Chasing Snow Leopards in Nepal

18 days walking in far Eastern Nepal, mostly in the Kanchenjunga region, right up near the border of Nepal and Tibet. Here I share snippets of our adventure and stories that unfolded along the way. Every trip back to Nepal is different. Different companions, routes, and circumstances blend together to create an interesting mosaic of experiences which are unique. As always, small encounters with people and immersion in the culture of the ‘mountain people’ left my heart warm and excited to return for more.

By: Dulkara Martig
September 2, 2016

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“Chang?” Our host asks, appearing with a large jug of the milky-coloured home brew. I rub my eyes, yawn and politely decline. It’s 6.30am and the house we’re staying in is slowly filling with ladies drinking home brew around the fire. Soon a cup of sweet black tea is placed in front of each of us, then a small bowl of noodles.

We had arrived in Chamtang the evening before, right on dark after an exhausting day of sidling and negotiating some particularly rugged terrain.

Our walking day had ended with a huge, foot-breaking descent to the valley floor followed by a big ascent to the village. Feeling physically and mentally broken and almost reduced to the odd grunt, we salivated over any kind of food as we trudged into Chamtang. Within the past 24 hours we had descended more than 3000m. Darkness was fast approaching and we slowly walked through town, conjuring up enough energy to talk to a lady at the local water tap. “Kaine. Sutnu. Bosnu”, I said. After a couple of minutes of hand gestures and broken Nepali, she motioned for us to follow her. We stepped off the main trail and wound our way down some narrow cobbled stone pathways between local houses, soon finding ourselves on the doorstep of a friendly Tibetan family. We stood on the doorstep as she stepped inside, updating her mother and siblings about why two crazy foreigners were standing on their doorstep. They did not run a guesthouse and we’d arrived just on dark, completely unannounced. We ducked under the doorway, only just making it through without banging our heads and sat down next to the fire. Cups of tea and noodles soon appeared in front of us and a few hours later, as we were fighting to keep our eyes open, some delicious dahl baht. By the time we finally went to bed it was nearly 10pm. With satisfied bellies we sprawled out on rugs next to the fireplace, right in the middle of their dining room.

The next morning as we began to walk away, I took one last glance back and waved, my heart warm from another friendly interaction in Nepal. We continued on towards Hongong, where we would meet another lovely lady and discover peanut butter and honey and enjoy our first roti in many days! We were 14 days into our trip, which had started in Taplejung in the Far East of Nepal.

Kanchenjunga, while the second highest mountain in the Himalaya and the third highest in the world, only sees a fraction of the tourists that the Everest region sees. Around 1000 trekkers per year go into the Kanchenjunga National Park, while 35,000 per year head into the Everest region. It’s much harder to access, squished up against Tibet and India, at the far eastern border of Nepal.

First we flew to Bhadrapur, in the very south eastern corner of Nepal. At 90m above sea level, we had a long way to climb before we were anywhere near the mountains. Our adventure resumed in the morning with a 9 hour local bus trip from Birtamod to Taplejung, which is around 1700m. We sped along windy, narrow roads with steep drop offs plunging to the valley floor hundreds of metres below. I had come from New Zealand, fresh off a wilderness hiking trip with the National Outdoor Leadership School. Meanwhile Tim had been sitting at a desk in an investment bank in London before touching down in Nepal.

From Taplejung we started walking, initially breaking our bodies in by winding our way through the lowlands, village after village, slowly gaining elevation. Sometimes we’d find ourselves walking next to porters carrying 45-55kg of supplies on their backs in flimsy straw baskets. Other times we’d be in solitude, watching swirls of whitewater carve their way through tight canyons. We often took to daydreaming as we slowly made our way up precariously narrow wooden and stone trails next to the river, which was getting steeper and more enticing to packraft each day!

Having started off hot, green and with many luxurious, each day the land became more barren, the air became cooler and thinner, and food and supplies became more scarce.We soon found ourselves trudging through snow, sleeping under rock bivvies and finding routes up high-altitude passes.

One morning I awoke to porters singing lively folk songs, probably to psych themselves up for a wet, cold, steep day on the trail.

