Ochotona roylei is one of several different species of pikas or mouse hares found in the Himalayas. This photograph was taken in the Son Gad valley of Uttarakhand in 2013, near the Bandar Punch base camp.
As I waited to acclimatize for our climb and contemplated the reasons and risks involved in attempting to ascend a mountain, I spent a number of hours sitting alone amidst glacial moraine, waiting for pikas to emerge from their dens. Being restless by nature, I find it difficult to remain still and silent for long stretches of time but it is a discipline that calms the mind and helps us observe the world with a clearer vision. Mouse hares are extremely shy and skittish animals, and I had never successfully photographed one before. Eventually, their curiosity allowed us to come face to face and gave me the opportunity to take a series of pictures.
Adult pikas weigh 3-4 ounces and are a favorite prey of Himalayan raptors and foxes. This particular pika has a nick in his ear. He must have had a close escape from a hawk or eagle that swooped down, just as he ducked into his burrow.
The Himalayas are home to many animals more celebrated and sought after than the pika but conservationist George Schaller refers to them as a "keystone species." In his book Tibet Wild, he writes, "A small creature like the pika can indeed have a large influence on many plants and animals with which it shares its world." While doing field research in Tibet, Schaller confronted widespread antipathy to this diminutive mammal. Chinese authorities have attempted to exterminate mouse hares with poison because they believe they deplete scarce highland pastures. In fact, as Schaller points out, the pika is critical to the fragile environment of the Tibetan plateau and other Himalayan ecosystems, aerating and fertilizing the soil, providing dens in which other animals find shelter and being an essential part of the food chain for predators. Destruction of the pika could easily lead to a domino effect that might cause the extinction of many other Himalayan species.
Meditating on a mouse hare, as it watches me from within the rocks, I feel no longer alone. Its furtive movements and attentive eyes hold me in its gaze. The scattered debris of long-lost glaciers stretches from one side of the valley to the other. Above us the ridges rise into the clouds. Somehow, this pika confirms my presence in the mountains just as I acknowledge his, through our shared awareness of each other. He is the same colour as the rocks, camouflaged within earth and stone, frost-scorched grass and mineral pigments in the soil. I try to sit as still as the rocks. We are both alive and here together on this mountain, two species unlike each other in many ways, yet held together by the same spark of creation.
Stephen Alter's book BECOMING A MOUNTAIN: Himalayan Journeys in search of the Sacred and the Sublime is published by Arcade/Skyhorse in New York and Aleph in New Delhi.