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Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit

Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit

by Robert Macfarlane

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Combining accounts of legendary mountain ascents with vivid descriptions of his own forays into wild, high landscapes, Robert McFarlane reveals how the mystery of the world’s highest places has came to grip the Western imagination—and perennially draws legions of adventurers up the most perilous slopes.
His story begins three centuries ago,


Combining accounts of legendary mountain ascents with vivid descriptions of his own forays into wild, high landscapes, Robert McFarlane reveals how the mystery of the world’s highest places has came to grip the Western imagination—and perennially draws legions of adventurers up the most perilous slopes.
His story begins three centuries ago, when mountains were feared as the forbidding abodes of dragons and other mysterious beasts. In the mid-1700s the attentions of both science and poetry sparked a passion for mountains; Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Lord Byron extolled the sublime experiences to be had on high; and by 1924 the death on Mt Everest of an Englishman named George Mallory came to symbolize the heroic ideals of his day. Macfarlane also reflects on fear, risk, and the shattering beauty of ice and snow, the competition and contemplation of the climb, and the strange alternate reality of high altitude, magically enveloping us in the allure of mountains at every level.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review from Discover Great New Writers
Anyone who believes that adventure stories are just for kids hasn't taken a look at the bestseller list recently. Americans have an unquenchable thirst for danger, if only to be experienced vicariously between the covers of a good book. In Mountains of the Mind, Robert MacFarlane adds a new twist to the adventure genre with this combination of a memoir depicting his own experience as a mountain climber and an intriguing historical exploration of the shift in cultural perceptions of mountains over the centuries. The rocky crags, once frightening places of mystery, have become sources of inspiration that ignite the imagination and compel adventurers of every ilk to risk life and limb in order to scale their heights.

MacFarlane traces the roots of our love affair with mountains and includes advancements in geology and our growing understanding of how the earth was formed. He also offers an insightful reflection on what drives climbers to pursue their goals so obsessively despite the potentially tragic consequences. But while MacFarlane's research is extensive, he's careful not to let it overwhelm his story. He rhapsodizes so eloquently about the beauty and peace he has experienced while climbing that it's clear this talented writer understands the seductive power of his subject all too well. Summer 2003 Selection

