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Scent Marked


Scent Marked: A biologist learns her true power on the trail of the snow leopard

My heartfelt thanks to mollycactus and Brittni4u for their generosity in reading and editing this story.

Chapter 1

"Fucking bollocks!" I uttered softly as I watched the large chunk of ice break away from the cliff where my axe had struck it, trying to give myself an anchor on which to grab hold. 'It's likely going to fall right on top of me, and bash in my bloody skull,' I thought as I felt my body also in free fall, just below and underneath the breakaway chunks of ice. Time seemed to slow as I watched a snow drift right above where the ice broke off begin to fall as well - a small, beautiful tsunami of rolling white powder set against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. 'This won't end well,' is the last complete thought I had before crashing into the icy bank below. I tried to quickly turn my head in the split second before the rest of the mini-avalanche took my face off but I was too slow. I knew trying to conquer this mountain was a bad idea...

It took the rest of my crew five minutes to climb down to me, another five minutes to dig me out. I came to a few minutes before they reached me, and those were the scariest 3-4 minutes of my life. And the bloody coldest! By the time they got to me, I was a shivering mess from both panic and the freezing temperature.

"Priya! Priya! Are you ok?" they all asked me urgently. I tried to answer, but I couldn't stop shaking. My face was wet and cold. I tried to wipe away the moisture and pulled away a wet red hand. I tried to stand up and felt woozy, almost fainting as my brain tried to shield me from the red hot flash of searing pain shooting up my nerves from below my right knee. I looked down to see my right foot grotesquely twisted to the side. If Greg and Elias hadn't been there to hold me up, I would have fallen again.

Further panic set in. This could be the death knell for our trip. If I can't hike and continue to climb, they would have to call for an emergency airlift out of there. All my planning, all the hard work I put into making this a possibility, and all the blood, sweat and frozen toes I put in to making it this far... down the drain.

I tentatively put a little weight on my foot to assess the seriousness of the situation. To my great relief it wasn't broken, but I suspected the sprain was really severe yet a rush of adrenaline was keeping me from experiencing the full brunt of the pain. I was going to need it wrapped soon or it would likely swell up. The only problem was that we were in no position to take off my boot and try to wrap my foot. It was too cold, and my foot would freeze too quickly. It needed to take place inside of a properly warmed tent. Somehow, I would have to keep going.

"I think I'm ok to make it to the next camp," I told them, trying to sound confident.

Ever perceptive, Sonam (our lead sherpa) saw the look on my face but didn't ask me about it right away while the others all fussed over me and continued asking if I was alright. I indicated that I was fine, the gash on my head a minor cut, and that if we kept hiking I'd likely warm up a bit. We had about another hour to go until we reached the camp site and we needed to hurry if we wanted to get there before darkness set in. We were all acutely aware of that, so the others congratulated me on cheating death, wrapped a bandage around my head, and then we set forth.

As we continued on I was determined that I could brave it and make it to camp, but something must have registered on my face because soon Elias stopped me and pulled me to the side. I was still shivering, perhaps even worse than before.

"Your face is turning blue," he observed, "and you make a slight grimace every time you put weight on your right foot."

"I'll be fine," I retorted.

"Elias is right," Sonam chimed in. "Priya," he began hesitantly, "I know you're brave, and I know you're tough, but if we don't get you warmed up and get that ankle looked at, you are going to be no good tomorrow, and this trip will be over for you."


Out of all the things I'd ever done to prove myself just as smart and capable as the next biologist, this had to be the craziest. Some parts of our planet are so brutal that any animal that can merely survive in those areas achieves almost mythical status. When an animal actually thrives in those areas, it becomes legendary. As an evolutionary biologist who studies big cats, I was teaming up with a small band of scientists and an international film crew to make an attempt to find one such creature that lives in the peaks looming over us, the same peaks that had claimed the lives of countless persons who were foolish enough to try and tame its summit. The mountains are the highest and the most hostile in the world: the Himalayas. Towering above India's northern borders, the Himalaya's are where one searches for the Holy Grail to a big cat biologist: the panthera uncial, commonly known as the snow leopard.

