The Snow Leopard
When Peter Matthiessen set out with the field biologist George Schaller from Pokhara, in northwest Nepal, their hope was to reach the Crystal Mountain—a foot journey of 250 miles or more across the Himalaya—in the Land of Dolpo, on the Tibetan plateau. Since they wished to observe the late-autumn rut of the bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep, they undertook their trek as winter snows were sweeping into the high passes, and five weeks were required to reach their destination.
At Shey Compaa, a very ancient Buddhist shrine on the Crystal Mountain, the Lama had forbidden all killing of wild animals, and bharal were said to be numberous and easily observed. Where they were numerous there was bound to appear that rarest and most beautiful of the great cats, the snow leopard. Hope of glimpsing this near-mythic beast in the snow mountains would be reason enough for the entire journey.
For Peter Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, there was a crucial inner journey as well. In Inner Dolpo, said to be the last enclave of pure Tibetan culture left on earth, the Lama of Shey was revered as an incarnation of Milarepa’s teacher, the great twlefth-century Lama Marpa. He had been in seclusion when a scholar of Tibetan religions reached the Crystal Monastery seventeen years before, but it was Matthiessen’s hope that they would find him.
Any trip is an epxerience that tests the life of the traveler. But this one especially was a real passage, involving and exploring, unfolding and revealing the narrator and his world. The Snow Leopard is Peter Matthiessen’s radiant and deeply moving account of a “true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart.”
In the autumn of 1973, the writer Peter Matthiessen set out in the company of zoologist George Schaller on a hike that would take them 250 miles into the heart of the Himalayan region of Dolpo, “the last enclave of pure Tibetan culture on earth.” Their voyage was in quest of one of the world’s most elusive big cats, the snow leopard of high Asia, a creature so rarely spotted as to be nearly mythical; Schaller was one of only two Westerners known to have seen a snow leopard in the wild since 1950.
Published in 1978, The Snow Leopard is rightly regarded as a classic of modern nature writing. Guiding his readers through steep-walled canyons and over tall mountains, Matthiessen offers a narrative that is shot through with metaphor and mysticism, and his arduous search for the snow leopard becomes a vehicle for reflections on all manner of matters of life and death. In the process, The Snow Leopard evolves from an already exquisite book of natural history and travel into a grand, Buddhist-tinged parable of our search for meaning. By the end of their expedition, having seen wolves, foxes, rare mountain sheep, and other denizens of the Himalayas, and having seen many signs of the snow leopard but not the cat itself, Schaller muses, “We’ve seen so much, maybe it’s better if there are some things that we don’t see.”
That sentiment, as well as the sense of wonder at the world’s beauty that pervades Matthiessen’s book, ought to inform any journey into the wild. —Gregory McNamee