The Los Angeles Times
In this, his first book, Cambridge-educated Macfarlane examines the ways in which our response to mountains has been formed or mediated by a rich variety of cultural and intellectual influences. An enthusiastic mountain climber himself, Macfarlane interlards his knowledgeable and beautifully written study with thrilling accounts of his own experiences on the heights. — Merle Rubin
The New York Times
The modern climber traipsing on the edge may think he's a free spirit, but according to the English journalist Robert Macfarlane, he's a slave to advertising. Purple mountain majesties? They're only there because the viewing audience is programmed to see them. Mountains of the Mind goes back three centuries, showing how a few brainy opinion makers created the outdoor image. — John Rothchild
"If you have ever wondered why people climb mountains, then here is your answer. Part history, part personal observation, this is a fascinating study of our (sometimes fatal) obsession with height. A brilliant book, beautifully written."
Fergus Fleming, author of Ninety Degrees North: the Quest for the North Pole
Publishers Weekly
Mountains haven't always been viewed as magnificent tests of bravery or even as scenic vacation spots-only in the last few centuries have Westerners found them worthy of attention. As British writer Macfarlane (the London Review of Books; the Times Literary Supplement) points out, "until well into the 1700s, travelers who had to cross the Alpine passes often chose to be blindfolded," sparing themselves the terrors of the view. His point throughout this strangely compelling volume is that our attitudes toward mountains are very much a cultural product, a rich mix of theological, geological, artistic and social forces. With the development of geological science in the early 1800s, mountains, once viewed as "giant souvenirs of humanity's sinfulness," came to be seen as part of the earth's historical record. Recognized as "the great stone book" of history, mountains opened a window into "deep time," a glimpse of eternity. The thrill of vertigo, the infatuation with the unknown, the Social Darwinist challenge of the survival of the fittest, the march of British imperialism, even advances in cartography-all shaped the social imagination of mountains. As Western adventurers were increasingly lured from the Swiss Alps to the Himalayas, Macfarlane closes his study with the ill-fated Mallory expeditions to Everest, so mythic they almost defy analysis. The book itself is rather like some idiosyncratic, hand-drawn map of terra incognita. But for romantic, mountain-struck readers, Macfarlane's rich thoughts may make snow clouds clear, revealing new peaks and new wonders. B&w illus. Agent, Jessica Woollard. (June 3) Forecast: This isn't white-knuckles, Jon Krakauer-esque adventure writing, but it should become a classic among mountain climbers. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
When Robert MacFarlane was twelve, he discovered a book in his grandfather's library about the 1924 expedition to Mt. Everest that led to the deaths of George Mallory and Andrew Levine. This and his grandfather's own obsession with mountain climbing led to MacFane's lifelong pursuit of the world's most challenging mountains. His book uses physical aspects of mountains and climbing, like geology, summits, and glaciers, in combination with the artistic connections made by painters and poets and the cultural overlay of patriotism, militarism, and monetary exploitation, to explain his own explorations and those of famous climbers. As a person who himself has climbed famous heights around the globe, he understands that "the urge to explore space—to go higher—is innate to the human mind." The last chapter is a description of Mallory's pursuit of Mt. Everest, which ties the rest of the book together. MacFarlane provides an extensive chapter-by-chapter bibliography and thorough index; his careful research complements his climbing experiences. The b/w photographs are an added stimulant to the desire to seek the heights, although any reader interested in mountain climbing will already be itching to climb without them. KLIATT Codes: JSA—Recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Vintage, 306p. illus. bibliog. index., Ages 12 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
Oxford- and Cambridge-educated mountaineer/adventure writer Macfarlane combines personal narrative and cultural history to examine how peoples' views about mountains have changed over the last three centuries. By illustrating the shift from a strictly biblical interpretation of mountains to the influence of early geologists and Victorian landscape artists, the author traces the emergence of a newfound public desire for exploration and risk taking. An experienced climber, Macfarlane intersperses many personal experiences throughout and includes an excellent chapter that places George Mallory's early attempts to climb Mount Everest in the social context of the times. Taking a more personal and historical look at a subject previously touched upon in Richard G. Mitchell's Mountain Experience: The Psychology and Sociology of Adventure, Macfarlane's book also offers the stay-at-home adventurer entertainment and the opportunity to contemplate why so many people are drawn to the mountains. Recommended primarily for public and academic adventure collections.-Tim Markus, Evergreen State Coll. Lib., Olympia, WA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A crisp historical study of the sensations and emotions people have brought to (and taken from) mountains, laced with the author’s own experiences scrambling among the peaks. Mountains were once thought of as godless and lawless places, best to be avoided. By the 17th century, those associations were changing, says Macfarlane (Emmanuel College, Cambridge), as a geology beyond scripture was first being understood, and by the 19th century the hills were being read like great stone books, "ghostly landscapes which had suddenly opened up under the scrutiny of geology." Also by then, the mountain landscape had been vested with a complex aesthetic that embraced terror and elation, a filter to an ancient and atavistic world that scorned the appalling transience of a human life ("What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die"). Macfarlane intelligently probes the push/pull of the peaks, the odd but real pleasure of fear—its centrality to the experience—and the exhilaration of a moment reduced to the neat binaries of danger and safety, right move and wrong move, living and dying, the "human paradox of altitude: that it both exalts the human mind and erases it. Those who travel to mountain tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion." George Mallory is a good example, whose Everest days Macfarlane sketches. A certain amount of melodrama is inevitable when the stakes are mortal, as is a measure of magniloquence—"the unknown is so inflammatory to the imagination because it is an imaginatively malleable space"—yet Macfarlane works hard to keep his sojourns in the Cairngorms, theRockies, and the Tian Shan expressively sharp and enticing. Macfarlane adds his bit to the long lore of mountaineering, but his encounters with the peaks themselves have special presence and acuity. (b&w illustrations) Agent: Jessica Woollard
From the Publisher
"Wonderfully illuminating. . . . An exhilarating blend of scholarship and adventure, displaying dazzling erudition, acute powers of analysis, a finely honed sense of cultural history and a passionate sense of the author's engagement with his subject." --Los Angeles Times

