The Snow Leopard

by Peter Matthiessen.Viking, $12.95. As a serious practitioner of Zen Buddhism, Mr. Matthiessen could hardly be expected to resist the invitation to join an expedition bound for one of the holy places of Tibet— Crystal Monastery under Crystal Mountain in the Land of Dolpo, which is actually in Nepal. The trip was organized by George Schaller, a field biologist, with the relatively mundane purpose of observing the rutting behavior of the Himalayan blue sheep, an enigmatic creature suspected by Mr. Schaller of being rather more a goat. There was also hope of seeing snow leopards; there were even wistful dreams of yetis. The affair was laid on in nineteenth-century style with a handful of reliable Sherpas, a succession of goldbricking porters, distinctly limited funds, and no means of communication or appeal in case of disaster. Since blue sheep mate in November, the party set out from Kathmandu in early September to march 250 miles west and north into autumn and imminent winter, and encountered a variety of surprises and hazards. Mr. Matthiessen had been warned by his Buddhist master to “expect nothing,” but he could not stifle his yearning for some sort of revelation, or emancipation, or coming to terms with the universe there among the high snows, and this longing gives an extra touch of excitement and suspense to a journey which hardly lacked either to begin with. As a seeker Mr. Matthiessen looks toward ultimate truth, but as a naturalist he notices every bird, bug, beast, plant, fossil, footprint, and scat on the route, while as a footsore traveler he counts blisters and creeps along icy cliff trails on all fours. It is as though he looked simultaneously through a telescope and a microscope, and his great skill as a writer enables the reader to share this double vision of a strange and beautiful country.