the Nikon P600 etc)
*My Sony RX-100 was the most used. Even shot a few panaromas with it and they came out just fine !
*You will need local help to carry gear up the mountain.

The puny mighty Canon SX50HS on the left Vs my gear

The Canon SX50HS Vs my gear !

Warm wear notes for high altitude snow
*
Snow Shoes required with gaiters. I use a Northface Chilkat II snow boot. Get at least one size bigger than usual to fit in 3 layers of woolen socks. Also, the feet swell when walking, so you dont want the shoes very tight. These shoes run small due to the inbuilt padding. You can even go 2 sizes up and you will be good.
*Two layers of thick socks
*I wore 5 top layers ( 2 base layers, 1 Thick teeshirt, 1 Thick 300 weight fleece  , Northface windproof , snow proof , outer  soft shell top. ( I use this Bernard  windproof fleece now)
It helps to get the modern moisture wicking base layer. I was sweating while walking up the mountain.
*A fleece lined windproof trouser ( A must). I used a Montane terra trouser ( an all season trouser with some wind attrition capability) plus a base layer legging. This  worked well mostly. Only on the clear cold day when we were not moving but, waiting on the ridge did I feel I need a inner fleece liner. Next hike I pulled on the fleece trouser as a mid layer. So the layering was, a base layer legging + fleece trouser + the outer wind-resistant  Montane terra . Must have a  fleece trouser ( kinda like track pants)  for camp & sleepwear of course. You can also do two layers, a base layer + fleece lined trouser with a windproof outer, like this Salen ski pant
*You also need a “Down Jacket” but for times you are at camp or when sitting out for long. Carry the down in a backpack up the mountain.
*Two layers of good gloves (Thinner liner wool/ fleece and a goretex outer)
*Fleece Balaclava & woolen cap
*Bring a sleeping bag ( Helps when you toss n turn in bed by not exposing the blanket edge to ones back ) Woke up so many times because the blanket slid off..brrrrrrrrr.
You will need help to carry gear up the mountain.

Fitness

Start a good cardio regime. You will need to hike 2 – 5 hours at 13000-14500 ft altitudes. Coupled with the cold , this is no easy task. So be prepared

Take acclamatisation schedule “uber seriously”. You can die if you don’t do it right.

Be ready for cold, real cold.

Above all, when you go on a Snow leopard trip, be prepared not to see it. Only then will you be able to see it. 

Uh…philosophy 🙂

For flawlessly organising this  trip, please get in touch with Rahul Rao at Foliage outdoors

Sincere a advise, please dont hold out on anyone if you don’t see the Snow leopard. There is no guarantee of seeing the “Phantoms of the snow” on any trip.

I did a second trip in 2015 to thank the mountain CLICK HERE

All this pics here below

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