“Fascinating stuff. . . a clever premise. . . . Goes back three centuries, showing how a few brainy opinion makers created the outdoor image.” —The New York Times Book Review

"A convincing book of historical evidence alongside his own oxygen-deprived experiences in an attempt to answer the age old question, 'Why climb the mountain?' "--San Francisco Chronicle

“Early mountaineers were lost for words to describe the splendor of the mountains, but Robert Macfarlane is not; in particular, he has a gift for arresting similes.” –The Times Literary Supplement

“Of all the books published to mark the 50th anniversary of climbing Mount Everest Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind stands out as by far one of the most intelligent and interesting. . . in a style that shows he can be as poetic as he is plucky.”–The Economist

“At once a fascinating work of history and a beautifully written mediation on how memory, imagination, and the landscape of mountains are joined together in our minds and under our feet.” –Forbes

“A compelling meditation. . . Macfarlane is. . . the perfect mountain guide through blue crevasse fields, ice walls, prayer flags, Sherpas and Shangri Las. He’s been up there, and come back down through the foothills to offer us his thoughtful and gracious elegy, telling us eloquently the secret of it all, which is that no one can ever truly conquer a mountain.”–Benedict Allen, author of The Faber Book of Exploration

“Macfarlane, a mountain lover and climber, has a visceral appreciation of mountains. . . . He is an engaging writer, his commentary, always crisp and relevant, leavened by personal experience beautifully related.”–The Observer (UK)

“Macfarlane writes with tremendous maturity, elegance and control. . . . A powerful debut, a remarkable blend of passion and scholarship.” –Evening Standard (UK)

“Part history, part personal observation, this is a fascinating study of our (sometimes fatal) obsession with height. A brilliant book, beautifully written.” –Fergus Fleming, author of Ninety Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole

“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.”–The Telegraph (UK)

“There are many books on climbing and climbers, and this is one of the best and most unusual I have read.”–The Times (UK)

“An imaginative, original essay in cultural history–a book that evokes as well as investigates the fear and wonder of high places.” –William Fiennes, author of The Snow Geese

“A crisp historical study of the sensations and emotions people have brought to (and taken from) mountains. . . . Macfarlane intelligently probes the push/pull of the peaks. . . . Sharp and enticing.” –Kirkus Reviews

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Read an Excerpt

2nd March 1922 -- the cry of gulls, wheeling on their wing-points around the quayside of the East India docks. Mallory striding up the railed gangplank of the SS Caledonia, bound for Bombay. The other Everesters are already on board. A new team, a new game. The Caledonia slips through the grey water and sea-mists of the English channel, skirts the Iberian peninsula, then rounds the rock of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean. They thread the needle of the Suez Canal at night: the water so still and dark it seems more like a geological feature, a seam of graphite clamped between the layers of the desert. Then out into the hot air of the Red Sea, where the ocean is as calm as a reservoir and the ship moves across it leaving barely a wake on the water.

During the day the sky is flawless, like a cupola of glass, but each evening the greens and blues and yellows of a Middle Eastern sunset congregate in the air, and kaleidoscope together on the passing water. Flying fish scoot out of the sea, executing their stiff skimming little leaps and occasionally thunking into the ship's side. And dolphins chaperone the ship, leaping in and out of the water to port and starboard.

Life on board is pleasant enough. In the mornings Finch, a New Zealander, talks the team through the oxygen equipment they have brought, demonstrating valves, carrying-frames, flow rates. Mallory is sceptical of this ironmongery, all 900 lbs of it. To him it seems a way of cheating the mountain; like carrying your own atmosphere with you. But Finch is persuasive about its advantages, if a little monomaniacal. During the afternoons, when the heat lies heavy and still as a blanket upon them, there is deck-tennis and sometimes deck-cricket, and at 7pm sharp a bugle signals dinner. After dark, from the stern, Mallory likes to watch the phosphorescent path left by the ship. He casts his mind back to Ruth, of course, but mostly he thinks forward, to the "great work ahead".

