The snow was thick, fluttering down now harder than ever, it was hard to believe that just an hour ago at the bottom of the pass I was sweating through my shirt. The air was crisp, cold, and quiet as I ascended the pass. It felt sharp in my lungs as I inhaled, packing down freshly fallen snow into the screen slope with every step. With an exhale, I took my last step up to the top of the pass, watching the condensation of my breath cloud the beautiful view before me.
The valley was entirely free of the storm behind me which lazily sat in the cirque that formed the pass. It was beautiful, a long ridge split the left drainage from the right, the massive hilly landscape was complex and unclear. The sun was well below the horizon now, and as I traced a probable path the patches of thorn bushes softly, gazed back, easing me away from the cliffs. I was far from sure that I was going to set eyes on this today. I had found myself dramatically slowed by two unfortunate events getting lost, and by numerous river crossings through a frigid canyon. I had also just been strongly questioning if climbing into a snow storm on a high trail-less pass was a wise move in the late evening. But I went anyway, not so much because I had a desire to be quick and efficient, I did, but what I really wanted, what I needed was the night and the valley. It was almost here, and it was right there...
I set my path down the right hand drainage and eventually found the hip-high thorn bushes that seductively called from above. Upon reaching them, in the dwindling light, they revealed a series of rough and overgrown trails leading in the same direction. I followed these trails as three became five, became ten, criss crossing and intersecting like a braided rope coming undone. The night came fast and the encompassing mountains became giant shadows looming in the distance, revealing themselves in the deep darkness of a temporarily moonless night. I eventually acquired a large intersecting trail at the end of the valley without the use of a headlamp, keeping one eye closed before the sun's light had entirely vanished to give me some semblance of workable night vision. "This must be the path I need", I thought, "I guess it's about time to have some fun".
I used the red light of my headlamp to take a final check of my map and get my bearings before embarking down the valley once more. Keeping one eye closed, again, proved to be essential as exposing my one eye to even the red light turned out to make it useless for night time navigation, even on a trail that could almost be described as clear as a highway. As I walked into an extra wide flat bottomed section of the valley, things became slightly more clear as a dim white halo began to form on the distant daggered peaks to the left that would soon unveil a rising full moon. I stopped when I saw a large village in the distance to scan the area. The topography was flat and exposed, there wasn't much I could do to make my approach any more stealth-like, I would just carefully follow the trail in and be prepared to bail.
A couple hundred meters from town I knew it was time to practice quick, quiet steps. Now one-hundred meters away, my head was on a swivel, senses in overdrive. Seventy-five meters, "heel-toe, soft steps, smooth movements, quiet, quiet, good". Fifty meters, "keep moving, slow the breathing, you'll be near houses soon, can't be breathing heavy" a couple more steps taken and a dog from the village let out three large barks in secession, sounding the alarm. I was exposed on the trail as expected, nothing but flat farmland in the nearby surroundings. I instinctively bolted into the village, seeking refuge within the maze of trails that linked the tightly packed mud thatched buildings as every dog in the village was now sounding off. The glow of flashlights in houses could be seen through the windows and rustling could be heard, doors began opening around me as I carefully kept myself concealed, moving slowly and quietly with ears perked. Listening for movement, I chose my path to keep my hushed footsteps from intersecting with those of hurried villagers. Over a dozen flashlights were now dancing around the perimeter of town, scouring the fields as I came in and out of view, now moving even more carefully. The small tan houses kept the flashlights and the nearly risen moon from exposing me entirely, but the end of the village was now in sight. Almost there, but what happens when I run out of places to hide?
