Woody Packard

Words + Pictures


Ирвэс Was Here
Peter Matthiessen did not see one for the two months that he was looking in the Himalayas, but still named his most famous book after it. For two seasons a team of Japanese scientists traveled to Mongolia's Jargalant Uul to look for them. They were nearing the end of their third year without finding one when their luck changed. A Mongolian woman working as their cook decided to help, and along with her brother they climbed to a point where they had a view from above, a strategy usually used by the snow leopards they were looking for, to spot the ibex and argali sheep that they prey on.

A few days after we made arrangements to visit Khovd I got another phone call from our friend Davaa, relative of the camel herders we would visit, and the cook for the Japanese scientists. She handed her phone to someone who had just walked into her store, who spoke both Mongolian and English.

"Davaa would like to know if you would like to go to the mountain," she explained. "Jargalant Uul. She wants to show you ирвэс." Earvess, Snow leopard. It rhymes with Yes, the only possible answer to such a question.

"She says you might not see one, but she will try to find one for you."

"Yes, I understand," I told her. "Yes, we would like to try."

"Ok, good bye."

Approach to Jargalant Uul
So it was settled. We would look for snow leopards on Jargalant Uul, which I have photographed from many angles, including the air, but have never had the opportunity to hike. If we were lucky we would see one of the rarest animals on earth. If we were unlucky it would just be time spent on another massive piece of geology in Mongolia, a place I have admired since seeing it four years ago on our approach to Khovd. The bumper sticker message "A bad day of fishing still beats a good day at the office" comes to mind even though I haven't gone to the office for many years.

We left early, stayed late, and looked, especially Davaa, very hard. Although we saw prints in fresh snow, scat that was recently buried, the stripped hide from a recent kill, and the familiar odor of cat spray left to mark its territory, we joined the club of those who did not see a snow leopard. We did see argali sheep and ibex, and protected territory that, even in Mongolia, is free of litter. On this afternoon in late March we found our way down the mountain and back to the car by way of a frozen stream, descended the dry bed of a river at dusk, and wound our way around Jargalant's gravelly base, toward our home for the night, in the dark.

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Davaa and Judy watch from a perch just off the ridge we were traveling.