Peak season

 

If mountains are so dangerous, why do we insist on climbing them? Robert Macfarlane's new book provides some answers, writes Arminta Wallace

Why do mountains fascinate us? They are, after all, nature's rubbish dumps: untidy heaps of boulders and rubble, all awkward edges, slippery slopes and nasty squishy bits. Yet mountain-worship has become an accepted fact of life in industrialised Western societies.

Global sales of outdoor products and services are reckoned at $10 billion a year - and growing. Some 10 million Americans go mountaineering annually and 50 million go hiking, while in the UK, upwards of four million people consider themselves to be hill-walkers of one sort or another. Closer to home, check out the slopes of Mullacor, above Glendalough, on a Saturday afternoon; you'd meet fewer people in the fruit and veg department of your local supermarket.

Yet despite all our lightweight ropes, our high-tech harnesses and our indestructible fleece jackets, mountains are lethal places. And not just the high Himalaya: more than 1,000 people have died on Mount Blanc, 500 on the Matterhorn, 60 on the north face of the Eiger. In 1985, nearly 200 people died in the Swiss Alps and on average, one person dies every day during the summer climbing season in the Alpine town of Chamonix.

In his new book, Mountains of the Mind, published this month to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest, Robert Macfarlane lists the ways in which a mountain can snuff you out.

"There is death by freezing, death by falling, death by avalanche, death by starvation, death by exhaustion, death by rockfall, death by ice-fall and death by the invisible aggression of altitude sickness, which can cause cerebral or pulmonary oedema," he writes.

Why, then, do we insist on climbing? The question clearly fascinates Macfarlane. A lecturer in English at Cambridge and a mountaineer since childhood, he views his subject from an unusual angle - a combination of the literary and the literal. Books on exploration and adventure tend to focus on every grim detail of the "how" while shrugging off the "why" in the manner of the British climber George Mallory, who, when asked by a reporter in 1922 why he was so hell-bent on climbing Everest, famously replied: "Because it's there." But as Macfarlane points out in his opening chapter, mountains have been "there" for much longer than we have - and nobody attempted to climb them until very recently.

On the contrary, until the 17th century what we now think of as lofty peaks were routinely referred to as "deserts", "boils" on the earth's complexion, and even "nature's pudenda". Anyone who suggested scaling such a peak would have been considered a lunatic. Since the ancient Greeks populated Mount Olympus with a soap opera-like cast of gods, mountains traditionally had been the abode of the awesome and the awful. Divinities whose squabbles tended to result in wholesale human slaughter or mutilation were bad enough - add trolls, demons and potentially savage natives to the equation, not to mention the various species of alpine dragon which a Swiss scientist called Jacob Scheuchzer listed in a famous compendium of the early 1600s - and you had a strikingly undesirable form of landscape. Not much demand for designer crampons in those days.

So when - and how - did it all change? Like an unusually well-informed expedition guide, Macfarlane embarks on a jaunty trip through 300 years of science, literature, philosophy and sheer eccentricity which is a joy to read. We watch the developing science of geology shatter Archbishop Ussher's assurance that the earth was born at 9 a.m. on Monday, October 26th, 4004BC, and replace it with the dizzying proposition that the planet was unimaginably old. We experience the crunch as the truth about the Ice Ages - and the possibility that there might be another one - slams into the Victorian imagination. We get ringside seats at the "alporama" on 1830s Leicester Square, where "spectators could wander in the darkened central circular platform, while around them for 360 degrees stretched a multiple vanishing-point painting of the Mont Blanc massif": many of the punters experienced vertigo.

There are chapters on ice, on risk, on altitude, on maps. There are quotations from an astonishing range of sources, from John Ruskin to Roland Barthes through C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. And there is a moving - and refreshingly unsentimental - account of Mallory's death on Everest in 1924.

But even as he argues that our relationship to mountains is largely an intellectual one, shaped by writers, painters and received philosophical notions about landscape, Macfarlane thrills us with some horribly vivid snippets of real-life derring-do. Here is no armchair traveller, but a guy who has pared off bits of his own frostbitten fingertips with a penknife and burned the resulting shavings in the flame of a cigarette lighter.

When he writes about climbing he does so with compelling elegance - and immediacy. "In the mountains," he notes in one of many evocative passages, "I have felt my body tingle from toes to skull with the aerial charge of imminent lightning. I have struck grape-green phosphorescent sparks from the snow with my boots while tacking up a slope in the pre-dawn light. I have seen exquisite flowers of snow fall from the sky, and watched the collapse of rock towers which have stood for millennia . . ."

This is 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. In the 21st century, it seems, adventure publishing will no longer be dominated by tales of men struggling through hostile weather conditions, dragging tons of equipment while eating half a square of chocolate a week.

Not that Macfarlane invented meditative machismo: indeed, his passages on the "transient beauties of the mountains . . . the filmy effects of light or cloud, the fleeting blue and green tints of ice" are reminiscent of Fridtjof Nansen's polar memoir, Farthest North, published in 1897. But in its insistence on scholarly analysis of extreme travel, Mountains of the Mind follows hard on the heels of Francis Spufford's evocative study, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, and Stephen J. Pyne's stunning 400-page essay on Antarctica, The Ice. Anyone for travelosophy?

Mountains of the Mind: a History of a Fascination, by Robert Macfarlane, is published by Granta Books, £20

Everest Mother Goddess of the World

The world's highest mountain is still growing - at a rate of five millimetres a year.

Everest was formed when India, then a fast-moving triangle cut out of the continent of Pangaea, hurtled into Tibet, creating the four curvilinear ridges of the Himalaya.

The mountain which we call Everest after British surveyor George Everest is, to the Tibetans, Chomolungma (Mother Goddess of the World), and, to the Nepalis, Sagarmatha (Forehead of the Ocean, or Goddess of the Sky).

The first man to make serious inroads on Everest, George Mallory, got up close and personal with the mountain in 1921 - and was horrified by what he found. "The long imagined snowslopes of this northern face of Everest with their gentle and inviting angle turn out to be the most appalling precipice nearly 10,000 feet high."