In early October, lifelong nature photographer Kittiya Pawlowski packed her cold weather gear and 25 pounds of camera equipment and set out on the adventure of a lifetime through the treacherous terrain of the Himalayas. Though she had been photographing the world’s wildlife since she was three years old, the animal at the top of her list still eluded her: the exceedingly rare snow leopard.
The snow leopard is so rare, in fact, that researchers aren’t sure how many are left in the wild. There could be as few as 3,000 in the world due to habitat loss, poaching, and climate change, and the ones that remain are masters at evading human contact.
Pawlowski’s chances of spotting one of the snowy big cats were slim to none, but she didn’t let that deter her. Despite the odds, she was confident she would find what she was looking for. And after a 300-mile trek through the world’s highest mountain system, she did.
Thousands of feet above sea level with the perils of altitude sickness growing ever stronger, Pawlowski spotted an animal in the distance, so far that at first, she thought it was a piece of the mountain. After zooming in, however, she realized that it was an elusive snow leopard, resting among the turquoise ice pinnacles of Mount Everest’s Phantom Alley.
Photographer Risked Her Life for a Snow Leopard Encounter
As any outdoorsman is keenly aware, hiking Mount Everest is among the most dangerous adventures in the world. On top of the extreme weather conditions and challenging routes, oxygen deprivation can lead to coma and death. Altitude sickness can occur at elevations higher than 8,000 feet and Everest stretches a staggering 29,000 feet into the sky.
As such, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Kittiya Pawlowski put her own life at risk in her quest to photograph the snow leopard. “It was exhausting,” Pawlowski told Newsweek. “Like climbing a stair stepper for eight hours a day with a pillow over your face.”
“The tail end of the monsoon season lashed with bad weather and poor visibility,” she continued. “Up, down, hot, cold, wet, sunburnt, exhausted, exhilarated. This was the daily routine as I cut across the pattern of rivers that drain the Himalayas into the Ganges.”
The morning of the unbelievable encounter, Pawlowski was so ill from oxygen deprivation that she didn’t leave her tent. But the moment she spotted the snow leopard made it all worth it.
“Every day I would scope out the valleys with my telephoto lens for movement,” Pawlowski explained. “I was extremely excited when I finally saw movement after that many days of walking.”
“Snow leopards have been my favorite animal since I was a child,” she added. “After watching a documentary on Everest several years ago I decided to actually try to photograph these ‘ghost’ cats. I hope my work inspires people to explore and take care of the Earth.”