In June 2018, Matt Blumenthal, a native of Sonoma County, California, spotted a snow leopard while on a trek in the Pamir Mountains in southeast Tajikistan. Matt is familiar with the Pamir Mountain region, having served in the Peace Corps from August 2017 to October 2019 in neighboring Kyrgyzstan where he was located in a village with a known adjacent snow leopard habitat. The following is an account of his magical experience.
“We arose the morning of the first day of summer to a pillowy layer of wet snow. It was a bright morning, the kind of bright that usually follows an offseason mountain snow shower. As we drank our instant coffee, tainted with remnants of last night’s lentil stew in the poorly cleaned camp mug, we discussed the challenges of the day ahead.
It was day 7 of Ben and my nine-day trek through the Pamir Mountains in southeast Tajikistan. The toughest day of an already tough trek.
Ben enjoying a morning cup of coffee at 14,400 ft.
Starting in a rural village sitting at 3,300 meters (10,826 ft) on the outskirts of Tajik National Park, this trek followed a loop that wound deep into the inner ranges, past serene alpine lakes surrounded by late-spring wildflowers blooming under grand glaciated peaks. After crossing Langar Pass, the crux of the trip (4,630m, 15,190ft) on day 3, we spent four days traversing the snowfields and frozen lakes that lie perennially above 14,000ft, before descending back down to the village where we started. Day 7 was our last day above the snowline, and although excited we were to be almost finished, we hesitated to celebrate knowing what lay ahead.
For nine long miles we crossed snowfields waist deep, doing our best to stay on the surface and not break through. Admittedly, we were a few weeks early for trekking season, and we were paying for it with the amount of snow still there. But the magnificent views and the excitement of adventure kept us going. We had been looking forward to this trip for too long to let a hard day’s trek ruin it.
Trekking through the Pamir Mountains.
For the entire year prior, this trek had occupied much of our imagination. Promises of endless untouched mountain wilderness, seldom seen by western eyes and untainted by tourists, filled our thoughts and conversations. We talked about the wildlife that inhabits this inhospitable land: marmot, yak, ibex, Marco Polo sheep, and the ever-elusive snow leopard.
We knew there was a chance that we could see the ghost cat—we were within the range of their habitat. The odds were very low, though not impossible. On the first few days we had seen relatively fresh leopard tracks following along our footpath with striking consistency, almost as if it knew to do so. But the snow leopard rarely lets itself be seen by anyone, let alone by two amateur adventurers that weren’t really looking, so we focused our efforts on the trail ahead of us.
Snow leopard footprints on the trail.
The lack of oxygen and the brutality of the terrain were beginning to take their toll on us. When we weren’t walking through slushy snow, we were crossing boulder fields and wading through icy rivers flowing directly from melting snowpack. Conversation was sparse, for every breath above 14,000 ft is as difficult as the placement of your next step. We were tired, hungry, and sore, and if not for the beauty that surrounded us, we might have actually been miserable. But every great adventure borders on misery at times, and with only a few more miles to go, we carried on, knowing that the toughest section was behind us.
As we passed a stunningly turquoise glacier lake, we knew we were getting close to our campsite. According to our GPS, we were to camp at the bottom of a river valley descending from the melting icy mountains above. This couldn’t have come a mile sooner, as both Ben and I had exhausted all of our energy and were ready for an early night’s sleep. To get to the head of the valley we had to make our way around a rocky bend. Light headwinds blowing up from the valley brought cool evening relief.
Unnamed glacier lake, Tajikistan.
We stopped at the entrance of the valley and tried to pinpoint a suitable camping site. The winding river that fueled patches of bright green grass—a sign that winter is over—beautifully scarred the valley on its way to its terminus in a florescent blue pool.
As we scanned this pristine land for a hospitable plot of grass, a flash of movement by the river caught our eye. An animal, surprised by our presence, sprinted away from the river and up the steep, rocky mountainside with grace and agility like we had never seen before. In dead silence, Ben and I looked to each other in disbelief of what we had stumbled upon.
There, in all of its beauty and grace was the elusive snow leopard, bounding up the steep valley wall. Although we were quite far away, the leopard was distinguishable by its long tail, greyish-white fur, and ability to maneuver a rocky mountainside with apparent ease. For about a minute, Ben and I watched with childlike awe as it made its way up the side of the mountain without a misplaced step. Every now and again the cat would stop, blending completely into the landscape, making it completely indistinguishable until it decided to continue upwards, as if to prove it could have hidden from us if it felt so inclined. It continued up the face until it finished its ascent and continued onwards, out of sight on the backside of the valley.
Seldom do we experience moments where, even if just for a fleeting instant, all outside concerns and influences melt away into irrelevance, leaving nothing left but the simple beauty of the present.
For that minute, neither Ben nor I cared that our feet were soaking wet or that our backs ached from the weight of our packs. Neither of us dared reach for our cameras, knowing that any attempt to capture a photo would be valuable time wasted on a futile attempt to capture the untamable. So we stood in grateful silence and watched and appreciated the beauty of the moment we were in.
After a while we finished the last leg of the day and set up camp on a grassy patch next to the river, not too far away from where we saw the leopard. With the bulk of the trek behind us, we soaked in the imposing landscape with a blissful ease. As we watched the sun set behind towering peaks, we sat in silence, still in awe from what we had just witnessed, yet perfectly aware that it was a moment that we would remember forever.
Sunset in the Pamir Mountains