The Snow Leopard

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

The Snow Leopard is both the record of an arduous adventure in the Himalayas, and a chronicle of Peter Matthiessen’s inner travail. The author undertook the expedition because it offered a challenge at a time when he was emotionally distressed. George Schaller, a field biologist, asked Peter Matthiessen to join him on a trek to northwest Nepal to Crystal Mountain in the Land of Dolpo on the Tibetan plateau. Schaller had started a survey of wild sheep and goats and sought to confirm his belief that the bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep, are actually less sheep than goats. These strange sheep are more abundant in this faraway, scarcely populated area because the Lama of a very ancient Buddhist shrine on the Crystal Mountain has forbidden all killing of wild animals.

There was a very good chance that the bharal’s natural predator, the snow leopard, still inhabited the area. To see this rare and most beautiful member of the great cats, Matthiessen says, was reason enough to undertake the trip. Very little is known of the natural history of the snow leopard. It is wary and elusive to a “magical” degree, living above five thousand feet and as high as eighteen thousand feet. It has pale frosty eyes and a coat of pale misty gray with black rosettes that are clouded by the depth of the rich fur; it weighs about one hundred pounds and is approximately six feet in length with a remarkably long tail, thick to the tip. Its usual prey is the blue sheep, but it occasionally kills creatures three times its own size, such as a young yak. Man might be fair game as well, although no attack has ever been reported. Matthiessen thinks of the snow leopard as a mysterious being, unsociable and solitary, and attaches symbolic importance to it.

Although scientific interest was the main impetus for this difficult journey, Matthiessen also entertained the hope that at Crystal Mountain he might meet the Lama—an intriguing possibility because of his absorption in Zen beliefs and concepts. Throughout the journal (September 28 to December 1) runs the thread of Matthiessen’s preoccupation with Zen Buddhism. Along the journey he notes the roadside shrines and rock cairns that indicate the natives’ Buddhist belief. He spells out the omnipresent mantra OM MANI PADME HUM, translating it as “The Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus” and trying to explain it simply—which is not possible to the uninitiated since, as he states, whole volumes have been written about the inner meaning of this mantra.

The author then tells of how he studied Zen Buddhism with his late wife, Deborah. On his first trip to Nepal in 1961 he bought in a Kathmandu bazaar, a bronze Buddah, green with age, which he placed on a small altar in her hospital room as she lay dying of cancer. In The Snow Leopard, he records how memories of Deborah kept coming back to him as he walked in the great stillness of the high Himalayas. He had only his thoughts to keep him company since it was a solitary journey; the terrain was so difficult that the travelers all had to walk singly. At times the passageway was only six inches wide skirting treacherous cliffs. Matthiessen describes his mental state ranged from euphoria in the high, rarefied air, to depression at lower altitudes.

Matthiessen philosophizes in his journal about drugs. He writes that in 1959 in the jungle of Peru he experimented with yaje or ayahuasca, a hallucinogen; that he never saw drugs as a path, far less, as a way of life, but that for the next ten years he used them regularly. Mostly it was LSD, but also mescaline and psilocybin. “The journeys (with these drugs) were all scaring, often beautiful, often grotesque, and here and there a blissful passage was attained that in my ignorance I took for religious experience. . . . The holy grail is what Zen Buddhists call our own ’true nature’; each man is his own savior after all.” He writes thatNow those psychedelic years seem far away; I neither miss them nor regret them. Drugs can clear away the past, enhance the present, toward the inner garden, they can only point the way. Lacking the temper of ascetic discipline, the drug vision remains a sort of dream that cannot be brought over into daily life. Old mists may be banished, that is true, but the alien...

(The entire section is 1753 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

When zoologist George Schaller (“GS”) invited Peter Matthiessen to join the 1973 expedition to northwest Nepal (adjacent to Tibet), the two had already known each other for four years, having met on the Serengeti Plain of East Africa. Nor was this to be Matthiessen’s first journey to Himalayan country, for he had toured there some twelve years before. Their plan this time was to observe the rut of the bharal (Himalayan blue sheep) and perhaps see the rarely observed Snow Leopard. Yet if the invitation came easily and was as easily accepted, the journey itself was to be an arduous and dangerous 250-mile trek through the rugged, breathlessly steep, and scarcely traveled ranges of the frozen Himalayas known as Inner Dolpo. This was not to be a typically modern expedition, with air drops, expensive support teams, abundant medical supplies, sophisticated equipment, and comfortable tents. This was to be an ordeal, a death-defying adventure, and a pilgrimage.

The Snow Leopard is arranged in four major parts (each having one or more epigraphs of spiritual writing) which are simply titled “Westward,” “Northward,” “At Crystal Mountain,” and “Homeward.” The periodic journal entries are individually headed by the date, as in a diary. The most treacherous hiking in “Northward,” for example, begins on October 10 and ends with the hikers near exhaustion on October 31, on their final approach to Crystal Mountain; there, the cliff ledges...

(The entire section is 595 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Begley, Sharon. “‘Crazy Horse’ Rises Again: A Win for Author’s Rights,” in Newsweek. CXI (February 1, 1988), p. 47.

Hoagland, Edward. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIII (August 13, 1978), p. 1.

Johnson, Anne Jannette. “Peter Matthiessen,” in Contemporary Authors. N.s. XXI (1987), pp. 278-283.

Matthiessen, Peter. Interview by Wendy Smith in Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX (May 9, 1988), p. 240.

Matthiessen, Peter. Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals 1969-1982, 1986.

Prescott, P.S. Review in Newsweek. XCII (September 11, 1978), p. 89.

Sheppard, R.Z. Review in Time. CXII (August 7, 1978), p. 78.

Zwieg, Paul. Review in Saturday Review. V (August, 1978), p. 44.