Gourmet Traveller

Summer escapism

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen

PICO IYER

I’d never been to Asia – except to visit relatives in India – when I picked up Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard in 1980. I had no interest in Buddhism, and Matthiessen’s meticulous, New Yorker-style account of a scientific expedition into rugged mountains wasn’t at all the kind of thing I wanted in the age of Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe. A snow leopard was about as relevant to me as a snowmobile; I was living in the spacious plains of possibility known as California.

But as I made my way through the book, I saw how much, like any deep journey, it was the record of a trip into confusion and loss and hope as well. Matthiessen had lost his young wife – her family name was Love – to cancer just before embarking on his trip. His eight-year-old son was anxiously awaiting him at home. He might almost have been on a journey of purgation, shaving his head at the outset and labouring under 60 pounds of lentils. A trip to the Inner Dolpo region of Nepal, barely seen by foreigners, might have been the surface adventure of the book; but the heart of it was the story of how to come to terms with grief in a high, clear setting where one has few distractions and nowhere to hide.

Matthiessen’s crystalline descriptions of the worn temples and elevating vistas of the High Himalaya are invigorating; his book shines with the startling clarity of 18,000-foot monasteries and cobalt skies. But he’s honest enough to tell us that the wise Lama he has longed to find turns out to be a “crippled monk who was curing the goat skin in yak butter and brains”. His ascent is a tale of blisters and minus-20-degree days, of corpses along the way and brushes with death. Though many of his Sherpas are heroic and kind, the one who fascinates him has a shadowy, almost criminal aspect, as of the demons who dance across the walls of the temples that surround them. The point of the book, really, is that Matthiessen never sees the shy and elusive creature he’s set out to spot, even as he does come upon some hidden parts of himself.

A destination for me is always an entrance as well. I travelled to Tibet almost as soon as it was opened, quickened by Matthiessen’s

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