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Authors: Robert Macfarlane

Mountains of the Mind

BOOK: Mountains of the Mind
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Acclaim for Robert Macfarlane’s


“Of all the books published to mark the fiftieth anniversary of climbing Mount Everest Robert Macfarlane’s
Mountains of the Mind
stands out as by far one of the most intelligent and interesting … in a style that shows he can be as poetic as he is plucky.”

The Economist

“At once a fascinating work of history and a beautifully written meditation on how memory, imagination, and the landscape of mountains are joined together in our minds and under our feet.”


“A compelling meditation…. Macfarlane is … the perfect mountain guide through blue crevasse fields, ice walls, prayer flags, Sherpas and Shangri-Las. He’s been up there, and come back down through the foothills to offer us his thoughtful and gracious elegy, telling us eloquently the secret of it all, which is that no one can ever truly conquer a mountain.”

—Benedict Allen, editor of
The Faber Book of Exploration

“Macfarlane, a mountain lover and climber, has a visceral appreciation of mountains…. He is an engaging writer, his commentary, always crisp and relevant, [is] leavened by personal experience beautifully related.”

The Observer

“Macfarlane writes with tremendous maturity, elegance and control…. A powerful debut, a remarkable blend of passion and scholarship.”

Evening Standard

“Part history, part personal observation, this is a fascinating study of our (sometimes fatal) obsession with height. A brilliant book, beautifully written.”

—Fergus Fleming, author of
Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole

“A new kind of exploration writing, perhaps even the birth of a new genre, which doesn’t just defy classification—it demands a whole new category of its own.”

The Daily Telegraph

“There are many books on climbing and climbers, and this is one of the best and most unusual I have read.”

The Times

“An imaginative, original essay in cultural history—a book that evokes as well as investigates the fear and wonder of high places.”

—William Fiennes, author of
The Snow Geese

“A crisp historical study of the sensations and emotions people have brought to (and taken from) mountains…. Macfarlane intelligently probes the push/pull of the peaks…. Sharp and enticing.”

Kirkus Reviews

Robert Macfarlane


Robert Macfarlane was born in 1976. He is a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and he contributes to
The Observer
The Times Literary Supplement
, and the
London Review of Books
, among other publications.

To my grandparents

O the mind, mind has mountains …



I thought of the resistless passion which drives men to undertake terrific scrambles. No example can deter them … a peak can exercise the same irresistible power of attraction as an abyss.


I was a twelve-year-old in my grandparents’ house in the Scottish Highlands when I first came across one of the great stories of mountaineering:
The Fight for Everest
, an account of the 1924 British expedition during which George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared near the summit of Everest.

We were staying in the house for the summer. My brother and I were allowed to go anywhere except into the room at the end of the hallway, which was my grandfather’s study. We played hide and seek, and I often hid in the big wardrobe in our bedroom. It smelt strongly of camphor, and there was a clutter of shoes on the floor of the wardrobe which made it difficult to stand up in. My grandmother’s fur coat hung in it, too, sheathed in thin clear plastic to keep the moths away. It was strange to put a hand out to touch the soft fur and feel the smooth plastic instead.

The best room in the house was the conservatory, which my grandparents called the Sun Room. Its floor was paved with grey flagstones, always cold underfoot, and two of its walls were giant windows. On one of the windows my grandparents had stuck a black card cut-out in the shape of a hawk. It was supposed to scare away small birds but they regularly flew into the windows and killed themselves, thinking that the glass was air.

Even though it was summer, the inside of the house was filled with the cold mineral air of the Highlands, and every surface was always chilly to the touch. When we ate dinner, the chunky silver pieces of cutlery which came out of the dresser were cold in our hands. At night, when we went to bed, the sheets were icy. I would wriggle as far down the bed as I could go, and hold the top sheet down over my head to create an airlock. Then I would breathe as deeply as I could until I had warmed up the bed.

There were books everywhere in the house. My grandfather had not tried to organize them and so very different books found themselves neighbours. On a small shelf in the dining room
Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing, The Hobbit
The Fireside Omnibus of Detective Stories
shared space with two leather-bound volumes of J. S. Mill’s
System of Logic
. There were several books about Russia whose titles I did not properly understand, and dozens about exploration and mountaineering.

