First off, it is important to note that Eduard Fischer's book Chasing the Phantom: In Pursuit of Myth and Meaning in the Realm of the Snow Leopard is not just about the snow leopard.
Rather, it is an all-encompassing exploration of that great cat's Himalayan world, a travel book that includes geography, the people, and also quests of the spirit. The snow leopard does figure, but Fischer writes more of the journey to find it rather than the cat itself.
He doesn't leave much out. One reviewer on goodreads.com, in giving Chasing the Phantom five out of five, says it "starts with the Big Bang and ends with the latest pope."
Fischer describes the book's non-linear style, focusing more on themes and brief stories from his explorations and readings, as experimental.
"There was at least one prominent agent who discouraged me from trying it that way. I guess he was expecting a narrative about charismatic mega-fauna," Fischer says over coffee at the Adventure Centre near his Squamish home.
"This book is about everything. I didn't want to write a personal memoir, I wanted to touch on universal themes. There's a lot of reflection in it, but it's reflection about pairing my own journey, which I think is universal, with other people's — going back to the Gilgamesh, the Odyssey."
Last week, Fischer, a 64-year-old first-time author, found out that Chasing the Phantom had tied for gold in the Enlightenment/Spirituality category of the Living Now Book Awards, along with four-time New York Times best-selling author Marianne Williamson.
He is reading from the book and presenting a slide show on Thursday, Sept. 25, at 7 p.m. at the Escape Route store in Market Square in Whistler.
Fischer's first trip to Ladakh in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, a region known as the "land of high passes," was in 1985.
He describes how he found it.
"At that time Ladakh wasn't (on the map). I was visiting Nepal at the time and the monsoons were coming. My plan was to hang around in the Himalayas for as long as I could and I'd heard monsoons didn't come to Ladakh," he says.
He was also inspired by Peter Mathesis' book about searching for snow leopards and Andrew Harvey's spiritual quest in his book A Journey in Ladakh in the late 1970s.
"That really inspired my to go there on the spiritual side," Fischer says. "I would not call myself a Buddhist, I'd call myself a student of Buddhism. I have huge respect for the concepts and teachings but I'm not really drawn to 'isms.'"
That first visit and the region's elusive cat stuck with him, but he didn't return again until 2009.
"In that interval, my daughter was born and I had to seek a livelihood," Fischer laughs.
He co-founded The Edge Climbing Centre in North Vancouver and Rock Craft, which makes artificial climbing boulders for children.
"When I sold my last business, I thought I'd like to go back and look for that snow leopard," he says.
In 2009, Fischer spent two months in post-climbing-season Ladakh, in October and November.
"When I left in late November it was -20C in the airport and I spent time with villagers and did a little camping out," he says.
"On my very last day, after two months of looking for snow leopards, there were lots of little hints, lots of fresh tracks. Pretty well the last picture I took that season and I was pretty exhausted. As I was coming down, there, inside the boot print I'd left that morning, was a snow leopard print."
The cat's elusive teasing kept his desire to find it high.
"They were trailing behind me so I knew I'd be back. My wife is a partner in a business and in the spring of 2010 she got time away from her business and we went back to Ladakh together," he says.
Fischer didn't want to give the whole story away, but says he has now been to the Himalayas seven times and the snow leopard at last became part of his story in the flesh.
He describes finally finding one: "We saw this snow leopard 'levitate' up this 150-ft. very steep, loose rock face, it was like 'Holy Cow.'"
The blue sheep, indigenous to Ladakh, is the main prey of the snow leopard. Fischer describes how the two species evolved together and the impact seeing this had on him.
"The agility both of them have developed is incredible. And before I saw the snow leopard, which I mention in the book, I could 'see' the snow leopard in the blue sheep. They had been empowered by the leopard with the strength to elude the leopard," he says, explaining that this evolved from the leopard picking off the weakest blue sheep and allowing only the strongest to survive.
Chasing the Phantom is available at Chapters Indigo, Armchair Books in Whistler, and 32 Books Company in North Vancouver. For more information, visit www.chasingthephantom.com.
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