Without Ever Reaching the Summit: Paolo Cognetti

Translated from Italian by Stash Luczkiw
Published by Harvill Secker and HarperOne

The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen’s book about his trip to the Dolpo region in the Himalayas, was published in 1978. It is a blend of travelogue, philosophy and nature writing.

Almost four decades later, in 2017, Paolo Cognetti sets off on a similar journey to the Himalayas to mark his 40th birthday: a journey partly inspired by The Snow Leopard. He is accompanied by two friends, a guide, Sherpas and other climbers.

There is a problem, however. Cognetti is prone to altitude sickness and has not climbed above 3,000 metres in 20 years. Some of the passes he has to negotiate are over 5,000 metres. He does have trouble, but wills himself to keep going and manages the climb.

Maybe that is one of the reasons Cognetti has never been interested in reaching mountain summits. For him, a mountain is not a thing to be conquered, but something to appreciate and enjoy. A view I entirely agree with.

Cognetti’s experiences resonate with passages in The Snow Leopard, a battered copy of which he carries with him. In Shey, he feels a connection with the landscape around him, something that Matthiessen too had felt.

“[T]he afternoon sky was clear and at that altitude the light had something absolute to it, like light at its purest state. … [Here] nothing went forward or backward but turned in circles, following the motion of eternal return… And it was no idle movement. For the Tibetans, the spinning of the wheels, our going around walls, monasteries, and mountains, activate the prayers inside them… In Kathmandu, I had heard the F of Tibetan singing bowls, able to make water dance and skip when filled. If this is true, I thought, then from Shey, one powerful note must expand into the universe.”

At 4,700 metres, in a dry, stony basin, Cognetti finds edelweiss and a herd of bharal, the blue Himalayan sheep that Matthiessen writes about in his book. He also meets a young dog, who decides to accompany them until they finish their expedition. They name the dog Kanjiroba after a mountain in the Dolpo region.

This is a quiet, lyrical book, which Stash Luczkiw’s excellent translation does justice to. Some of the descriptions are so vivid, they are like photographs.

“A woman sitting under a portico spun sheep’s wool with automatic gestures: the spindle in the right hand turned, the left unravelled the wool, the hands moved without looking; similar to those of the monk repeating his mantra with a mala in his hand during the puja, the blessing ceremony of a new home.”

There are also actual images in the book, sketches that Cognetti makes during his journey. These sketches somehow make it more personal than any photographs could. They are the elements that Cognetti wants us to see, unlike a photograph that comprises everything in the frame.

Suffused with a love of mountains, Without Ever Reaching the Summit is a travelogue, a meditation and an exploration of the self. I loved Cognetti’s writing and its meditative quality.

The book is beautifully produced and worth owning: an argument in favour of print copies!

Buy from Bookshop.org UK / Bookshop.org USA

Read my review of The Snow Leopard.

4 thoughts on “Without Ever Reaching the Summit: Paolo Cognetti

  1. Pingback: The Snow Leopard: Peter Matthiessen – Talking About Books

  2. Pingback: The Best Books of 2022 – Talking About Books

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