Without Ever Reaching the Summit: A Journey

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By Paolo Cognetti

Paolo Cognetti so loves mountains that his first novel was THE EIGHT MOUNTAINS, and he now lives at least part of the year in Italy’s mountains.
In 2017, at age 40, he and two friends went to the Dolpo area of northwest Nepal, along the Tibetan border, on a month-long trek.
Their journey would take them over several 5,000-meter (16,404-foot)  passes; close to Crystal Mountain, the sacred heart of Dolpo; and within sight of Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest mountain in the world; and Annapurna I, the 10th highest mountain in the world.
This wasn’t Cognetti’s first trip to Nepal. He had learned as a child in Italy that he was susceptible to altitude sickness and would never be a mountaineer. He made the journey with a notebook where he sketched scenes along the way and kept a journal and a battered copy of Peter Matthiessen’s book, THE SNOW LEOPARD. The book was Matthiessen’s story of a 1973 trip to the same area with zoologist George Schaller to study Himalayan blue sheep.
Cognetti’s book is clearly inspired by Matthiessen’s book, with its elegant writing and keen observations of people and places illustrated with simple, charming sketches.
What’s refreshing about Cognetti’s book is its intimate human scale. Books by mountaineers tend to speak of their journeys as assaults or attacks on a mountain. Summiting the world’s highest peaks, of necessity, involves going up quickly and coming down quickly as the body fights the deathly effects of altitude.
Cognetti’s journey was done at walking speed. He, his friends and the 50 or so porters, cooks and mule drivers who carried food and supplies for the trip could notice the landscape and greet the people they encountered along the way. They were part of the landscape, not attackers.
At a camp site on the way to the 5,306-meter (17,408-foot) Kang La Pass, overlooked by the north face of Kanjiroba, a small black dog joins their caravan. Then at Kagbeni, where their trek began and ended, the little dog vanishes. Cognetti’s trek through a changing piece of traditional Tibet not occupied by China left behind footsteps as light as the dog’s attachment to their caravan, lingering only on the pages of Cognetti’s delightful book.

About the Author: Paolo Cognetti (1978 – )

Paolo Cognetti is passionate about mountains and spends a few months alone in them nearly every year. His first novel, published in 2016, was LE OTTO MONTAGNE (THE EIGHT MOUNTAINS, translated into English by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre in 2018). The novel won the Premio Strega 2017, Italy’s most prestigious literary award as well as the Prix Médicis étranger, the Prix François Sommer and the English Pen Translates Award.
Born in Milan, Cognetti entered university to study mathematics. He quit to enroll at Milan’s film-making school Civica Scuola di Cinema “Luchino Visconti,” where he graduated in 1999. He started directing documentaries in 2004 focusing on social, political and literary topics.
He taught himself American literature. His first short story, “Fare Ordine,” won the Premio Subway–Letteratura.
He loves New York City, which has become the subject of some of his documentaries.


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