The Spirit of the Snow Leopard

By Paul Gahlinger

Peter Matthiessen’s quest still inspires. (He visits SLC this month.)

by Paul Gahlinger


Peter Matthiessen is scheduled to give a public reading as part of the Authors Live series at the Salt Lake Public Library, November 13th. His work may no longer be widely familiar. His writings are a bit too mature for most of the younger generation. Certainly, he never really achieved the rock star public persona of some other writers.  But Matthiessen has had an extraordinary and perhaps greatly underestimated influence on American writing.  And his personal life is no less remarkable.
Like most of my generation, I first learned about him by reading "The Snow Leopard." Only later did I learn some of more impressive-and bizarre-things about him: that he had written serious books on nature (he was one of the first environmental writers), including some three dozen other books such as "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" (later made into a great movie). And that he cofounded the world’s pre-eminent literary magazine, The Paris Review-at age 26. While he was a C.I.A. spy.  That was before he became an American Indian activist ("In the Spirit of Crazy Horse") and a Zen Buddhist priest. 
"The Snow Leopard" had a creeping influence on my life. Bookstores usually file it under travel writing, and like the best of that genre it goes far beyond the outward journey to inner transformation of the traveler. Which is, of course, the real trip. It sowed the seeds of my own travel writing. 
The snow leopard, prowling the borderland of Nepal and Tibet, is an icon, as powerful and as mysterious as the mountains themselves. In 1976, after the death of his wife and wracked in sorrow, Mat_thies_sen joined a biologist for a year in miserable cold and hunger to seek the elusive animal. I must say that what impressed me the most about his book is that he never even saw the damned critter. 
As it happened, I was also in Nepal in 1976, bumbling alone around the Khumbu region near Everest, with almost no money, crappy climbing gear, and a Nepali phrase-book to chat with the monks and villagers who were kind enough to give me shelter.  By coincidence, Salt Lake climber Al Burgess also arrived in Nepal around that time. He stayed, climbing and guiding over the next 20 years. I never made it to the Dolpo region described in "The Snow Leopard." It was forbidden to travelers then. Matthiessen was able to go only by tagging along with the biologist, who had spent years obtaining permission. Burgess, on the other hand, finagled it more cleverly. He had permission to lead a reconnaissance expedition to climb Mt. Kanjiroba. The expedition involved such a dangerous route that it was not difficult to convince the accompanying Nepali government agent to return on a safer route-which just happened to lead right through Dolpo.
The snow leopard feeds on the Tibetan blue sheep-a peculiar animal itself and weirdly symbiotic with its predator. Their other predators are humans. Al tells me of leading an exhausted group into a village where he sees a small shop with two hanging legs of a blue sheep. He arranges to buy one to feed his famished crew.  Before handing it to him, the shop-keeper takes a big bite from the thigh. "Hey, that’s my meat!" Al exclaims, then stops when the man spits out a musket ball. He’ll use it again on the next hunt.
As impressed as I was by "The Snow Leopard," I never really understood what Matthiessen had achieved until I talked to Al about it. Part of the Dolpo mystique is its proximity to Tibet. As Al explains, Dolpo is geologically, culturally, and in some sense spiritually part of Tibet. Nepal is predominantly Hindu, but Dolpo is Tibetan Buddhist. It is the intersection of these two intertwining religions that lends the local monasteries their esoteric legends. Lamas have such renown that they infuse an entire town with their psyche and the local residents live and die within their spiritual shadow. 
"The Snow Leopard" was about the quest for the elusive. In other words, life itself. I took from it a lot of questions. Are these pursuits worth it? Who really gives a damn anyway? Do you ever find what you are looking for? Then what do you do, look for the next animal or whatever?  And most of all, if you don’t find it, does it matter?  Is the point of climbing to stand on the peak?  Is the point of trekking, or traveling at all, to go somewhere? 
Or is it, as Zen master Matthiessen may tell us, that there is no point and there never really was a point. And that’s the point.
Paul Gahlinger is the author of "The Medical Tourism Travel Guide" ( and a regular contributor to CATALYST.

This article was originally published on November 3, 2008.