‘Today we had our first day walking in the rain and dancing with the line of comfort. Just as  I was feeling cold and miserable, we passed a Tibetan family with two children under 10yrs old huddled around a fire next to the trail, taking refuge under the shelter of a large rock.’

Diary excerpt

I feel the weight on my shoulders, sweat dripping down my face. I start thinking about the few thousand metres of elevation we still have to gain. I can barely fathom the distances, elevation gain and time it’ll take to get to where we plan to go. I push the thought aside and focus on the next stone step in front of me. There are hundreds, stretched out, contouring a never-ending hill which will eventually lead us into snowy peaks. I convince myself I’m having fun. I think about dahl baht and distract myself with thoughts about home, plans for the future and people I miss. We are only a couple of days in. Our bodies get stronger with every step, and before we know it we’re surrounded by high peaks, patches of snow and icicles.

It was ploughing time when we walked into Ghunsa. All of the ladies had come down from their higher summer homes to pitch in. Prayer flags were dancing in the wind, with the glorious backdrop of jagged mountain peaks, dusted with a fresh layer of snow. Yaks wandered freely around the village, their bells creating a relaxing, consistent jingle which was somehow comforting. Men are pulling oxen along, followed by women dropping potatoes into the ground. Not much grows here, but potatoes are a staple, usually eaten boiled and dipped in chilli or boiled, peeled and then fried up with spices to make ‘thar curry’ which accompanies dahl baht.

‘I’m sitting on a colourful rug, a small candle flickering in the corner, there’s yak meat dangling from the ceiling. I look around and see the shelves stacked high with pots, copious amounts of them. A status symbol. The embers are hot, there’s a large pot perched over the fire with hot water. The stream of hot, sweet tea in Himalayan homes is always flowing. The mountain people still exude a peacefulness, a sense of contentment and resourcefulness. They’re hardworking and unflappable. Life is determined by the weather and seasons, and time passes in mostly the same way it has for hundreds of years.’

Diary excerpt

Each afternoon a thick blanket of cloud encroaches on us, obscuring the views of the towering white giants, and leaving us in a cold bubble of whiteout. We retreat inside, either around a fire with a cup of tea, or to the warmth of our sleeping bags with our kindles. Before we know it our bellies are full of thukpa or dahl baht, we’re asleep by 7.30pm and then it’s another crisp, clear morning. We pack our stuff, put our sweaty hiking clothes back on and put one foot in front of the other. We don’t walk very fast but we keep going. And persistence means we cover some hefty distances.

We cross the Nango La, just making it over before a whiteout. It’s snowing, there’s a piercing cold wind and we fall knee-deep into the snow, hurrying down with the motivation of reaching a place where we feel less vulnerable. Once we make it safely to lower ground, we head for the shelter of a large slightly overhung rock and munch on two boiled eggs, a couple of cookies and half a snickers bar. It has been a tough day. We could devour much more but we have rations to stick to.

‘After 26kms on our feet, 1300m of elevation gain followed by a 1700m descent over 9 hours, we finally made it to the valley floor. We raced downhill during a thunderstorm, listening to the booms echoing through the mountains and watching lightning hit surrounding hills. A large rock bivvy catches our eye and we quickly decide to make it our home for the night, somebody has even laid out a soft bed of pine needles and there’s a decent supply of dry wood. Excited by the thought of a hot, tasty meal, we’re disappointed to find that our poor-quality Chinese matches are damp and every one disintegrates. We admit defeat and eat two minute noodles with cold water, then oats with cold water and finally, half a packet of crackers. Easy food options in these regions are mostly limited to cheap Chinese noodles and cookies. We go to bed around 7pm, physically and mentally exhausted, huddled up under the large boulder. I smile as my eyes close, thinking that these are the kinds of days I’ll still remember when I’m an old lady.’

Diary excerpt

Olanchung Gola was a welcome sight. We arrived with our tanks empty after walking for 4.5 hours on half a cup of oats with cold water and 30 grams of crackers each! We stayed with a friendly Tibetan family, the sister of the person we stayed with in Ghunsa. “Look for Tashi” our friend from Ghunsa said. “You’ll find her in a house near the end of the village, it’s a good place to stay.” We drank more tea and sat around the fire, staring into the embers and feeling satisfied with a couple of hard days hiking. In the morning we continued on our way, with a stack of fried Tibetan bread to fuel us over our next high altitude pass, the Lumba Sumba.

