The day I saw The Grey Ghost – by Suchismita Koulaskar

Down Jacket- checked, Gloves – checked, Cap – checked, Scarf – Checked, Woollen socks – checked, Snow boots – checked, Sunglasses – checked, Camera battery – checked , Empty SD and CF cards – checked, Camera setting – checked.

My first on-foot experience of Himalaya’s at 4200 m altitude was about to begin. I needed to be doubly sure of everything, as I tend to forget the things if I am bit over-excited or over-apprehensive. At that point of time, I was both. Snow Leopard was not in my mind as it was just our first day in Spiti, with 6 days of exploration in front of us. So I pulled up my Jacket, tied the snow boot laces and put on cap and gloves – all set!

After crossing Kibber village, we came to a stiff downhill slope with knee-deep snow. I never thought my first walk in the snow would be so extreme. My first foot on the snow and my first step in Himalayan gave me a spark in my heart. I was completely wobbling and fell down a couple of times to experience the soft and squishy feel of the snow. Seeing my condition, LaraJi, our guide, came to my aid. With his help I glided through the snow and enjoyed it, though I was completely out of breath.

We reached to a snow-filled road where we waited for DorjeJi, our scanner. And we soon saw him coming towards us bit upset. We were late, and he had seen fresh pugmarks in that area. But he also understood well that this was our first day in that high altitude and we need some time to get acclimatized.

Then he went further on to scan, and we got some time to catch our much needed breath. I was completely overwhelmed with the beauty and harshness of the mountains that surrounded me. I followed the group heading ahead on the same snow filled road. Suddenly, we saw DorjeJi giving a strong sign from the opposite side.

My heart skipped a beat. I walked fast with as much strength as I could muster. I never reached that level of endurance, not even with my toughest run. When I reached the point where everyone else was clicking away frantically and I saw where they were pointing out. Rocks and Rocks everywhere. Some were snow-capped and some bare. Then, suddenly, my heart stopped beating. The grey ghost sleeping on the caved rock, curled around and having a peaceful winter morning slumber!

Slowly the Snow Leopard got up and started to move, bringing us back to our senses. The spark of joy spread across the group. Then again DorjeJi started to call us from another ridge. We moved hurriedly towards that ridge. I was struggling due to my breathlessness. But the moment I got there, it felt as if the Snow Leopard was waiting for me.

Every step showed its familiarity with the territory. This is the kingdom of the Snow Leopard indeed. And the occasional glances at us told us that we were accepted in its gracious hospitality. The strength, the vigour and the control was quite visible from the paw he stretches to take every step. How carefully nature had crafted this enigmatic creation. And, just like that, it disappeared around a corner. Just like a ghost!

That day, I fulfilled the top-most item on my wishlist. A few days before the trip began, I wasn’t too sure if the Ghost would oblige with its presence. I came back home but a bigger chunk of me is still lying somewhere in those snowy mountains. But, I brought back these stolen moments from the time. Everyday life is a slave of time but these moments are truly liberating.

Of course, with the hangover of this sighting still fresh, we got to see another Snow Leopard the following day! And spent the entire day watching it do what a cat does best – nap!

And we still enjoyed its company sitting in knee-deep snow with temperatures way below freezing point. But there wasn’t a single moment of dullness and our eyes stayed glued to it. What do you call it?? Totally bewitched, isn’t it??

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