While leading a group of skiers through delectably deep snow in northern India—the region’s unique “curry powder”—backcountry ski guide David Marchi nearly collided with one of the rarest of the big cats, a snow leopard. Fortunately, the next skier, Australian Owen Lansbury, had a video camera mounted on his helmet and captured the scene moments later, after Marchi had stopped a few hundred feet below the leopard. As the other skiers in the group gathered on the slope above, the seldom seen cat lay motionless for several seconds before bursting into tail-whipping action and bounding down the slope in the general direction of the waiting Marchi. As Marchi quickly slid in the opposite direction, the feline veered into the forest and disappeared from sight, leaving the skiers to whoop and cheer and finish their run with an extra burst of leopard-fueled adrenaline.
The encounter took place just outside Gulmarg, a former British hill station turned ski town on what’s known locally as Monkey Hill in the Pir Panjal Mountains, a subrange of the Himalaya. A burgeoning ski destination known for its deep snowpack and spectacular backcountry terrain, Gulmarg is also home to the Gulmarg Biosphere Reserve, a refuge for a variety of wildlife, including the endangered snow leopard, the critically endangered Kashmir stag, and even the occasional brown bear. According to veteran wildlife biologist Tom McCarthy, director of the Snow Leopard Program for the wild cat conservation organization Panthera, it’s not unusual for a snow leopard to be near a small village.
“A lot of times we see snow leopards wandering right above remote villages,” McCarthy says. “People say, ‘No, there’s none around here,’ and then we go a couple hundred yards behind their house and find snow leopard tracks.”
What was unusual, however, was coming across one of the secretive cats in deep forest, as they typically stalk alpine zones in search of sheep and ibex, their preferred prey. McCarthy speculates that this leopard may have been a young male in search of its own territory. While Marchi, who nearly skied across the leopard’s tail, told National Geographic Adventure that the experience was both “magical and terrifying”—an understandable reaction to having what you thought was a log suddenly spring to life—the reality is that the cat was probably even more frightened.
“Snow leopards are extremely shy,” explains McCarthy. “When humans are nearby they lay still and most people go by without seeing them. When the skiers are right beside it, it’s trying to hide.”
With their snowshoe-like, five-inch-wide paws, snow leopards are masters at moving through deep snow, which you can see in the video when the cat realizes it’s been spotted and makes its escape. It flies across the snow with the speed of a ski racer. And, contrary to some reports, the leopard isn’t chasing any skiers—it’s simply getting away from them.
“Snow leopards have never attacked anyone, ever, as far as we know,” says McCarthy.
It’s estimated that there are only a few hundred snow leopards in the remote mountains of northern India, the southern reach of their habitat, but the endangered cat’s population appears stable there thanks to India’s conservation efforts. Though they can weigh up to 100 pounds and take down a horse, they’re not a threat to humans.
When asked what others skiers should do if they’re lucky enough to come across the elusive leopard on some snowy Himalayan slope in the future, McCarthy says, “Enjoy it. You’re having a wonderful experience, and it’s going to leave pretty quickly.”