GO Books: In search of the elusive
snow leopard

Photograph of the view from Shey Monastery, Nepal

The view from Shey Monastery, Nepal

The Snow Leopard: A quest in the Himalayas

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen is an adventure travel masterpiece. It is about the author’s adventures hiking deep into one of the most remote regions of Nepal, on the border with Tibet, to accompany biologist George Schaller on a field expedition to study blue sheep. But the book is about much more than that. Matthiessen, a devoted student of Buddhism and a sensitive, gifted writer, had just lost his wife to cancer, and his book is an exploration of both the outer world of soaring, pristine mountains and his own inner journey through grief and awe.

I love this book for so many reasons. To start, I love Quest stories, and The Snow Leopard is a Quest in every sense of the word. First, is the physical quest itself, to Shey and the Crystal Mountain in a very remote corner of Nepal, back in the early 1970s when hiking in Nepal was not as popular as it is today. Mathiessesn and Schaller — and a changing assortment of sherpas and porters — walked 35 days through almost uninhabited regions, over snow-bound, high mountain passes, to get there. This journey is what makes the book a great adventure story.

Snow leopard

Then, there’s the scientific Quest, which is to study blue sheep (though this is Schaller’s quest, not the author’s, and so it is tangential to the main story). And, just as compelling to me as the adventure Quest, is Mathiessen’s inner quest, as a man coming to terms with his wife’s mortality and the tenets of Zen Buddhism, which he is studying. His destination is Shey Monastery; he wants to meet the Lama of Shey.

And he wants to see the extremely elusive snow leopard. Though he doesn’t say it in so many words, it seems that seeing the snow leopard will justify his decision to leave his children for months, within a year after the death of his wife; and help to give him back a sense of magic and wonder, a reason for living. In other words, he has endowed his quest to see the snow leopard with personal and spiritual yearnings.

But perhaps more than anything else, I love this book because it is so beautifully, and sparingly, written. Matthiessen’s style is a perfect match for the austere, rugged landscape, and subsistence lifestyle and Buddhist beliefs of the local culture.

Author and Zen Buddhist monk Peter Matthiessen

Author and Zen Buddhist monk Peter Matthiessen

Like most great Quest stories, it is in hindsight that Mathiessen realizes why he needed to go to Shey; it is through the journey itself that he gains the awarenesses and epiphanies that make the hardships of it more than worthwhile. Like life.

And, finally, I love this book because it is set in the Himalaya — an area of the world that I am inexplicably and powerfully drawn to. Like a Himalayan mountain, this beautiful book has soared to the top of my favourite books list. A classic.

My GO Books rating is 5 / 5:  I would definitely put it in my backpack.

Author and book details

Peter Matthiessen, born 1927 in New York City.

The Snow Leopard first published in 1978; this edition published 2008 (Penguin Classics). Winner of the National Book Award in 1979.

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7 Responses to GO Books: In search of the elusive
snow leopard

  1. Bruce April 10, 2012 at 10:25 am #

    Mariellen, If you liked the Snow Leopard, you will also like Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals. Same beautiful writing style; same deep insights. The man is a literary and spiritual genius.


  2. Turtle April 10, 2012 at 11:47 am #

    I’d never heard of it before but now it’s definitely on the to-read list. Just not quite yet… I’m worried it’ll make me want to go to Nepal immediately! 🙂

  3. Mariellen April 11, 2012 at 8:47 am #

    Thanks Bruce — after reading this one, I will definitely want to check out his other books. Though books set in the Himalayas do hold a special allure for me, for some reason.

  4. Mariellen April 11, 2012 at 8:48 am #

    Turtle, yes, it will make you want to RUN to the airport and board a plane for Kathmandu. Guaranteed. But I see that as a GOOD thing 🙂

  5. rashmi April 16, 2012 at 6:35 pm #

    Thanks for the review on the book. I am going to buy the book 🙂

  6. Nomadic Samuel April 23, 2012 at 3:25 am #

    That would be an amazing quest to find the snow leopards!

  7. Sadia @ snow-leopards January 6, 2014 at 4:45 am #

    I`m Very excited to read your review About nepal snow Leopards are amazing and all pictures are well capture and The view from Shey Monastery, Nepal i wish be there and surf my special time with my love i love this kind of country and Nepal…love you..
    Sadia @ snow-leopards recently posted..Interesting Facts and Information About Snow LeopardsMy Profile

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