In mid-January of 2023, I led my first expedition with clients to find and photograph the stunningly beautiful and elusive Snow Leopard in the snow-covered north-western region of Mongolia in Winter. This was an expedition that was initially scheduled to run in January of 2022 but was delayed as a result of the COVID pandemic. This was the very last expedition and workshop left for me to catch up on as a result of all the COVID delays.
The snow leopard is one of the most elusive and sought-after animals on the planet by wildlife photographers. It is incredibly difficult to find and photograph in the wild, with the vast majority of attempts failing, or at best, spotting a leopard through a spotting scope at a significant distance. The aim of this expedition was to get close enough to photograph the cat with a long telephoto lens. As it turned out, we were able to get within twenty metres of several Snow Leopard cubs on our very first encounter.
Due to my hectic travel schedule, I have not yet had time to do more than a rudimentary selection of the photographs made during this expedition. I will update this post with more images once I get a chance to process the RAW files.
Our expedition was scheduled to begin with a two-hour plane flight from the capital city of Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia to the small town of Khovd in the northwest. From there, it would be a two-hour drive into the wilds to our remote camp, where we would be situated at the base of the Altai mountains for the duration of the expedition. Unfortunately, there was a mechanical issue with our aircraft, and we were delayed two days in the capital while they attempted to repair the plane. With no resolution after two days from the airline, we decided to scramble together three sizeable 4-wheel drive vehicles and local drivers and then drive the eighteen-and-a-half hours across the vast and extensive Mongolian landscape to our snow leopard camp. I had anticipated potential delays and had built in a couple of spare days to the expedition just in case.
With a long drive ahead, we set out from Ulaanbaatar at a very dark and brisk 4am to avoid the worst of the city traffic and began to make our way West. After a long day in the car, we arrived at our camp around 10pm, had a quick hot meal and turned in for the evening. Our minds buzzed with the anticipation of seeing and photographing the snow leopard the following day.
After an early breakfast, our guides and spotters headed into the field to search for Snow Leopard. Less than a couple of hours later, we received the radio call that they had found a mother Snow Leopard with three cubs sleeping high in the mountains on the edge of a rocky outcrop. We grabbed our gear, piled into the 4-wheel drives and drove up to the base of the nearby Altai mountains. From there, we hiked for about an hour up very steep, loose and rugged terrain in the cold to find a mother snow Leopard and her three cubs sleeping high up on a rocky precipice. After some discussion and advice from our guides, we approached from the back side of the outcrop and closed to within twenty metres, where we spent the next two hours photographing these incredible animals. Being so close to genuinely wild Snow Leopards is an experience that leaves one both breathless and emotional.
Over the next week, we hiked and explored the Altai mountain range extensively, following up hot leads from local herders and shepherds on Snow Leopard sightings. Some of these leads resulted in sightings, and for others, we drew the occasional blank. Our last full day in the field saw us have an excellent encounter with a fully grown female leopard in the mountains.
During this expedition, we also photographed the amazing Mongolian Ibex, which we sighted on several occasions. The photograph below will be my photograph of the month for February 2023.
We concluded our expedition with a two-hour return flight from Khovd to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Thankfully our return flight left on time and we were back in time for airport transfers the following day.
By demand and request, I will be offering this expedition again in the summer of 2024 for a small group of just five photographers. If you are interested in photographing wild Snow Leopards, please email me. Places are extremely limited, and once spoken for, that’s it. Several places are already booked. Please note that a high degree of physical fitness is recommended for this expedition as there is a significant amount of hiking at altitudes up to 10,000 feet.