Spotting a Snow Leopard for the First Time Is a Religious Experience

Ellen van Bodegom/Getty
Ellen van Bodegom/Getty

We knew that the leopard was prowling. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse: It was only a rock; it was only a cloud. I lived in expectation. During the months he spent in Nepal in 1973, Peter Matthiessen did not get to see a snow leopard. To those who asked whether he had seen it, he would say, “No! Isn’t that wonderful?” Well, no, my dear Peter. It’s not “wonderful.” I could not understand how anyone could make a virtue of disappointment. It was intellectual sleight of hand. I wanted to see the snow leopard, that was why I had come. Because its appearance would be my offering to the woman from whom I was separated. And even if, out of politeness, which is to say my hypocrisy, I told Vincent Munier that I had gone with him simply because I admired his photography, I longed to see a snow leopard. I had my reasons; they were personal.

Ceaselessly, my friends scanned the landscape with their telescopes. Munier could spend a whole day studying the slopes, centimeter by centimeter. “All I need is to see a trace of urine on a rock,” he would say. On the second night in the canyon, we were heading back to the Tibetan camp when we encountered it. The sky still gave off a faint glow. Munier spotted it, about 500 meters due south of us. He handed me the telescope and precisely indicated where I should look, but even then it was a long moment before I could make it out, meaning before I could grasp what it was that I was looking at. Though the animal was a simple, massive living form, it was a shape that was utterly unknown to me. And the mind requires some time to accept something that is unfamiliar. The eye receives the image crystal clear but the mind refuses to acknowledge it.

The snow leopard was resting, lying at the foot of a rocky outcrop already dappled by shadows, half‑hidden by bushes. A hundred meters further down the slope, the river ran through the gorge. We could have walked within a few paces of it without ever noticing. It was a religious apparition. Even now, the memory of that vision is imbued with an otherworldly sanctity.

The snow leopard lifted its head, sniffed the air. It was garbed in the heraldry of the Tibetan landscape. Its coat, a mosaic of gold and bronze, belonged to day, to night, to heaven and to earth. It had taken the ridges, the névés, the shadows of the canyon and the crystal of the sky, the autumnal slopes and the eternal snows, the spikes of the sagebrush, the secret of the storms and clouds of silver, the gold of the steppes and the shroud of the ice, the death of the mountain sheep and the blood of the cattle chamois. It lived beneath the fleece of the world. It was robed in representations. This animal, the spirit of the snows, had clothed itself with the earth.

I thought the leopard was camouflaged to blend with the landscape, but it was the landscape that vanished when it appeared. By an optical effect like a dolly zoom in cinema, every time my eye alighted on the leopard, the background receded and everything was reduced to the features of its face. Born of this substratum, the snow leopard had become the mountain, had emerged from it. The snow leopard was there and the whole world had vanished. The animal incarnated the Greek physis, the Latin natura, for which Heidegger offered the numinous definition “that which emerges and, as emerging, abides.”

In short, a stippled big cat sprang from nothingness to take up the whole landscape.

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We stayed then until darkness was complete. The snow leopard dozed, immune to all threats. Other animals seemed like wretched, fearful creatures. A horse bolts at the slightest movement, a cat at the slightest sound, a dog detects an unfamiliar smell and jumps to its feet, an insect takes shelter, a herbivore dreads hearing something move behind it, even the human animal instinctively checks the corners when entering a room. Paranoia is an occupational hazard of living. But the leopard was confident of its absolutism. It dozed, utterly abandoned, since it was untouchable.

Through the binoculars, I saw it stretch. It lay back down. It was the ruler of its life. It was the expression of this place. Its mere presence signified its “power.” The world was its throne, it filled the space it inhabited. It incarnated that mysterious concept of the king’s body. A true regent is content simply to be. He does not trouble to act, and sees no need to make appearances. His existence is the foundation of his authority. The president of a democracy, on the other hand, must constantly be seen, like a traffic cop at a roundabout.

Fifty meters away, the yaks continued to graze, unruffled. They were content because they did not know their predator was skulking among the rocks. Psychologically, no prey could endure the knowledge that it lives cheek by jowl with death. Life is livable if the threat is ignored. Creatures are born with their own blinkers.

Munier handed me the most powerful telescope. I gazed at the animal until my eye dried out from the cold. The features of the face sloped toward the muzzle, sketching lines of force. It turned to face me. Its eyes bored into me. Two blazing, glacial orbs of scorn. It got to its feet and stretched its neck toward us. “It’s spotted us,” I thought. “What will it do? Pounce?”

It yawned.

This is the effect of man on the snow leopard of Tibet. It turned its back, stretched again and disappeared.

I returned the telescope to Munier. It was the most glorious day of my life since my death.

“This valley is not the same now that we’ve seen the snow leopard,” said Munier.

He, too, was a royalist, he believed in the consecration of places by the presence of the Being. We walked back down through the darkness. I had waited for this vision; it had come. Henceforth, nothing would ever be the same in this place made fruitful by the presence. Not even in my innermost self.

From The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet by Sylvain Tesson, translated from French by Frank Wynne, to be published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Editions Gallimard, Paris. Translation Copyright © 2021 Frank Wynne.

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