In pursuit of the elusive snow leopard in frozen Spiti, Rishad Saam Mehta gets accustomed to the sub-zero temperatures as he strikes gold in his pursuit of wellness. By Rishad Saam Mehta

I stepped out of my car to take a photograph and the freezing cold came for me—similar to when you fall into a pond or a pool and the water seeps into your clothes. And this, even though I was wearing ski innerwear, a thick flannel T-shirt, a fleece, a pullover, and a ski jacket! But why am I going on about the cruel clutches of the cold when I’m supposed to talk about wellness, comfort, and calm? Maybe because, just like the initial shock of the water, I got accustomed to the cold (it was -10°Celsius) in a few moments, and the photograph I took then still fills me with a warm glow every time I look at it.

Winter Wonderland Spiti
Spiti, with its deep gorges and skyscraping mountains, turns magical in winter.

I was in the Spiti district in Himachal Pradesh, very popular during summer, but deserted during winter because the temperatures plummet to about -30°Celsius. Four of us, in two cars, had decided to make a cheeky run to Spiti in January when it is the coldest. The reason: to try and photograph the elusive snow leopard that descends from the high mountains in search of food in winter.

From Shimla, the route goes through the districts of Rampur and Kinnaur before entering Spiti, and it is here that the wonder begins. I have been to Spiti several times in summer, and it has always fascinated me with its deep gorges spanned by tough bailey bridges, its skyscraping mountains, and the sight of the green Sutlej far below. But, in winter, it was like slipping down Alice’s proverbial rabbit hole and finding myself in a winter wonderland—I was spellbound. The land was white, the Sutlej fringed with ice and the stubborn shrubbery a rich gold. Where water had dripped during summer, slender icicles, as sharp as an assassin’s arrow, had formed. Malling Nala—a huge waterfall that spills onto the road—had frozen in full flow and was now a beautiful natural ice sculpture.

At Tabo, where we spent one night, the PWD guest house caretaker was shocked that tourists had arrived at that time of year. He told us that we could have rooms, but the toilets were frozen, so we’d have to take our business to the helipad that was a five-minute walk away.

The next morning, one of the cars refused to start—the severe cold had frozen the diesel in the metal fuel tank solid! So, we built a fire under the car to melt the fuel. That solved the problem and we drove on towards Kaza, about 40 kilometres away. The landscape became prettier and prettier. Dhankar Gompa looked like a celestial abode perched atop a snow-clad mountain. For the last decade it has been on the list of precarious monuments and is expected to collapse, but sits strong and proud as it has for the last 1,100 years.

At Kaza, the fuel pump was shut. We left a note for the owner saying we’d be back two days later for fuel, and we carried on towards Kibber, 20 kilometres  away and at 14,200 feet. The drive on the 10-foot-wide road was thrilling. The sun was about to set and had washed the snowy landscape with an orange hue. It was a sort of ethereal beauty and we stepped out of the cars to admire the landscape, grateful to be here, the cold completely forgotten…

Winter Wonderland Spiti
Dhankar Gompa, perched high above the Spiti Valley.

Even though we never did see a snow leopard, the trip wasn’t in vain. We saw a beautiful side of Spiti that few are privy to. And by sheer luck, the weather held for the five days that we were there. The temperature hardly ever went above -8°Celsius, and the trip was peppered with moments of hardship and discomfort. Yet, it stands out as one of the most enriching drives and experiences I have ever had. Those treks through ankle-deep snow to
find the snow leopard, looking at the stunning landscape and capturing it on my camera and the excitement of driving on high-altitude roads filled me with sense of peace and joy. If that isn’t wellness, what is?

Getting There

The closest airport is in Chandigarh, from where you can either rent a car or take a bus ride up to Spiti. Alternatively, you can drive down the Hindustan-Tibet highway to Spiti. It is advised to drive down in an SUV because of the high likelihood of landslides.

STAY

There is a variety of local guesthouses and homestays to choose from in Spiti.

Related: Here’s Why Spiti In Winters Is Your Very Own Ticket To Narnia