There were no flashlights at the end of town where I was heading, in fact it was spectacularly clear looking forward and I was gifted a berth of nearly 50 meters between the exit and the nearest flashlight in the field to the right. But I wasn't there yet and there was already a problem, someone in the field was on to me. A flashlight had shine light my way once or twice as they whipped around in every direction sometimes crossing the same alley at the same time I did. I wasn't sure if I had been seen before, but now I was certain that someone saw something. There was a line of light that was lighting up individual alleys in the area around me, but the sporadic pattern of the spotlight search showed his uncertainty. I would bound across the dark alleys when his light was illuminating another, until I got to the end of the village, then I was out, exposed. The plan was simple, move as quick as possible without running, try to stay quiet, don't draw unnecessary attention or show guilt with panicked movements. I managed to add maybe another 20 meters to the already 50 meter lead before the first flashlight glanced over me. Then it struck me again as it backtracked and locked on. I was caught, a quick glance back showed me bright white orbs herding together and moving in my direction. I could hear the sharp voices calling to each other as all of the village flashlights dimly scattered on my back. "Go, go, go, faster, faster, faster, no, don't run, no, don't look back, don't look back, go, go". Maybe ten minutes later I reached a small structure on a very shallow rolling hill that the trail passed over and took a pause on the backside to see if any lights were still following me over. It was clear they were before this point, one flashlight in particular was keeping up with me. But I figured they were probably not so keen to keep following my pace, and the horizon line of the hill by which I escape from sight could be seen as a good place to stop the chase after all. I saw nothing, kept waiting a few more seconds and still saw nothing. I decided to collect some water in a small stream just off the trail and get some food out of my pack as it had been over eight hours since I had nourished my body with either. But just as I had begun the collection, the glow of a flashlight could be seen approaching the horizon, at least one person was still following me.
Scooping up my bottles and filter, I quickly and haphazardly threw it all in my pack and set off again. Still with good distance between us, I wasn't so worried about being caught now. But I told myself I would be moving for a lot longer than I anticipated. I travelled past a few more tiny villages, all of which were very unconcerning but I still wanted to lay low. I figured after two hours or so I was in the clear in terms of those behind me and I began searching for places to sleep. The plan was to 'cowboy camp', no tent, just drop the sleeping pad and sleeping bag in a semi-concealed place to be ready for an early departure when the sun starts to rise. I had checked a few places, venturing off the trail briefly into the undulating topography to check the ground quality and my exposure level for when the moon and sun rose. Nothing proved to be worthwhile, soggy ground here, sharp rocks over there, too close to a village. But then I saw an area that looked the most promising yet…
Diverting off the broad trail I thought about the uncomfortable night this could be without a means to get water at this potential spot, but that was of secondary importance. Once about ten meters off the trail the ground looked good, so I turned to take in the open valley and imagine who could see me and from where when the lights of the sky would make their destined appearance. But as I turned my eyes instinctively locked with two small bright orbs, another set of eyes staring back at me, from the exact spot where I had just left the trail. I could see the outline of a large four legged body in a crouched position not making a sound. My heart immediately began trying to break free from my chest as my body pulsed with adrenaline and as my eyes adjusted to bring this crouched shadow into clarity. I remembered the words of a friend, "the day is ours, but the night is not, the night is theirs". The small ears, the round face and short snout were directed directly towards me, then the unmistakably large bushy tail waved back and forth as the dark spots became visible on it's large light colored body. I didn't expect that I would even see a track, let alone the real thing in person, and definitely not like this. But yet there it was… A snow leopard, and he found me.
It felt like an eternity, as we both looked at each other with a startled unease. Did I just surprise it? No way, it has night vision and this valley hides nothing. So it must be stalking me… But then why is it on the open trail right where I was and not on my throat? This made no sense. But I had three options: Run, let it make a move, or make a move myself. Of course running in the face of a predator is out of the question. So it was down to two, who was going to move first. So I took a stop towards it, and with impressive speed the leopard leaped off the trail, over a stone fence and disappeared into the darkness of a freshly plowed field. I quickly took off my pack, pulled out my headlamp, and ripped my ice axe off of it's external attachment point. Running to where I witnessed the cat disappear, with the headlamp on full blast and the axe at the ready, my veins were pulsing with adrenaline. I looked all around, but as far as I could see there was nothing besides empty fields and waist high fences. I stood quietly for a couple moments itching to hear something, begging to see something. But nothing. Eerie silence filled the valley, and only my hesitant footsteps could be heard as I turned to cautiously continue my journey. Now with something else that demanded space and respect. Once again, I had to keep moving.
A couple stressful hours later, I found a water source and an acceptable place to camp in what was now a relatively bright valley under the exposed full moon. The men with the flashlights were behind me for good, the leopard almost certainly wasn't still following me. But there was no way I could camp in the open without a tent, not with the possibility of a leopard coming across me. The day had dragged on to become a continuously intense 18 hour day, mind and body both equally in shock. In the tent I set my alarm for the first time in weeks to make sure that I would be awake and moving before the sun. With a contemplation on the day, past days, and the arguably bigger tests ahead I double checked the alarm, in three and a half hours and it would be time to do it all over again.