In the morning we devoured an omelette and two pieces of Tibetan bread before meandering our way up the valley on a road being built by hand. Locals, motivated by cheaper trade with China and spurred on by the recent fuel blockade with India, were in full swing. Around 70 locals were chipping away with hand tools, even moving large boulders with metal prongs. I remind myself to think of these folks whenever I think I’m having it tough.

We discovered another rock bivvy, perched high up on the hill overlooking the mountains. As snow started to fall, we scrounged around for firewood, then spent the next four hours with a small fire burning at the entrance to our bivvy. We devoured dumplings, and two minute noodles, and a mini nalgene of hot yak milk powder before bed.

‘Icicles hang from large rocks, creeks are frozen over and there’s a decent amount of snow around, completely obscuring any visual on the route up the Lumba Sumba. We’re left to navigate with a 1:100,000 map with 40m contour lines. The valley is riddled with fresh snow leopard prints heading off in every direction. A snow leopard’s playground. I’ve lost hope of seeing one of these elusive cats, despite seeing fresh prints on previous trips to Nepal. In my mind they are mythical animals. Shortly before we begin our final push up towards the top of the pass, we spot a young snow leopard. Both of us look on in awe, only just able to keep our eyes on the cat, which is speeding off up the other side of the mountain, blending in perfectly with the mountainous surroundings. We continue ascending the snow slope, grinning.’

Diary excerpt

We race down valley, spurred on by the thought of dahl baht and sleeping under a real roof. With every step we feel safer, less vulnerable, as we know we won’t freeze our asses off if we camp at these lower elevations. We arrive in Thudam just before dark and find a place to stay. They serve us Tibetan butter tea. Tim tries his first Chang. The family have given up their beds and are sleeping on the floor right next to us. I fall asleep while some local yak herders are still drinking Tonga (local brew).

The next morning we set off with a bag of fried Tibetan bread for the road, oblivious as to what lay ahead. The route was slower going than we’d anticipated. Sections of trail fell away hundreds of metres to the river below and overgrown forest tracks weaved their way in and out of many gullies that didn’t show up on our map. We ended up spending 10 hours on our feet, covering well over 20km of rugged terrain. Contouring here is tough. You end up covering much more distance than what it looks like on a map. Up, down, up, down, around, up, down, around. In the afternoon we stumbled upon a remote farmhouse where we were treated to some sweet milk tea before continuing along in the direction of Chamtang. Being goal-oriented kept us going forwards when we were wrecked. Our bodies were weary from a calorie deficit and days on end without a rest. Two red pandas scurried off into the bushes as we meandered along a narrow trail through the bamboo. We finished the day with a super steep 1500m decent to the Arun Nadi, where we crossed a bridge before climbing straight back up again. 

‘By the time we reach Hongong the potatoes have been in the ground for a couple of weeks, and have been badly damaged by recent hailstorms. To stop further destruction, they’ve been doing a puja for the past two days, led by the local shaman. Nobody in the village is allowed to fight and if they do, they need to pay a fine to the shaman.’

Diary excerpt

Arriving early in Hatiya, the vibe is strange. There’s another puja going on. Dancing, drums, bells, a strange busyness. Feeling slightly uncomfortable, I almost want to leave but we settle in for the day, giving our bodies some much-needed rest before heading up the remote Barun Nadi Khola which meets the Makalu base camp trail. It’s 5.45pm and our hosts are banging pots and pans, there are many offerings, small dances, singing, chanting. At 8pm, it’s still going. Happy New Year 2072!

We had planned on going to Makalu base camp and then retracing some steps back to the road end at Num, before legging it back to Kathmandu in time for my international flight. After getting a bit confused with a trail, and suddenly finding ourselves heading in the direction of the nearest road, we decided to keep walking there! Spurred on by the thought of whitewater, pizza, and some luxuries of that ‘other world’, we made great progress and within 2 days our urban adventure began. 

And then we jumped on a jeep for a bumpy four hour ride, followed by an overcrowded local bus back to the big smoke. The folk music and bumps kept on going until we rolled into Kathmandu 28.5 hours later.

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.