They dock at Bombay this time, and with their 2 ½ tons of luggage -- which includes cases of champagne, tins of quail-in-aspic, and hundreds of Ginger Nut biscuits -- take a protracted, hot train journey across India to Calcutta. The track passes over baked khaki plains and through dark sycamore forests, the old trees rising up on either side like the sides of a gorge. From Calcutta, the train chugs them up to Darjeeling, where there is an orgy of packing. The team is already pulling together well. It seems a much happier combination of people than last time. There is a new leader, General Bruce, always laughing at something and always wearing his bow-tie, tweed-jacket, and pith-helmet, and carrying a field stick. Under the tweed are scars -- bullet wounds from Gallipoli and elsewhere, and inside him teems malaria. Mallory likes Bruce much better than the insufferable Howard-Bury. There is Strutt who, despite his polka-dotted socks and constant whinging, is tolerable. There is John Noel, the photographer and cinematographer of the trip, and a handy climber to boot. And there is Somervell, Mallory's climbing partner and intellectual confrère on the trip, a man with a prodigious brain and strange jug ears.

They leave from Darjeeling in two parties, planning to reunite at Phari, and pool their three hundred pack animals. It is earlier in the year this time round, and the Sikkim jungle is not as profuse or as beautiful as the last time Mallory ventured through it. There are fewer flowers, and "the sense of bursting growth is absent". Nevertheless, it feels good to be on the move, to feel the high air of the hills in the lungs, and to be getting closer to what Mallory now regularly calls just "the mountain".

Mallory, in the first group, reaches Phari on 6th April, and although there is an inch of snow on the ground and he has to sit huddled in his sleeping bag after dark, he tells Ruth that he has experienced an unforeseen burst of excitement to be back in Tibet; an unexpected fondness for the bleak landscape. From Phari, they have a new route to Kampa Dzong -- higher, but shorter by two days than the version of 1921. It takes them over the Donka La. As they approach the pass, the air becomes violently cold, and it begins to snow. It snows all night on 8th April. Mallory is concerned for the animals, and in the darkness he walks over the soft, sticky snow from his tent to where the yaks and mules are tethered. They are standing in untidy rows with snow lying like rugs on their backs. They shift unhappily from foot to foot, and from their nostrils snort out jets of wet white breath into the dark air. The mule-men are squatting in a circle behind a shelter of rocks. They seem happy enough despite the brutal cold, and not too concerned for their animals, so Mallory goes back to his tent, and falls asleep to the quiet carillon of yak bells.

The next day it is too cold to ride and everyone, even Mallory, who is suffering from enteritis, chooses to walk beside the animals in an effort to stay warm. It is an arduous day, with twenty-two miles of rough-walking, all above 16 000 feet, and only a couple of short stops for tiffin. Just before nightfall they pitch a "queer little camp" under an outcrop of rock. A gravel plain stretches away from them, and showing above its eastern rim are the three peaks Kellas climbed.

The next day is a rest day. Mallory sits outside and reads Balzac for the few hours it is warm enough to do so. Despite the hardihoods, he reflects, there is still a beauty to be found in the landscape: the shadows of clouds smudging the plains, the blueness of the far distance, and the subtle shades of red, yellow and brown on the nearer hillsides. But then the wind gets up, and Mallory is forced back into the mess-tent for warmth. There he tries to write to Ruth, though the ink in the pot keeps freezing. "We have had a taste of the diabolical in Tibet", he writes. "I feel withered up by the absence of all the circumstances that lead to enjoyment." He is wearing five layers of clothing and even so is "just sufficiently warm except in the fingertips which touch the paper". But the chill to his fingers is worth it, because the letter feels like a connection with Ruth: "I am conscious of you at the other end; and very often dearest one I summon up your image & have your presence in some way near me."