Snow leopards can be found in the mountainous terrains throughout the near east, but there is an isolated population that that lives and thrives exclusively in the Himalayas. Back then, merely to have seen one was considered a stroke of luck rarer than getting hit by lightning. To film one was thought to be nearly impossible. Not only is the climate inhospitable to humans, so it is also to cameras and video equipment. It was a wildlife film-maker's wet dream. Nowadays, there are a handful of documentaries with footage of these rarest of cats. This is the story of the film crew who proved it could be done.

It remains one of the most rarely seen creatures on earth - the snow leopard. At that time, the number of people in the world who had ever seen one in the wild could be counted on two hands. I was hoping to add my name to that exclusive list. Even more aspirational, I was hoping to catch a pair mating and/or film a mum with her kits. Like many mountain adventures, it was a quest that was to end in both tragedy and triumph.

What made this journey so foolish for me is that I am not a mountain climber. I have no experience climbing the other tall peaks of the world, for all the big cats I typically study live in jungles and on savannas. I don't know what it's like to try and push myself past my limits in an oxygen-deprived sub-zero environment... for weeks on end. But when the BBC calls and offers you a huge budget and an opportunity to work with the production company of Sir David Attenborough to try and film one of the most elusive big cats in the world, you say bloody hell yes! Full stop.

Luckily, we weren't trying to reach the summit of Mount Everest, or any of the other insanely high peaks in the Himalayan mountain range. While the peak of Mount Everest stands 29,000 feet above sea level, the highest we would be climbing is to an outpost camp at about 21,000 feet. Helicopters would fly us up to a staging camp at about 11,000 feet but couldn't get us any higher: the air above is too thin for helicopters to sustain lift. We'd have to climb the last 10,000 feet ourselves. Still, it was going to take some insane endurance training on my part to be able to make the trek. It was the biggest challenge of my life. Foolishly, I accepted.

I cleared time off with the chair of my department and assigned my remaining lectures for the semester to my graduate students. I dropped everything else and flew to Denver where for two months I took on intense anaerobic training at the U.S. Olympic Center, situated in the "mile high" city to take advantage of its oxygen-deprived altitude and help hopeful athletes expand their lung capacity.

My time there wasn't all bad. Spring in Denver is bright, crisp and beautiful - the perfect time of year for endurance training. The green of new growth on the trees shined vibrant in the thin air, bathing in the rays of the sun. It's one of the most active cities in the U.S. and by late March the bikers and runners scurry all about the city and its surrounds, reclaiming them from winter's grasp. With so many parks and trails, it was a runner's paradise.

I also managed to sneak in a brief romance with a young Canadian athlete named Aaron, a hopeful for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Aaron was a sprinter who specialized in the 100 and 200 meter races. He was humble and kind and took me under his wing to help me train at the gym. His humility, I learned, stemmed from the fact that his event was dominated then by Usain Bolt. Everyone else was just happy to compete. Aaron knew that he'd likely never win gold in his field, but he was determined to compete anyway. I admired that about him.

Having sex with Aaron was an experience that I almost let pass me by. He was so incredibly toned and fit that I was mortified at the prospect of taking off my clothes in front of him. I couldn't imagine that he'd find my average human body sexy. Plus, he was 14 years my junior. There was not an ounce of fat on his 21 year-old body. He wore me down with his wit and his humor though, and boy am I glad he did. His stamina was legendary.

Aaron also introduced me to the women who ran distance, training for the 5000m. On weekends the girls and I drove to Colorado Springs to jog up the trails of Pike's Peak, one of the highest summits in the Rocky Mountains. At first I suffered massive headaches from altitude sickness, but they clued me in that I could prevent those by popping two Excedrin and chasing them with a bottle of Gatorade.

It was probably the most intense two months of my life. In that ten weeks I lost 14 pounds - training all day and reading all night, trying to devise the best strategy we would use to find the elusive felines. The shitty part was that I also lost a breast size. My C cups went down to a full B. Why is nature so cruel to us like that? My thighs retained their thickness, only grew more firm. But my boobs never ran one single mile, yet that's where all the weight seemed to drop from.

