Monkey Hill

Leopard in the snow in Gulmarg, Kashmir

This blog wouldn’t be complete without recounting the story of encountering a leopard in the snow whilst ski touring in Gulmarg, Kashmir in February 2016. I was traveling with my friend Bill Barker’s guiding company, Bill’s Trips, after years of waiting for an opportunity to get there myself.

monkey hill

Gulmarg itself warrants its own post, but we’d been there for about 10 days with no new snow when it started dumping overnight close to the trip’s end. Given the huge avalanche risk there, whenever it snows heavily the gondola goes on hold for a couple of days while ski patrol bombs up high. This means if you want to ski, you head into the trees lower down and skin laps of Monkey Hill, just up from the five-star Khyber Hotel.

Monkey Hill is only about 150m of vertical, so the skin up takes about 15-20 minutes through the old growth pine forest before dropping back to the main road down any number of steep gullies and ridge lines. We were the only group skinning it that day and it was snowing so hard you were skiing fresh lines every lap.

Something’s been snacking on the local cows…

We’d heard quite a bit of talk from the local guides about leopards that come down into the villages scavenging for food, and had seen a well chomped cow carcass near the the village of Drang a few days earlier. Most of Gulmarg is a wildlife sanctuary and the leopards are protected from poachers, but we’d been told by locals they were probably just regular Indian Leopards

I think it was on the third lap of Monkey Hill that I was filming behind Guy Weski as he snowboarded down through the trees with the guide, Dave Marchi, way out in front. As we rounded into a clearing we could hear Dave yelling “Stop! There’s a leopard! There’s a freakin’ leopard!” Dave later recounted that he’d literally skied over the top of it without noticing what it was and then stopped downhill once he realised it had moved.

I pulled up on the edge of the clearing with the GoPro still running on my helmet and could see what looked like a log about 8-10m straight in front of me. Except, the log had a big yellow eye that was looking straight at me and blinking. As you’ll see in the video at the bottom, the rest of the group pulled up behind me and started various screams and expletives. The leopard was obviously freaked out by all this attention and hunkered down in the snow pretending she wasn’t there (I’ve got no idea what gender it was). 

As I was the closest one to the leopard, my gut reaction was to just speak calmly whilst in the back of my mind thinking what the hell I’d do if it did charge at one of us. I’ve dealt with aggressive dogs before and my instinct was do anything to try and show dominance by shouting and growling and fight as hard as possible back if it did attack. Thankfully, I didn’t need to test that theory!

Dave Marchi about to become lunch?

After about a minute of hiding in the snow, the leopard had obviously had enough of us and let out a guttural roar (Not audible on the video unfortunately) and leapt away from me and down towards Dave. Luckily, it ended up sprinting through the snow away from him to get deeper into the forest.

We all then skied down to the road where some of the other group already were and looked back up hill to see the leopard stalking us from amongst the tree line above. We realised that it probably had a kill stashed up there, as there’d been a bunch of crows circling around the area on an earlier lap. Ironically, we were only about 200m from the main road by this stage, close to the back of a number of houses and hotels.

Women in Gulmarg
Natasha, Mez and Mel ready for another lap of Monkey Hill.

Everyone in the group was on a huge adrenaline high from what had happened, so we all headed to a cafe along the road to decompress and check if we’d actually captured anything on film. I trimmed a short 20 second GoPro clip and posted it to Facebook and we all headed back out for some more laps, feeling pretty confident that the leopard would have scooted off somewhere it wasn’t going to get bothered by us again.

Dave and Guy
Dave Marchi and Guy Weski colourfully decompressing at the bottom of Monkey Hill.

By the time we got back to the hotel that afternoon the Facebook post had been shared around and reposted by a couple of ski websites like Snowsbest. The local Kashmiri’s were just as amazed by what had happened as we were and there was a general sense that this was the first time skiers had seen a leopard in the snow in Gulmarg. By dinner time, the Indian press were on the phone to the hotel reception and Dave and I did a couple of phone interviews about the encounter. 

Over the next few days, the story and footage started going seriously viral and got picked up by major media outlets all around the world. This included everywhere from the Sydney Morning Herald, Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and all over Europe and Asia. Before we knew it the original Facebook post had 130,000 views and the full video over 1 million views.

The interesting part of watching this all unfold was that at no time had we said it was a “Snow Leopard”, simply that we’d seen a “Leopard in the snow”. I’m no expert, but the leopard was quite a dark brown/yellow colour, so I just assumed it was a regular Indian Leopard at the time, but as the experts weighed in online the general consensus settled that it was a Snow Leopard after all. 

You can watch the full video of the encounter below. 

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