One night, unable to sleep, I came downstairs for something to read. Against one side of the hallway was a long pile of books lying stacked on their sides. Almost at random, I pulled a big green volume out from halfway down the pile, like a brick from a wall, and carried it to the Sun Room. In the bright moonlight, I sat on one of the wide stone window-ledges and started to read
The Fight for Everest

I already knew some of the details from my grandfather, who had told me the story of the expedition. But the book, with its long descriptions, its twenty-four black-and-white photographs and its
fold-out maps bearing unfamiliar place names – the Far East Rongbuk glacier, the Dzongpen of Shekar, the Lhakpa La – was far more potent than his account. As I read, I was carried out of myself and to the Himalaya. The images rushed over me. I could see the gravel plains of Tibet scrolling away to distant white peaks; Everest itself like a dark pyramid; the oxygen bottles the climbers wore on their backs and which made them look like scuba-divers; the massive ice-walls on the North Col which they scaled using ropes and ladders, like medieval warriors besieging a city; and, finally, the black T of sleeping-bags which was laid out on the snow at Camp VI to tell the climbers at the lower camps, who were staring up at the mountain’s higher slopes through telescopes, that Mallory and Irvine had disappeared.

One passage of the book excited me more than any other. It was the description by Noel Odell, the expedition’s geologist, of his last sighting of Mallory and Irvine:

There was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere above me, and I saw the whole summit ridge and final peak of Everest unveiled. I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed, and then the first climbed to the top of the step. As I stood intently watching this dramatic appearance, the scene became enveloped in cloud …

Over and over I read that passage, and I wanted nothing more than to be one of those two tiny dots, fighting for survival in the thin air.

That was it – I was sold on adventure. In one of the reading binges which only the expanses of childhood time permit, I plundered my grandfather’s library and by the end of that summer I had read a dozen or so of the most famous real-life exploration stories from the mountains and the poles, including Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s tale of Antarctic endurance,
The Worst Journey in the World
, John Hunt’s
The Ascent of Everest
and Edward Whymper’s bloody account of his
Scrambles amongst the Alps

The childish imagination has more trust in the transparency of a story than the adult imagination: a readier faith that things happened the way they are said to have done. It is more powerful in its capacity for sympathy, too, and as I read those books I lived intensely with and through the explorers. I spent evenings with them in their tents, thawing pemmican hoosh over a seal-blubber stove as the wind skirled outside. I sledge-hauled through thigh-deep polar snow. I bumped over sastrugi, tumbled down gullies, clambered up arêtes and strode along ridges. From the summits of mountains I surveyed the world as though it were a map. Ten times or more I nearly died.

I was fascinated by the hardships these men – for they were almost all men – faced and endured. At the poles there was cold intense enough to freeze brandy solid, to freeze dogs’ tongues to their coats if they tried to lick them, and to freeze men’s beards to their jackets if they looked down. Woollen clothing stiffened to the rigidity of sheet metal, and had to be beaten with hammers to make it bend. At night the explorers melted their way inch by agonizing inch into their reindeer-hair sleeping-bags, which the cold had hardened into icy scabbards. In the mountains there were the cornices that overhung cliff-edges like horizontal waves, the invisible attacks of altitude, and avalanches and blizzards which could whitewash the world in an instant.

Except for Hillary and Tensing’s successful ascent of Everest in 1953, and Ernest Shackleton’s salvation of his entire crew in 1916 –
Worsley’s miraculous navigation, the little
James Caird
steering its impeccable line across 800 miles of stormy southern ocean, Shackleton remaining imperturbable while above him Europe fractured like pack-ice – almost all of these stories resulted in death or mutilation of some sort. I liked these grisly details. In some of the polar stories barely a page went by without the loss of a crew member or a body part. Occasionally crew member meant body part. Scurvy ravaged the explorers as well, destabilizing the flesh so that it fell from bones like wet biscuit. One man was so badly afflicted that blood seeped from pores all over his body.

There was also something about the setting of these stories, the stages on which they took place, which stirred me profoundly. I was attracted by the bleakness of the places these men got to – the parsimony of the landscapes of mountain and pole, with their austere, Manichean colour scheme of black and white. The human values in the stories were polarized, too. Bravery and cowardice, rest and exertion, danger and safety, right and wrong: the unforgiving nature of the environment sorted everything into these neat binaries. I wanted my life to be this clear in its lines, this simple in its priorities.

BOOK: Mountains of the Mind
5.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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