Friday nights I gave myself a break and called Aaron over to my tiny flat to "enjoy a little down time." If I was feeling insecure about my lost cleavage, Aaron was the cure. Our age difference meant that he was deferential to me and easily took direction, an eagerness put to good use in the form of all the oral attention he gave to me.

I experienced nirvana many, many times thank s to his lips and tongue even though he was not particularly skilled in his technique. He seemed to eat me for his own pleasure, and not just to slick the way for his cock. That's what got me hot. Plus, in addition to his marathon stamina, he also had miraculous recuperative abilities, something that I had sorely missed in the older men I usually dated. I could suck him to completion and five minutes later he'd be rock hard inside me, good for the next hour. What more could a girl ask for?

Both Aaron and I knew that our romance was temporary, which is probably why we were able to have such a carefree and wonderful time together, and why I dropped my usual guard when it comes to men. I tend to avoid long-term relationships. I often claim that it's because I want to focus on my career but if I had to tell the truth about it, it's because I never want to let a man get close enough to me to hurt me the way my father hurt my mum. With Aaron, though, there was no need to be emotionally reserved in order to keep him at arms' length because our relationship already had a built-in expiration date. That was perfect for me.

The betrayal I felt from my father cut many ways. It started when I hit puberty. Then, out of an outdated and misguided sense of decorum common to my culture, my father began to shy away from hugging me. My baba (as I affectionately called him) was my best friend for the first 12 years of my life - I couldn't understand why he suddenly seemed so distant. Not only did it wound me emotionally, I learned to be ashamed of my budding body, as if the feminine curves adding definition to my form had somehow rendered me unclean. A few years later, when he cheated on my mum with some young, curvaceous woman half his age, it not only broke my mother's heart but it reinforced the perception of my young body in bloom as unclean and sinful.

Needless to say, relationships with men have always been complicated for me. I shied away from all entanglements that risked leaving me too vulnerable. With Aaron, there was no awkward discussion warning him not to become too attached. We could be together carefree, living for the moment.

One funny thing that happened was that Aaron got in the habit of taking a pair of my knickers back to his flat after each of his visits. The following week he'd bring them back and exchange them for a "fresh" pair. When I asked him what he did with my panties he just smiled bashfully and told me that he liked the way I smelled.

I got the shock of my life one day when I went to watch him work out on the track, taking a break from my own training. Right before he and the other runners got down into the blocks to ready themselves for the practice race, Aaron took from his pocket a tiny piece of red fabric that he pressed to his nose as his chest expanded with air. Everyone else was so deep in concentration that no one seemed to take notice. He discretely slipped it back into his shorts before kneeling down to take his mark. He won his heat by two body lengths, his beautiful muscles all working in unison, the little droplets of sweat on his brown skin shining in the morning sun. I was appalled by what felt like a brazen violation of our privacy, yet my nipples stiffened immediately and I was instantly wet.

When we met at the gym the next day, I confronted Aaron with what I saw.

"Smelling you right before I race is like taking a shot of adrenaline," he confessed. "You saw how well I did!"

What could I say? Some of my past lovers had certainly taken pleasure in my scent and my taste before, but never as boldly as Aaron. Still, it felt wrong, like a violation of our privacy. Yet, my knickers became a sticky mess every time I thought about it. Failing to come up with further reasons to scold him, I took him back to his dorm room and we finished our workout there for the rest of the afternoon.

Even more drastic than my frenetic training, I cut my hair. We were going to be up in the mountains for 4-6 weeks with no opportunities for a proper shower or bath. My hair, which normally hung down past my shoulders, was going to be an oily tangled mess under those conditions. This was the opportunity of a lifetime - there was no time to be prissy. Still, sitting down in that salon chair was more difficult than running up the Rocky Mountains with my lungs on fire. I opted for a short pixie cut with asymmetrical side bangs. It was the closest I could get to being practical yet still cute. It took everything I had not to shed tears as I watched the first long black tress fall to the floor.

