Mountains of the mind – Robert Macfarlane (2003)

This book has put my passion for mountain climbing into words.
A must read for hikers, explorers and nature lovers alike; providing essential context to books as Touching The Void and Into Thin Air. In a very eloquent manner – tying literature, geology and climbing history together – Macfarlane explores why we take enormous risks just to climb a heap of rocks, ice and snow. His journey takes us all the way back to Pangea to understand why George Mallory’s love for the Everest (exceeding even that for his wife) led to his death on its slopes.

Macfarlane raises the rhetorical question of what simpler allegory of succes could there be than the ascent of a mountain, with the summit as its goal and the slopes the challenges? Of course there is more nuance to it and in the end I believe it comes down to what Macfarlane calls ‘the human paradox of altitude’; it both exalts the individual mind and erases it. Those who travel to mountaintops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.

It also taught me the importance of giving names to newly discovered places, as it’s a way of allowing stories to be told about that landscape. Names shape space, give meaning and structure to new landscapes. MacFarlane states that already for the Victorians place-naming was more than a function of their imperial instinct, it served as a way to make sense of landscapes that, by virtue of their extreme difference from home, might otherwise have been unknowable. In other words, names provide stability in the hugely chaotic world of ice and storm.

Macfarlane has a beautiful way of putting things, one of my favourites being his description of ancient, incomplete, maps: ‘Where knowledge faded out, legend began. The fantastical creatures which populated these early maps were embodiments of the unknown: little cartoons of ignorance.”

He really strikes a chord when describing the true blessing of mountains: “It is not that they provide a challenge or a contest, something to be overcome and dominated. It is that they offer something gentler and infinitively more powerful; they make us credit marvels – whether it is the dark swirls which water makes beneath a plate of ice, or the feel of the soft pelts of moss which form on the lees sides of boulders an trees. Being in the mountains reignites our astonishment at the simplest transaction of the physical world: a snowflake a millionth of an ounce in weight falling on to one’s outstretched palm, water patiently carving a runnel in a face of granite, the apparently motiveless shift of a stone in an scree-filled gully.

Mountains return us to the priceless capacity for wonder, which can so insensibly be leached away by modern existence, and they urge us to apply wonder to our own everyday lives.”