Its probably time we talked about Robert McFarlane: author of several best-selling books, the subject of which were things I had no particular interest in when I started reading them but which by the end I was entranced by, albeit at a safe distance – mountains, glaciers, ridges, blizzards, walking out on tidal marshlands near Essex somewhere, and loads of extremely dangerous (and probably dank) tunnels and cavernous spots all over the place. He is an academic at Cambridge, handsome in a Chariots of Fire kind of way, clearly daring (probably beyond what most of us would deem sanity) and according to the one person I know who has spent time with him, one of the most lovely men you will ever meet. He writes some of the most lucid and loving appreciations of the world around us. “What a complete bastard” to quote Rik Young One.
This, one of MacFarlane’s first books, is like all of his others, deceptively easy to read yet it is rammed full of facts and information, such that you have come away learning things by stealth: the reverse of a light-fingered pickpocket, he leaves fascination and joy in his wake before you notice he’s gone.
I like mountains. I’ve walked near, around and close to some large hills – its difficult to be taken seriously talking about mountains if all you really know with certainty are things like the Lake District and bit of Scotland – yes, they can be dangerous as well as beautiful, people die on them – some of the dead were serious climbers who knew their business, but still got caught out – but they are also, in the main ‘manageable’. You can ‘do’ them in a day and be back for tea. I have seen, at a few miles distant, but still in the glacial foothills, Mt Cook on New Zealand’s South Island and recognised it as a place of a truly different order and I’ve walked on a couple of glaciers in Iceland. I also know that I could and probably would die if left to my own devices on them for any length of time. Macfarlane’s apparent alacrity on and need to repeatedly challenge himself by going to, various remote and high places is alien to me, but I’m glad he did, glad he got to report back and just glad he came back.
The book weaves the author’s own growing love for mountain landscapes – his grandparents’ stories of their travels and the various ‘tools of the trade’ kept around their house – with a wonderfully full history of mountaineering. It is not until someone points it out that it becomes obvious, but really it is obvious, that the desire and the ability to ascend these great rock formations is only a relatively recent thing in human history: prior to the last 300 years or so, mountains were great big things, best avoided, you probably circumnavigate them if at all possible – unless someone knew a really good pass through – they were useless for agriculture so no one save the odd unfortunate goat herd would go there. They were the legendary dwelling place of beasts and gods or a last place of refuge for hermits and outlaws.
Macfarlane makes them romantic, alluring places and as he does he quotes Keats, Shelley and references Turner and Ruskin – both of whom have some terrifically otherworldly art based on snow storms and glaciers. One of the main attractive qualities that he returns to is that of the light at altitude:
“Nowhere but in the mountains do you become so aware of the incorrigible plurality of light…”
Quoting George Mallory, “...here is a pure beauty of form, a kind of ultimate harmony.”
He talks of the realisation of the sublime, something called Alpenglow and most alluringly the Broken Spectre: a trick of light on bright days, when the person is standing between the sun and a bank of mist or fog, that not only throws a long shadow but also as the light is refracted it produces halos of colour around the shadow. The possibility of seeing that would almost be enough to draw me up into one of those ridiculous altitudes. Almost.
The penultimate chapter on Everest is mainly a retelling of the story of George Mallory’s three attempts to climb the highest mountain (1921, 1922 & 1924). Presumably assembled from the copious letters he wrote to his wife Ruth, at home. Noting that she continued to receive these letters for months after the news of Mallory’s death on Everest had been telegrammed to her. It is an attractive and compelling history – and Macfarlane does not baulk at the gruesome cost in lives of the Sherpa guides to satisfy the vanity project (?), compulsion (?) of this white man and his entourage, nor does he pull back from considerations of what life was like for the family he left behind again and again.
Speaking of gruesome – how about the Russian mountaineer who, at the summit of a range in the old USSR, one cornea popped out, rendering him blind in one eye, shortly followed by the other. He sat down and died on the mountain, knowing that his colleagues had no hope of getting him down the 20-odd thousand feet.
I absolutely loved the short final chapter, recounting and encounter with a Snow Hare in a blizzard. Does the hare cross Macfarlane’s path, or is it Macfarlane crossing the hare’s.
In short it is another terrific book by Macfarlane, to put next to the several others of his on my bookshelves.