Two of us were climbing in silence up a twisting path between thick trees, concentrating on keeping our footing on broken rock, breathing hard in the thin air at 4800m. Kesang suddenly froze and held up his hand. I obediently stopped in his wake, faintly irritated to have to break the rhythm of my steps. Invisible birds shot upwards, wings beating, screeching a warning overhead. I looked up, wondering if I was supposed to be identifying them. I’m no birder. Blood pheasant, perhaps; everyone wanted to see one.
Then something made me glance to my right, into the dripping leaves. Ten feet away there was a strip of dead foliage hanging down, colourless and motionless. Then it stirred as if caught by the breeze. But something else had brushed it: a reddish tabby flank, marked with bold dark spots. There was a flash of white underbelly too. The glimpse lasted for no more than a second, but there was no mistaking it.
The snow leopard.
I had no chance of reaching my camera but that didn’t matter. The brief blaze of it, the creature’s shape and stealth and sureness, is burnt into my mind. I won’t forget what I was so lucky to see.
A mile further up the track a dead pony lay half on and half off the path. Steep and difficult, this path does claim the lives of pack animals. Our yak drivers told us that the leopard can smell dead meat from the other side of a mountain range. He was on his way to a feast.