Chapter 2

After 12 weeks of training I was going home in a way that I had never imagined. I was born in Nashik - a holy city in western India. When I was 5 years old my mum and dad immigrated to London were I was raised, and I now live in California where I teach evolutionary biology and ecology at U.C. Berkeley. I'd visited India with my parents when I was little, and many times as an adult for my work, but I never imagined that I'd be coming back home to climb the Himalayas - that was something only crazy foreigners tried to do. I'd somehow become one of them. Even though the Himalayas are technically in Nepal, living abroad had helped me see that we are all the same people, only separated due to the vestiges of colonialism and war.

The good thing is that I had some friends on this trip. The academic world is so small, particularly within a subspecialty of a discipline, that you really can't escape knowing nearly everyone in your field. My good friend Taz Chaudry had also been tapped to accompany the film crew as a scientific advisor. Short for Tazmeen, she was from Bahrain and studied evolutionary biology at Harvard. We met while we were both in graduate school, and quickly discovered that whenever we end up in the same place that our joy and laughter is increased exponentially. She got a job at the zoo in her home town of Manama when she was a teenager and fell in love with the leopard there. When she went to school she dedicated her time to studying the solitary cats in Africa, India, and South America, though there they are called jaguars and pumas.

Also coming along on this trip was Greg Roland, who everyone called "Poop." He was a shorter man, about 5'7", balding but with a full beard and black-rimmed glasses. I'd read all of Greg's work and seen him speak at numerous conferences, but he was one of those super geeks that kind of kept to his self - more solitary than the leopards we were trying to locate.

"How in the world did he get that for a nickname?" I asked a colleague one year. She explained that they started calling him "the pooper scooper" because that's what he does - analyzes cat feces to determine their health and dietary habits.

"At some point, someone just shortened it to 'Poop' and it stuck," she explained. He didn't seem to mind, though, which I found strange. Nevertheless, it is because of him that we know everything about what snow leopards eat, and knowing what they eat was how we were going to find them.

And then there was Elias. Adhama Elias Greyson was born in Kenya, the son of a White American mother and a Black American father. His parents joined the Peace Corps in 1971 to escape fighting in Vietnam. There they lived among the Maasai on a reserve for ten years where they had Elias, which is where he fell in love with lions. I knew his story not because we were close, but because everyone knew his story. Just as lions are perhaps the most popular of all the big cats, the same is sadly true in the academic world of big cat biologists: those who study lions get the bulk of the attention and the bulk of the funding.

For extra insult, Elias also had a keen eye for photography, and therefore all his articles included these absolutely captivating photographs of his subjects. He was more famous for his pictures of lions than he was for his research. For Elias this was simply a matter of living up to his name. The English translation of his first name, Adhama, literally means "glory." It's as if he was born to be an arrogant bastard.

Maybe 'bastard' is too strong of a word. He was never a wanker to me, but perhaps that is just because I was one of the few women who had not slept with him. He was notorious for bedding colleagues at conferences. One year I had the frustrating displeasure of being in a neighboring room to his at the Omni Parker House Hotel in Boston, where I was forced to listen to a marathon tryst coming from his adjoining suite one night. That memory was singed into my brain, easily one of the most frustrating nights I have ever spent.

"I'm not that type of girl," I heard the mysterious woman coyly proclaim after about two hours of first giggling, then sighing, followed by moaning, and finally muffled screaming and the rhythmic knocking of a headboard against our shared wall. Twice I had picked up the phone to call the front desk and complain, but each time I put it back down. Just because I wasn't getting any didn't mean I had to spoil someone else's fun. Plus, the voyeur in me was just too strong. I was only 25 at the time, and I was a late bloomer with boys due to my strict upbringing but I was quickly trying to catch up.

I have to admit, listening to them go at it and imagining what they were doing got me more than a little aroused. It was enough to overcome my annoyance at being kept awake. The woman sounded exhausted, but apparently Elias wanted more from her. I couldn't help but be curious as to what it was. Being in a higher pitch I could just barely make out her voice and what she was saying through the wall, but his voice was low and muddled.

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byJayded_Lust© 3 comments/ 10978 views/ 13 favorites

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