Mountains of the Mind - Book Review

Mountains of the Mind

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes.

The first book I am going to talk about is Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane. Its full title is "Mountains of the Mind. A History of Fascination” and it is, in short, the book I was always going to write. 

I had been thinking about writing it for a good 5 or 6 years before I came to realise that Macfarlane had already written it. To add insult to injury a proof copy had been sitting on my shelves for a good while and I had no recollection of owning it.

My fascination with mountains and wilderness stems probably from childhood summers spent in the foothills of the Italian Alps, staying with grandparents. Surrounded by Western Europe’s highest peaks for 5-6 weeks every summer I was brainwashed by mother nature into worshipping these giants.

Like Macfarlane, Maurice Herzog’s account of his ascent of Annapurna made a deep impression on me. When I read accounts of the first successful Himalayan expeditions I had never even been climbing. I had of course been on family hikes in England and in the alps, but nothing that could be deemed mountaineering. Herzog’s Annapurna and Hunt’s Ascent of Everest combined with a fertile imagination turned my relatively tame childhood day trips into fantasies of wilderness discovery. My mother’s picnics turned into dry biscuits whilst the breezes and warm summer sun became the merciless burning winds of the roof of the world.

Unlike Macfarlane, even when I did start climbing it was pretty limited. A few days of Peak District rock climbing, 3 Alpine 4 thousand metre peaks and some trekking in Europe and the Americas does not a mountaineering career make.

The mercy of a power so much older and greater than our own.

This is not the only difference between us. In Mountains of the Mind Robert Macfarlane perfectly traces the history of man’s relationship with mountains, changing from one of hostility to one of awe, alongside his own experiences and emotions. He, like me, sympathises with the sometimes intoxicating feeling of insignificance one can feel in the wilderness - at the mercy of a power so much older and greater than our own.

Unlike me he writes so eloquently about the rise of the effects of Scientific Enquiry and Romanticism in breaking down the barriers of opinion and opening the mind's eye to the beauty of the unknown and the perilous. The penultimate chapter is about Everest - the World’s highest mountain - which, to many, became an object of all-consuming desire, to be conquered, to be subjugated. The death of George Mallory and many others since reminds us that any misplaced feeling of victory we may have in the mountains can only ever be temporary. 

The final pages of this exquisite work seem to perfectly encapsulate my own love affair with mountains, not as objects to triumph over but as ethereal kingdoms to respect and treasure - realms that trigger reflection, appreciation and self awareness.

“In their vastness and in their intricacy, mountains stretch out the individual mind and compress it simultaneously: they make it aware of its own immeasurable acreage and reach and, at the same time, of its own smallness"

A truly great book.