For days they follow the same rhythm; march and camp, march and camp. It is hard to drive tent-pegs into this icy ground. At breakfast time, around the trestle table, they sit on up-turned tea-chests and wear herringbone tweed and fisherman's jumpers, hands thrust into armpits, hunched over against the cold with their heads tamped down into their bodies. On the wastelands near Kampa Dzong, a blizzard hustles in and softly overwhelms them, filling in their tracks as soon as they have been made, clearing up after them like a diligent housekeeper, abolishing all signs of their presence or progress. The plateau becomes a polar tundra. The snow clings to their stubble. Behind them for miles across the white plain are strung out the black battalions of the yaks and mules.

The cold is demoralising, and physically draining. For a while they forget about their ulterior purpose, and just concentrate on getting from camp in the morning to camp at night. But then, arriving finally at Shekar Dzong, the White Glass Fort, "we had a clear view of Everest across the plain -- it was more wonderful even than I remember & all the party were delighted by it -- which of course appealed to my proprietary feelings." In a way it is Mallory's mountain. He is the only member of the 1921 expedition who has come back for another try.

After Shekar Dzong they strike off south; a quicker route in to the East Rongbuk Glacier and thence to the North Col. By the first day of May they have established a Base Camp on the terminal moraine of the glacier. From a distance the pale tents are indistinguishable from the jumble of pale tent-sized boulders which the glacier has bulldozed down the valley.

Bruce's plan is to lay siege to the mountain. His climbers will establish a series of ascending camps up the mountain. Camp III will be just below the North Col -- where Mallory had spent such an uncomfortable night -- and Camp IV on the Col itself. The hope is that this will provide the support network needed for a strike on the summit itself. The weather doesn't get any warmer, but three camps are successfully pitched up the valley, and then on 13th May, Mallory helps to establish a route from Camp III up to the North Col itself. For long sections he has to cut steps into the steep blue glittering ice. Swing, crash, step, swing, crash, step. An exhausting rhythm at sea-level; shattering up here. Shards of ice fly dangerously with each blow of the axe, like shrapnel. After a while Mallory moves across to the left of the col, and discovers that there is thick, stable snow, which makes the going much easier. In a single day he manages to fix four hundred feet of rope to help those coming up afterwards. He also reaches the North Col. The wind is not as bad as the year before, and he makes his way over the dangerously broken ground of the crevassed north ridge, through the broken cubes of blue ice, and reach safe ground near where the ridge begins. The view south opens out with every step he takes, and he sits down to look at it in awe: "the most amazing spectacle I have ever seen". Camp IV is set at the North Col.

On 17th May Mallory sends a letter to Ruth "on the eve of our departure for the highest we can reach", and the next day he, Morshead, Norton and Somervell set off from Base Camp to Camp IV. Their plan is to leave the North Col and move up the north-east ridge, bivouac, and then make a bid for the summit the following day.

After a cold night at Camp IV, they set off late up the ridge. They are delayed because they left their breakfast -- tins of Heinz spaghetti -- outside their sleeping-bags, and the spaghetti froze. They have to thaw them in water on the slow stoves and force the crystalline mush down before they can set off. Quickly it becomes clear that the wind is too strong, and the air too cold. Nobody is properly clothed: the wool in their gloves and puttees stiffens to plywood in the cold; the fibres in their felt hats matt together and will not retain the heat. Slowly and painfully they move up the ridge, and are forced to bivouac far short of their intended goal, perched on a little ledge of ice and rock on the lee-side of the ridge at 25 000 feet.

Norton's ear and feet have been frostbitten, and he cannot sleep. Morshead, too, has been wrecked by the cold: the fingers on one of his hands have gone an ominous raspberry-and-cream colour. All night the men lie awake, two to a sleeping-bag, and listen to "the musical patter of fine, granular snow" on the tent. They bash the sides of the tent with their flat hands when they begin to sag under the weight of the snow, and send the snow hissing off onto the ground.

