Amanda Jones
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Snow Leopard

Written by Amanda Jones for

archived article

In 1995, I was left stranded in Calcutta -- a most unenviable position. The Indian government delayed in granting me a permit to visit the newly opened province of Arunachal Pradesh, and to avoid the pain of having to kill time in that grueling city, I accepted an invitation to fly to Sikkim and trek on Kanchenjunga, the world's third tallest mountain. Bordered by Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal, Sikkim was formerly an independent Buddhist monarchy until it was inducted into India in the '70s.

What possessed me to accept the invitation could only have been desperation, for I am not a mountain climber and this endeavor took place in March, a time when a peak like that was still frozen.

I climbed upward for six days, walking ahead of the group, through deepening snow and blossoming rhododendrons, trailing the Sherpas whose laughter shot through the thin mountain wind. It was serene and lonely, with hours of silence filled only with the sound of my own labored breath.

The nights were bitter with cold and sleepless from altitude. I lay swaddled inside my tent wondering what it was that drove me to explore these solitary places, why I continued to lead a life of permanent transience. A "pilgrim of the void" was how a friend had once described me, and it was said with no empathy.

On the seventh day, a boy arrived with the news that I had been summoned to the Home Office in Calcutta (the Indian version of the FBI) and that I must leave immediately. As I said my farewells, a Sherpa stepped forward and handed me a parcel wrapped in a thin parchment of goatskin, laying his hand gently on my arm. I was astonished. I had barely spoken to this man -- the Sherpas did not speak English, although I recalled that it was he who had shouldered my heavy bag each day. I unwrapped the skin, and inside was a copy of "The Snow Leopard," a book by Peter Matthiessen. Embarrassed, I fossicked to find a gift for him in return, but he put his hands up to refuse and stepped back. I turned to leave silently, for the rest of the group seemed confused by this uncommon gesture.

I began the descent with my new Sherpa leaping ahead in his rubber thongs bound with strips of tattered hessian cloth. At the first opportunity, I let him disappear down the icy trail and stopped to open the book.

Matthiessen had chosen a Buddhist quote to preface his story, and when I read it, it seemed to quietly answer the question I had asked while lying in the tent only nights before.

"Just as a white summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere -- in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life that leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from his sight."

When I turned to the next page, this first one fell out of the book, was snatched up by the wind and whirled into a crevasse. I watched it disappear but gave it no further thought.

The story was of Matthiessen's expedition into the Dolpo region of the Nepalese Himalayas, which also borders Tibet. He had been invited to accompany George Schaller on the zoologist's trip to study the rare Himalayan blue sheep. Matthiessen was a student of Buddhism at the time, and such a trip would give him the chance to trek among remote and ancient Tibetan Buddhists, to see a region of Nepal that few Westerners had penetrated and possibly glimpse the most elusive of all great cats, the ice-eyed snow leopard.

A year prior to the trip, the writer's wife had died of cancer. "The Snow Leopard" is an excruciatingly beautiful and honest account of what turned into a tough spiritual and physical journey. With the energy that great travel writers have coursing through their veins, Matthiessen walked me, pace by pace, over those mountain passes, through the precepts of Buddhism and the valleys of his soul.

On the second evening of my descent, we arrived at a one-roomed hut where we would spend the night. A party of Indian scientists were also overnighting there on their way up the mountain and, not wanting to sleep in a room full of noisy strangers, I mimed to my Sherpa that he should set up my tent outside. He shook his head violently, palpably upset that I would suggest such a thing. We stood in pantomime for a while, and he even enlisted the aid of another non-English-speaking Sherpa to try to dissuade me with wild gesticulations and gloomy head shakes. Finally, one of the scientists approached and offered to translate. With great consternation, he explained that it was not the custom for a woman to sleep alone outside in these parts. Rubbish, I countered, what could possibly happen to me here that didn't happen at higher altitude? "The Yeti," he said softly, "these men are afraid that the Yeti might disturb you." I laughed out loud and asked him to politely inform the Sherpas that I would not change my mind; I would accept the risk of being bothered by Bigfoot.

Lying in my tent, I continued reading "The Snow Leopard" by flashlight. Astonishingly, the page I began on was one that addressed the issue of the Yeti, and Matthiessen cited evidence to support the theory that such a creature does indeed exist in the remote Himalayas. Footprints have been found outside tents and countless sightings have been made, although the beast apparently never harms humans. Matthiessen himself sighted an unidentifiable creature that may have been the "Abominable Snowman," thought by academics to be a genetic relic of the australopithecine. And I had had the arrogance to laugh at what I thought was a phantasm.

As I continued to walk down a Himalayan mountain with my Buddhist Sherpa, Matthiessen continued to walk up one with his. As I passed rows of prayer flags shrouded in dawn mist, Matthiessen circled the stupas that always lie nearby. As he slipped with exhaustion and fell on the ice, I would later find myself pushed to the limits of physical and mental tolerance. His words resonated and bounced off the walls of my mind, and I was left with little doubt that there was some greater reason I had been given the book. For the four days it took to reach flat land, my thoughts were uncluttered and I felt released from the preoccupation with self. I was alone, save for my Sherpa, but the book had sprung to life and I saw glimpses of it wherever I turned.

Another remarkable fact was that the pages had continued to drop out. As I finished each one, it fell from the book and simply vanished. I knew this was because the copy I had been given was a bootleg version printed in India, with cheap paper and brittle binding, but at the time it seemed far more significant -- an embodiment of the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence, of all things existing in transience.

By the time the base of the mountain came into view, I was filthy, exhausted and sick of the cold, knowing that this was the last time I would submit to such folly. But I had been transported down that peak on the back of Matthiessen's mystic prose, an experience that will dwell in my bones until my death.