The Snow Leopard: Peter Matthiessen

Published by Vintage and Penguin

I read The Snow Leopard when I was in my early 20s, and I loved it enough to put it on my list of 10 favourite books—where it has stayed since then.

Published in 1978, The Snow Leopard is a classic, blending travel and philosophy. Peter Matthiessen was an American writer who had converted to Buddhism. This book is about his journey to the Crystal Mountain in the Himalayas in the Inner Dolpo region of Nepal.

He was accompanying George Schaller, a field biologist and friend, who wanted to study the wild blue sheep or bharal. The two men were also hoping to see the notoriously elusive snow leopard: “the hope of glimpsing this near-mythic beast in the snow mountains was reason enough for the entire journey”. 

Snow leopards live in high mountain ranges and are sometimes found as high as 18,000 feet. Their fur camouflages them perfectly, making it almost impossible to spot them. You can be looking straight at one without knowing it. When Matthiessen made his trip, only two Westerners had seen a snow leopard in the last 25 years: one of them was Schaller.

Matthiessen is a seeker. In a way, the snow leopard is a perfect symbol for an undefinable truth or even for enlightenment. When a Nepalese biologist asks him why he is on this journey, Matthiessen cannot think of a reply. “To say I was interested in blue sheep or snow leopards, or even in remote lamaseries, was no answer to his question, though all of that was true; to say I was making a pilgrimage seemed fatuous and vague, though in some sense that was true as well. And so I admitted I did not know. How could I say that I wished to penetrate the secrets of the mountains in search of something still unknown that, like the yeti, might well be missed for the very fact of searching?”

What Matthiessen was searching for was to be able transcend his own ego so he could discover who he truly was. Thoughts of death are woven throughout the book, not just because of the recent death of his wife, although that is very much on his mind, but also because of a growing awareness of his own mortality. This trip was an attempt to deal with his grief.

Matthiessen combines the external (stunning landscapes, meetings with Buddhist monks, the journey itself) with the internal (memories of his wife, meditations on Buddhism and on life and death). I think it was this seamless merging of the two that impressed me when I first read this book years ago.

Matthiessen sounds a prescient warning about nature being destroyed by human greed. In the “hard glare of technology”, he writes, we are losing the “subtle illumination that lent magnificence to life and peace to death. … We have outsmarted ourselves, like greedy monkeys, and now we are full of dread.”

Schaller and Matthiessen travel with Sherpas who carry their luggage and act as guides. Matthiessen’s description of the men brings them to life. Like Tukten—with “his mesmerizing voice, coming and going on the wind and rain”—with whom he forms a bond. However, there are times when he becomes impatient with them. This is the one thing that detracts from the book. His impatience is unfair, given the fact that the Sherpas were being paid a pittance. 

That said, Matthiessen’s meditations and philosophy in The Snow Leopard still resonate. And I love the way he writes about the landscape he walks through: “Now the air is struck by the shrill of a single cicada, brilliant, eerie, a sound as fierce as a sword blade shrieking on a lathe, yet subtle, bell-like, with a ring that causes the spider-webs to shimmer in the sunlight.”

What makes The Snow Leopard different from other travel books is that it is multifaceted: it is a travelogue, a description of the natural world, and a spiritual exploration. Revisiting this book all these years later, I find its beauty and wisdom still undimmed.

Buy from UK / USA

See also my review of Without Ever Reaching the Summit, Paolo Cognetti’s book inspired by The Snow Leopard.

5 thoughts on “The Snow Leopard: Peter Matthiessen

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