Regular readers of this page will know I’m a huge fan of Robert MacFarlane, so I was really excited to get my hands on his first book. Although it’s a little more scientific in parts than I was expecting, it’s still filled with poetic descriptions and enlightening observations.
The book opens with an anecdote about how he fell in love with mountains as a boy after pulling a book from a shelf on a cold Scottish night and it’s immediately obvious that this is a personal journey – that’s one of the things I enjoy so much about MacFarlane’s writing. He adds personal experience which makes everything feel so much closer and relatable – and the cosiness of this anecdote whisked me up the A9 to my own little bothy.
For those of you wanting to read a book about the history of mountaineering or one that studies the formation of mountain ranges, this is not your average 1980s geology textbook. Yes, there are some of these elements, but it’s more about the history of our relationships with the mountains and how people have been drawn to them through the ages. There are also some interesting facts peppered throughout – did you know some of the first European holidays run by Thomas Cook were Alpine tours?
One of the aspects of the book I really enjoyed was MacFarlane’s focus on the literary symbolism of mountains and how mountains have resonated with writers over the years. The Romantic poets are referred to again and again – how Keats sought to overcome his writer’s block by gaining altitude and the sheer idiocy of Coleridge’s approach to climbing mountains – once the summit has been reached, take the quickest route down, no matter the danger. It is fitting that it is the Romantics that feature heavily as, as MacFarlane points out, great height empowers us and obliterates any sense of self. The mountain top provided an icon for the Romantic view of liberty: what could more obviously embody freedom and openness?
By using other peoples’ observations, he builds a tapestry of experiences – there is something for everyone to relate to. One of my favourite quotes shows Shelley’s horror at the notion of glaciers when he says “The glaciers perpetually move onward…they drag with them from the regions whence they derive their origin, all the ruins of the mountain, enormous rocks and immense accumulations of sand and stones.” Poetic language isn’t reserved for use by the poets – some of MacFarlane’s own descriptions are annotation-worthy, particularly when he explores the philosophical side of ‘mountain-gazing’. “Contemplating the immensities of deep time, you face, in a way that is both exquisite and horrifying, the total collapse of your present, compacted to nothingness by the pressures of pasts and futures too extensive to envisage.”
However, it’s not just a book filled with lyrical prose – it’s also filled with vivid personal accounts, such as the recount of his first experience in the Alps where he had to shave the frostbite from his fingers. It is these personal accounts that help power the narrative as we move through the mountains – and the mind – with him. The book is structured with chapters on the different parts of the mountain, ordered by when they were discovered – almost like a chronological uncovering of the unknown. The earlier chapters are filled with wonder and examine the difficult relationship between science and religion and how there was little exploration as there was little in the way of scientific thought. Then we have the chapters that outline the advent of adventure tourism (enter Coleridge et al) before coming to the last bastion of Everest.
The notion of the book is to examine why some people feel the need to risk their lives to climb peaks. And they do risk their lives – MacFarlane’s own anecdotes are filled with danger, but he also draws our attention to some horrific statistics to keep us weighted in reality: Mont Blanc has killed over 1000, Matterhorn 500, Everest around 170, K2 100. In 1985, almost 200 people died in the Alps. That really shook me, and my image of the Alps as being a place where Julie Andrews scampers around some high meadows… The personal experience stories are absolutely riveting, and this is where the text truly comes alive, whether it’s stories about climbing glaciers or the brutal reality of cemeteries at the foot of mountains in Krygystan.
MacFarlane really seems to be trying to get to grips with why this fascination exists, quoting poets and philosophers. One of my favourite explanations that he gives comes from French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who said ‘A human being in his youth, in his taking off, in his fecundity, wants to rise up from the earth. The leap is a basic form of joy.’ Later chapters discuss how the creation of the Empire encouraged a lust for the unknown and how the British in particular (assisted by the Royal Geographic Society from 1830) were particularly keen to map the world and claim it as their own. As a love of the idea of the unknown, I can relate to those who were angered by the announcement of an expedition to climb Everest in 1920 as they felt it would eliminate the last of the unknown. MacFarlane expounds the idea that there is no such thing as the unknown as we carry our world with us wherever we go – which colours the way we experience new things.
For me, the pinnacle of the book is the description of Everest and Mallory’s obsession with it. As with the rest of the book, MacFarlane drops some fascinating titbits into very detailed descriptions. (Did you know that the Himalayas have a gravitational pull? Puddles of water at the foot of the mountains are irregular in form as a result!) What really makes this chapter are the excerpts from Mallory’s diaries that really bring the man and the obsession that drove him come to life. The descriptions are brutal (I can’t get over the image of Howard Somervell choking up a piece of frostbitten larynx on the side of the mountain) but utterly gripping.
However, this is not a sensationalised account of mountaineering, but about our personal relationships with the world around us, so it is fitting that the final chapter ends with the sighting of a snow hare on a mountain.
This is another one for the shelf – to select on dark evenings and lose myself within. I have a trip to Switzerland planned in May – and I’m definitely going to visit a glacier.