Hard Climbing: a Review of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard

Matthiessen hikes past Lake Phoksumdo en route to the Crystal Monastery (photo by Carsten Nebel via Wikimedia Commons)
In The Snow Leopard, Matthiessen hikes past Lake Phoksumdo en route to the Crystal Monastery (photo by Carsten Nebel via Wikimedia Commons)

By Dan Wilcock

Reading The Snow Leopard is a bit arduous, but its commanding views are worth the climb. For me, and I suspect many like-minded readers, the book lights upon a trifecta of fascinating topics: the hike of a lifetime, the natural world, and Buddhism.

The book, published in 1978, recounts a trek Matthiessen took into a remote part of Nepal five years earlier. He heads into the Himalayas with a biologist friend who’s tracking a rare species of mountain sheep. His agreed-upon task is to assist with the field work, but his real aims are to experience the transcendence of Zen Buddhism and to find the Lama of Shey, a spiritual leader who presides over the secluded Crystal Monastery.

As the story unfolds, Matthiessen also reveals how torn he is to be separated from his family— from his wife due to her death from cancer, and from his son by taking the trip. Buddha also deserted his family and embarked upon his path to enlightenment, so like Hesse’s Siddhartha this book is an echo of the Buddha’s story.

Despite the makings of a terrific yarn, the pages don’t exactly fly by—or at least they didn’t for me. Although there are some stunning passages describing nature and panoramic vistas, Matthiessen keeps his the narrative portion of the book fairly unvarnished and somewhat plodding as if it were direct transcriptions from his journal. Interspersed with the story is a certain amount of regional history, some of which is truly fascinating. Take for example, this tidbit on the history of the Nepalese Gurkha soldiers, and how far back China’s claim to Tibet extends:

“The legend of these soldiers had its start in 1769, when the armies of the King of Ghorka spread
out from the central valleys, absorbing the small tribal kingdoms and creating the Hindu state
now called Nepal; in their great ferocity, they rushed into Tibet, only to be thrown back by the
Chinese, who considered Tibet to be part of China even then.”

I think a lot of people familiar Tibet’s plight following China’s mid-20th Century annexation would be surprised to learn that that was just one episode in a much longer story. Nepal’s origin story is also something I had no clue about before picking up this book.

More prominently, the roughly half of the book is a “meditation” (har har) on Eastern spiritual practices, primary Zen and the Buddhism and indigenous traditions of Tibet. He has a gift for synthesizing these concepts, such as the following passage—in which the Buddha’s teachings are encapsulated in just one sentence:

“In what became known as the Four Noble Truths, Sakyamuni perceived that man’s existence is
inseparable from sorrow; that the cause of suffering is craving; that peace is attained by
extinguishing craving; that this liberation may be brought about by following the Eightfold Path:
right attention to one’s understanding, intentions, speech, and actions; right livelihood, effort,
mindfulness; right concentration, by which is meant the unification of the self through sitting

Even though it takes some trudging to make it to Crystal Mountain, both for Matthiessen and for the reader, the journey culminates in something like enlightenment, which he finds may not be a permanent condition but rather a falling away of illusions and worldly concerns. Matthiessen returned to bring us this book. I think it’s a gem, but one that may take some polishing to shine.

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