Picture the shadow of a frozen peak slicing through the centre of a million year old glacial valley. At its lowest point, a freshwater stream meanders aimlessly through rocky labyrinths. On the valley’s steep southern edge stands a towering boulder, unaffected by the relentless icy winds. Now picture me, cowering beneath it, unable to feel my fucking face.
It was our second day in the field, and I had seriously underestimated the weather. As an Aussie, I’m used to dealing with winter by throwing on the only hoodie I own - and sometimes even that is overkill. Mongolia was shaping up to be a totally different beast.
A flurry of activity distracted me from the numbness that was creeping its way up my legs. A team of Russian and Mongolian biologists were setting snow leopard traps along the mountain trail.
There is much to learn about the ~1000 snow leopards that call the Altai Mountains home. This expedition was set up by The Altai Institute, with the aim of snaring four leopards and fitting them with GPS collars. These collars would relay location information in realtime, providing essential data to help understand and conserve the species.
The following four weeks would be a defining point in my life. Not because of the challenging conditions, incredible animal encounters, or brushes with disaster - but because it would be the longest time I had ever spent exclusively eating soup. Lunch was soup. Dinner was soup. And breakfast was stale bread, dipped in the leftovers of the previous night’s soup. Super.
The Russian Camp was home for the first week and a half of our expedition. We slept on the floor of a traditional Kazakh ger, which had a tapestry of gorgeous colours threaded around its interior. The pinks, oranges and blues added a flash of warmth to the whites and greys of Mongolian winter.
Our ger also boasted a collapsible table and five mismatched stools, three of which with uneven legs. A stove sat in the centre, where we gathered to boil our tea, defrost our toes, and decipher each other’s pigeon english. It turns out there is a Russian saying for almost everything.
“At bottom of valley, there is a killing horse.”
To a scientist that primarily speaks Russian, this is a fairly straightforward way of saying that there is a horse carcass on the valley floor. To everyone else, this sounds like the Ted Bundy of horses is busy sharpening his fangs somewhere nearby. From that point forward, no one was safe from the killing horse.
Each morning a team member would volunteer to go and check the Leopard snares. This involved a scenic but rugged ~3hr trek into the valley. It was breathtaking in more ways than one. First, they would follow the icy stream along the valley floor, before climbing a steep gully to the very top of the valley. If no Leopards were caught in any of the snares along the way, then they would radio in their results and head back to camp.
Wildlife was abundant in the valley. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the clifftops had freckles. At first you notice one tiny dark speckle on an otherwise white, snowy canvas. Then you notice another. And another. Until you realise that that group of boulders has moved a considerable distance over the last few minutes. Herds of hundreds of Ibex can be hiding in plain sight.
I spent one crispy morning creeping along a frozen stream, trying to not fall flat on my ass. About twenty meters ahead of me was a herd of Ibex. They would be a bit closer, but the sound of my tailbone smashing a sheet of ice is surprisingly loud on an otherwise quiet morning.
My Nikkor 200-500mm 5.6 made quick work of this swaggering male. It’s certainly not my most prized shot - but it’s a great reminder of how easily you can bruise a tailbone.
After about a week and a half, it was time for our team to head to the next camp. The Russian team would remain in the valley until they caught a Snow Leopard - or until their visas ran out.
We were exhausted. The horses were exhausted. My camera was exhausted. But we had finally reached the end of our 6 hour trek, picking through near-vertical cliff faces and sinking into layers of knee-deep snow. Our salvation was a rickety little ger, picturesquely nestled in a narrow glacial valley. Thoughts streamed through my head of the warmth of a stove, a wobbly stool to sit on, and a steaming hot cup of Kazakh tea. Peering inside the door, all I was met with was goat shit. Literal goat shit. All over the floor of our home for the next fourteen days.
It took a while for our team of six to get sorted. There was goat shit to shovel, plastic sheeting to lay down, and a stove to assemble. The sun set behind the valley walls as we settled in. Ever so slowly, the rickety little ger started to look like home.
The following fourteen days involved walking ~9km to set and check snares each morning, returning to camp to have a bit of soup for lunch, and then passing the time until dark. Rinse and repeat.
I’m sure the idea of living in the middle of the mountains without electricity or phone signal isn’t appealing to most; but I bloody love it. Because these aren’t just any mountains - they’re the Altai Mountains. Criss-crossed with fresh Snow Leopard, Wolf, and Argali tracks. Patrolled by Cinereous Vultures, Lammergeier, and Black Kites. Dotted with frozen lakes and intersected by meandering glacial streams. A fully functioning ecosystem, complete with top order predators and incredibly rare species like the Pallas’s Cat.
Where else would you rather be? It’s like adding a healthy sprinkle of fanged predators to Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”.
Most trips along the trapline brought a new discovery. Wildlife encounters, fresh tracks, old predator kills, and new, untamed territory. Soon my SD cards were filled with footage of our day-to-day adventures, and I risked not having enough memory to document any unexpected Leopard captures. Being a trigger-happy videographer is not easy in such conditions.
Eventually, things started to settle down. We walked the same path each day to check the traps, and consistently got back to camp at about midday. So we stagnated for seven hours until dark, and then after a quick dinner break, resumed stagnation until we fell asleep. Without electricity, nights were long and icy. And when there was no wildlife around, the days could be fairly uneventful. Here’s an actual quote from Barry, the head of the Altai Institute:
“I think I’m gonna read my book again.”
By day 4 he had finished his book. That left him 10 productive days of soup and stagnation.
The monotony would often be broken by the acrobatic manoeuvres of our rickety little ger. The roof would wobble and contort in the middle of the night, jettisoning wooden support beams down from the ceiling. It’s not the most pleasant alarm clock - but it gets the job done.
With more snow storms looming on the horizon, our team opted to reconstruct the ger. Which is easier said than done. For each beam we put back up, two would fall down, more often than not hitting someone square in the noggin.
Even after we got the ger standing straight again, the icy winds threatened to whisk it away into the mountains. So we tied a rock to it. Not just any rock; a big rock. It dangled precariously above the stove, held on by a leftover leopard snare cable. Not only did this rock save us from total disaster, but it served as an excellent place to dry your socks at the end of the day.
More excitement came later in the expedition, as fresh leopard tracks were found along the trapline. With giddy excitement we trudged along the 9km trail, peering around each corner in hope of seeing the grey ghost caught in a snare. No such luck. At the very last trap site - at the very end of the trail, was a fresh scrape mark. If the leopard had opted to scrape 10 centimetres to the right, it would have been caught.
A remote camera that we had set up some days earlier caught the whole event on video. But I’ll save that for the documentary.