Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Crooked paths: The Snow Leopard

Mt. Kailash (Crystal Mountain)
After reading the NYT feature on Peter Matthiessen, just days before his death, I decided to read The Snow Leopard, which won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 1979. It is his recounting of  a trek through Nepal with his friend, the biologist, George Schaller.,

The goal for Schaller was to study the blue sheep of the Himalayas in their remote natural habitat on the Tibetan plateau, in the region known as Dolpo. It is also home to one of the most sacred places for Buddhists, Hindus, Jainists, and the Bön religion (predating Buddhism), the Crystal Mountain. As a Zen practitioner, Matthiessen was not only assisting his friend, but also making a pilgrimage and working through the aftermath of his wife's recent death from cancer.

The appeal of the book is multifaceted. First, there is the description of this adventurous trek through some of the most challenging geography on earth. Narrow, twisting paths through high mountain passes, snow fields, and icy ravines offered constant danger and discomfort. With scant fuel and food sources, everything had to be carried with the help of porters and sherpa guides. Retaining the help of these necessary men provided much of the external drama, as well as the threat that inclement winter weather would trap the entire party within the Dolpo for longer than they had food, fuel, or money. Matthiessen's descriptions of his fellow travelers and the natural beauty of the landscape are finely detailed. It is the land of the elusive snow leopard, which they hope to see, and of the yeti, a creature that the writer suggests may not be purely mythical: Such a remote, ghostly, and barren waste could hide an as-of-yet undiscovered being, even more mysterious and as rarely seen as the snow leopard.

And finally, there is the inner journey, which Matthiessen weaves into the story seamlessly. Memories of his wife, especially in her final days, accompany him. He becomes a clear-eyed observer of the river of thoughts and feelings that confront him as the trek becomes ever more dangerous. He sees himself reacting harshly and unjustly to those around him, then acting on generous impulses. He is sometimes despairing and sometimes consumed with joy and serenity. Beautifully written throughout, The Snow Leopard is a book that stays with you and opens a window on to worlds rarely glimpsed -- both the external reality of Dolpo and the internal life of the mind.

I found some great video on youtube of current-day trekkers making the same journey (though in less forbidding weather). I wanted to see some of what Matthiessen so vividly described, like the narrow path rising above Lake Phuksumdo in Nepal:

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