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Richard Cowper joins an ascent of one of the highest peaks in the Himalayas but keeps an eye out for the snow leopard.

The man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag padded into my high-mountain tent over the sleeping body of a companion. Our four-and-a-half week expedition to make the first ascent of one of India's highest Himalayan peaks on skis seemed about to end in failure in traumatic circumstances.

When I came to at 17,000ft I found myself bathed in sweat as the pale light of a full moon shone through the yellow skin of my tent. My heart raced at an even faster pace than is normal at that oxygen-starved height.

It took but a moment to realise that I was not about to have my neck broken with the swipe of one great paw. It had simply been a nightmare fuelled by a book I was reading about Jim Corbett's famous hunt for a man-eating leopard in a nearby valley. My bad dream may have been partly due to the shortage of oxygen, which has often caused climbers at great heights to imagine phantoms at their side. It could also have been aggravated by my fears of failing on the final assault on the summit, due to take place in just a few hours.

Partly because of a skiing accident just a month before I set off for India, I was rather slow and one of the least confident of the group of top British ski mountaineers led by Rob Collister. We were attempting to ascend Mt Kalanag (21,138ft) on the border with Tibet, about 250 miles north of New Delhi. The glaciated region is renowned for being one of the last remaining habitats of the elusive snow leopard.

Despite some initial setbacks, our nine-member team had been lucky with the weather, but above all with the decision to set up base camp at a different place from the one normally favoured by mountaineers attempting the peak. Just three days after pitching our tents amid flowers and trees next to a lake called Ruinsara, the usual base camp higher up the mountain was hit by a massive avalanche.

Thousands of tonnes of ice broke off a hanging glacier high on the mountain and plummeted to the moraine below. Travelling at hundreds of miles an hour, it could be heard and seen for miles as it threw up a dense cloud of snow particles. It destroyed everything in its path. "There's no way we would have survived that," said expedition doctor Rob Greaves. "Thank God the depth of the snow forced us to choose a lower base camp."

Our team went on to set up an advanced base camp (ABC) on the other side of the Ruinsara valley, where we were beset by a two-day snowstorm. Only intense digging throughout the night prevented our tents from being completely buried. We retreated to base camp before returning to ABC and then, over a period of days, moved steadily up the mountain to set up three higher camps. At Camp 3 we were lucky with settled weather and clear blue skies: perfect conditions for an attempt on the summit.

We set off at 5am using skins on the bottom of our skis to travel upwards over deep snow, passing under a series of giant seracs - hanging masses of ice that looked liable to collapse at any moment. One of our party suffered an attack of high-altitude sickness and was forced to return to camp. After less than seven hours we found ourselves directly below the final steep slope of the mountain known locally as the Black Serpent. A short pitch of near-vertical climbing on neve (rock-hard snow) made the use of rope, ice-axes and crampons essential.

All eight of us eventually made it on to the knife-edge ridge and moved on to the summit just a few feet away. We shook hands with smiles all round. It was a moment of sheer pleasure on one of the most harmonious expeditions any of us had been on.

India's two highest mountains,

Nanda Devi (25,660ft) and Kamet (25,442ft), rose in the distant east; a range of nearer hills hid the source of the River Ganges. We could also see part of the district of Kumaon, origin of my nightmare. After the first world war it had been home to Jim Corbett, one of the most famous English colonial hunters and administrators. An expert on man-eating tigers, his love for the area was so great that today a national park is named after him.

It was perhaps his greatest feat that had triggered my greatest nightmare: his four-year hunt for a man-eating leopard that from 1918 to 1926 had eaten at least 125 people, hunting men, women and children in the area around the village of Rudraprayag.

The leopard was so canny that it once tiptoed into the midst of over a hundred sleeping pilgrims to snatch a local woman whose smell it recognised. The leopard, in the hope of consuming its nemesis, even tracked Corbett when Corbett thought he was tracking it. It was this deep sense of fear conveyed so vividly by Corbett in his book that had resurfaced in my dreams.

Corbett's determination paid off when at last he shot the leopard from a tree hideout in the dead of night after it returned to its human kill. Thousands of Garhwali villagers who had lived in fear of their lives for eight years feted him for days, treating him almost as a living god.

Our mountain, Kalanag - then known as Banderpunch - was first explored in the early 1950s by Jack Gibson, British headmaster of Doon school in nearby Dehra Dun. It was finally scaled by a party from the school in 1968.

On the final day our ascent had taken about seven hours. The descent on skis, steep, thrilling and in perfect snow conditions, took just 40 minutes. At last we had time to take in the beauty of an area regarded by Hindus as one of the holiest places in India. Each year tens of thousands of barefoot pilgrims walk for hundreds of miles to visit the region's temples and to pray at the headwaters of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers.

The area is home to both brown and black bears and the lammergeier, the world's biggest vulture. It has dozens of unclimbed peaks over 16,000ft - the very level at which the snow leopard likes most to live.

Sadly, none of us saw a snow leopard, though we spent many days at that critical height. All had been enthralled at night by Corbett's tales of the man-eater of Rudraprayag. But I never told of my nightmare at Camp 3.

The Eagle Ski Club Mt Kalanag Expedition received sponsorship from ski and mountaineering equipment companies Bolle, Snow + Rock and Ortovox.

1 November 2003