The Snow Leopard
(1978) by American author, editor, and naturalist Peter Matthiessen (1927-2014) follows the author’s physical and spiritual journey to a holy shrine in the Himalayan mountains in Nepal, as well as his fascination with finding a rarely seen snow leopard. The Snow Leopard
won the National Book Award in 1979, and Matthiessen remains the rare author to have won a National Book Award in fiction and nonfiction.
Its themes include spiritual growth, moral development, reckoning with mortality, and beauty. It was praised for its seamless integration of memoir, travelogue, natural history, and religious writing. The Snow Leopard
is told in the first person through Matthiessen’s travel journals, along with supporting documents such as maps.
The work begins with Matthiessen’s initial journeys through Nepal. It is late September in 1973, and Matthiessen is 46-year-old. His entire journey will last two months and will traverse through 250 miles of rocky landscape. He walked through (and around) the famously tall mountain-range, Annapurna, and through dangerous mountain passes, such as the Jangla Bhanjayang Pass; later in The Snow Leopard,
Matthiessen records his experience of walking along and over majestic rivers, including the Bheri River, where three separate rivers conjoin.
Matthiessen shares some of his backstory: he was born and raised in Manhattan to a wealthy family. He graduated from Yale University and travelled the world, at one point working with leading authors in France; he helped found the famous literary magazine The Paris Review
, in 1953. He has led the life of a socialite ever since then, though his trip to Asia may be changing his materialist point-of-view
He presents many of the Tibetan people he meets and notes their stoic lifestyles. He travels through some exceedingly impoverished regions and reflects on how the Buddha was also turned away from a life of consumerism toward one of self-reflection and social-helping after he left his Braham/aristocratic home and observed the world’s various sufferings. Many people he meets, such as those living in the village of Dhorpatan, 3,000 feet above sea level, are Tibetan refuges (i.e. they are banned from returning to their homes in Western China).
On his physical and spiritual journey, the author is joined by George Schaller, an esteemed applied biologist. He is 40-years-old, and has studied gorillas, tigers, lions, and dozens of other big and dangerous examples of wildlife. Schaller’s quest is more science-related: he wants to find examples of bharal, or the “blue sheep” that Matthiessen has read about. Matthiessen’s quest remains spiritual: he wants to find the Lama of Shey (in Buddhism, this a spiritual teacher residing in the spiritual city of Shey, Tibet). The author also wants to see Crystal Mountain (aka Mount Kailash), an impossibly steep mountain that’s about two miles high that is considered holy in several Eastern religions.
As the two travel, they talk about finding the elusive snow leopard (aka the “bharal killer”). In 1973, only two people had recorded sightings of a snow leopard in the last three decades. Schaller believes that if he can establish predictable lines for bharal feces, he can indirectly track snow leopards. He also thinks it would be very valuable for science to compare the biology and habits of bharal to American sheep. However, the two must hurry through their travels as winter is rapidly approaching.
Matthiessen reveals that his wife, Deborah Love, died from cancer a few years back. He experimented heavily with all sorts of drugs to ease his grief. When that failed to provide long-lasting recovery, he turned to Buddhism.
There are several moments where Matthiessen nearly dies. One comes from nearly slipping off of an unstable cliff passage; another from--while meditating—being mistaken for a corpse and nearly being eaten by a flock of bald eagles.
Through the grueling environment where water and food must be strictly rationed, each man’s temperament and philosophies cannot be hidden. Schaller is all about science and has little patience for Matthiessen’s dreamy stories. Whereas Matthiessen is moody, Schaller is resolute and if he experiences discomfort chooses not to mention it. When Matthiessen finds breathing difficult at 17,000 feet, Schaller pretends he is unaffected by the lack of oxygen. One night it is so cold and the author takes to thinking of his deceased wife; he cries, and the tears freeze to his face.
As the pair venture closer to Mount Kailash/Crystal Mountain, they meet various men and women from major Eastern religion. (Mount Kailash is considered a holy site in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Bön). They meet sahibs (Indian gentlemen); Buddhist peasants who don’t take the religion all that seriously; and sherpas (native Nepalese who are known for their prowess in mountaineering). Tukten is Matthiessen’s favorite Sherpa. He is an impatient yet funny fellow who knows how to cook very well.
The duo reach the holy city of Shey. Matthiessen feels that he is closer to healing after the death of his wife.
After two months, they don’t actually see a snow leopard. Instead of being too disappointed by this, Schaller and Matthiessen take it as a religious lesson: life will never give you all that you want and letting go of desire is probably a good thing. This lesson may also help individuals gain some acceptance over death.