Elusive and clandestine, the Himalayan snow leopard has been sought, unsuccessfully, by countless curious travellers.
The cats live in the high altitude region of Ladakh in northern India, a sparsely populated slice of territory the size of Switzerland situated between the Kunlun mountain range and the great Himalayas. These mountainous deserts are home to a wide array of wildlife - but for one Squamish resident, catching a glimpse of the snow leopard turned into a 25-year odyssey.
"In some places it's so dry that it looks like those vistas you'd see back in the Martian landers, it's completely barren but yet there seems to be lots of stuff for the animals because I've never been in a place where I've seen so much wildlife," said Ed Fischer, an experienced mountaineer who began his relationship with the region more than two decades ago.
"I saw all kinds of birds and big mountain sheep both blue and brown, which is the main prey of the snow leopard and there are wolves and foxes and golden eagles. Because it's so open and there's virtually no trees, you can get up on a ridge with binoculars and you can see everything."
Everything, it turns out, except the snow leopard.
Fischer, who is writing a book on his experiences in the Himalayas, was first turned onto the region and the leopards after reading Peter Matthiessen's award-winning book The Snow Leopard while on a world tour at the age of 35. While Matthiessen didn't achieve his goal of one day seeing the cat in the wilds, Fischer was inspired to try. Aided by a solitary disposition and keen mountaineering abilities honed in the mountains of British Columbia, he returned to Ladakh in hopes of sighting the spotted leopard, but it was only two years ago that he managed to do so.
Fischer didn't chase the leopard the whole time.
He moved back to B.C. to start a family and a number of businesses including The Edge Climbing Centre, the first of its kind in North America. A few years ago, with his sixtieth birthday looming, he decided to - as he puts it - take care of some unfinished business, spiritually. Picking up where he left off, Fischer began travelling to Ladakh a few times per year to climb, ski, hike and search for the snow leopard.
"It's so beautiful there, living with the locals and it's such a different experience," he said. "I keep going and staying with people I know and their lives are so simple compared to ours, they're so different. They don't have running water in their homes and especially in the winter when the temperature drops to 30 below, they have a real hard life and they're very sturdy."
Each time he returns, the villagers in Rumbak take turns hosting him, ensuring the modest charge for shelter and food is fairly distributed throughout the village.
"It's very different, people aren't competitive the way we are," he said.
It's clear that Fischer's journey goes far beyond the search for the cats. The leopards are for him what they were for Matthiessen - a metaphor for examining the uncharted terrain of the soul.
"After all my years of solitary wandering in the Himalayas I really identified with the snow leopard as being very much like myself, and when I finally saw her she was with her family, she was with cubs which is pretty rare," he said. "I've never even seen a picture of three snow leopards, and I was with my spouse and she had only been there two weeks and she got to see it."
Fischer is writing a book on the experience, in hopes of honouring Matthiessen's quest and finding a way to express his own. Deeply respectful of the Buddhist way, he places great significance on seeing the cat only after he had stopped the chase.
"That day I had packed away my telephoto camera, I packed away my prescription glasses - I had given up, I thought I was getting too obsessive and I realize that after all this time all I really wanted was a trophy photo for my wall," he said. "Buddhism teaches you to let go of your desires so I packed it all away and three hours later there they were."
Fischer and Habgood will be hosting a talk and slide show of his experiences in Ladakh at the Squamish Adventure Centre on April 20 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $6. For more information about Fischer and his book, go to www.chasingthephantom.com .