The Snow Leopard Summary
by Peter Matthiessen

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The Snow Leopard Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Unlike his earlier books, Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard is intensely personal, revealing the writer himself—the individual who is so passionately interested in understanding the world around him, who is committed to imparting the knowledge that he does gain to interested readers. In his earlier work, Matthiessen the person was always remote—an observer who let his descriptions speak for themselves. In The Snow Leopard, however, what he describes is both his journey through Island Nepal and his quest to find inner peace.

In 1973, he accompanied wildlife biologist George Schaller on a trek to the Crystal Mountain in northern Nepal, near its border with Tibet. Schaller, a dry, stoic man, is intent on locating a herd of bharal—blue sheep, a rare animal that could be a close ancestor of both sheep and goats that had lived twenty million years ago. The trek covered over 250 miles and took Matthiessen, Schaller, and their sherpa guides over snow-and ice-covered mountain passes, through breathlessly high elevations to the Land of Dolpo. Not only did they intend to find the blue sheep, they also had hopes of sighting the rare snow leopard, a creature that is seldom seen and about which little was known.

Much of The Snow Leopard is Matthiessen’s recounting of this trek, based on the extensive journal he kept while in Nepal. As such, his travel narrative is in the tradition of such explorers as Sir Richard Burton, Sir Henry Morton Stanley, and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. Matthiessen brings the reader face-to-face with the land and the people of Nepal. One learns precisely what it was like trekking in harsh weather, living in a small tent, dealing with the native population, and existing in an environment whose enormity dwarfs its human inhabitants.

Although Matthiessen makes use of his trained observer’s eye to create a detailed picture of the Himalayas’ natural history, The Snow Leopard is much more than a travelogue. Matthiessen is as interested in chronicling his interior spiritual quest as he is in describing his and Schaller’s search for the snow leopard. A year prior to his departure on this trip, Matthiessen’s second wife, Deborah Love, had died a brutal death from cancer. His trek through Nepal becomes a means by which he searches for peace and healing. A student of Zen Buddhism, Matthiessen looked upon his turmoil as a Zen problem in achieving inner quiet. He sought to capture a sense of unity with the natural world around him, a world that included the death of the woman he had loved.

The Snow Leopard attempts to explain the manner in which such inner Zen harmony is achieved. If one goes looking for a preconceived answer, one will be disappointed; it is necessary to become almost passive and allow whatever the answer is to emerge of its own accord, prompted by one’s experiences on the journey. That is what Matthiessen attempted to do in Nepal. The snow leopard itself becomes the...

(The entire section is 761 words.)