When dawn lightens the tent canvas, they drag themselves outside, except Morshead who declares he can go no further. The summit is beyond them, that much is obvious, but they struggle onwards and upwards for a symbolic 2000 feet before turning back. They pick up Morshead at the camp, leave the tents where they are, and press on back down to the North Col. It is a desperate retreat. Morshead can barely walk, and keeps sitting down in the snow and asking to die. Norton coaxes him on, a hand about his waist, whispering gentle words in his ears. On a steep part of the ridge, Morshead slips and tugs the other two climbers off. It is only Mallory's quick reactions -- driving his axe into the snow, and throwing a loop of the rope about it -- which save all four of them from death. As they stumble back into Camp IV Mallory notices apocalyptic weather away to the west -- a pile-up of black clouds, and distant flashes of lightning brightening the sky, as though there were a war going on in a far valley.

Mallory and the three others descend to Base Camp, and spend a month recovering there. Four of Mallory's fingers have been injured by the cold. While he is recuperating, Finch and the young Geoffrey Bruce (cousin of Charles) take oxygen apparatus with them, and make an assisted bid for the summit. They get higher than Mallory's party, but they too are repelled by the cold. Bruce hobbles back into Base Camp: his feet will take weeks to recover from their frost-bite.

The season is getting on, and the monsoon snow has begun to fall. Once again there is talk of calling it a day. Two good attempts have been made, and both have failed. But again it is Mallory, more than anyone, who wants to have another "whack". His finger is not healed, he tells Ruth, "and I risk getting a worse frostbite by going up again, but the game is worth a finger & I shall take every conceivable care of both fingers & toes. Once bit twice shy!" On 3rd June he and two other climbers, along with a train of Sherpas, set off for the "great battlements of ice on the North Col." The snowfall has been heavy over the past forty-eight hours, and there is thick windslab lying on hard ice. It is classic avalanche territory. As he leads up the slope, Mallory tests the snow. It seems safe. He leads on.

Not far from the lip of the col, at 1.50pm, there is a cracking noise -- like "an explosion of untamped gunpowder" -- and the snow Mallory is on begins to move. He loses his footing, and is swept a little way downhill before being spat out onto the surface of the snow. He pulls himself clear. There are cries from below him. Nine Sherpas have been swept by a faster torrent of snow over a sixty-foot ice cliff, and down into a crevasse. Two are rescued, amazingly unharmed. The other seven are never found, killed by the fall into the crevasse, or buried alive inside it by tons of snow.

A rough memorial cairn is built for the dead Sherpas at Camp III. Bruce is sanguine about the accident. Nobody's fault, he says. Nor do the families of the dead men seem interested in blaming anyone. Their men died when they were meant to die. But Mallory won't be consoled. He considers their death his doing. "It was not a desperate game, I thought," he writes to Ruth, "with the plans we made. Perhaps with the habit of dealing with certain kinds of danger one becomes accustomed to measuring some that are best left unmeasured and untried…the three of us were deceived; there wasn't an inkling of danger among us." He is aware, too, of how close he came to dying. "It was a wonderful escape for me & we may indeed be thankful for that together. Dear love when I think what your grief would have been I humbly thank God. I am alive…".

The expedition limps back through Tibet to Darjeeling, wounded and depleted, very much "not the jolly company we were". Morshead and Mallory are in pain from their fingers, Bruce's toes are not healed, and the soles of Norton's feet are grey and black with frostbite. And yet the further Mallory gets from the murderous mountain, the more he falls back in love with it. By Darjeeling, the subject of the dead Sherpas has disappeared from his letters. His thoughts are only with Ruth. With Ruth, and with the possibility of the next trip.

Meet the Author

Robert Macfarlane is the best-selling author of an award-winning trilogy of books about landscape and the human heart: Mountains of the MindThe Wild Places, and The Old Ways. He is also the author of Landmarks and Holloway. His work has been translated into a dozen languages and is published in more than twenty countries, and his books have been widely adapted for tv, film and radio by the BBC, among others. He has contributed to Harper’sGranta, the Observer (London), the Times Literary Supplement (London), and the London Review of Books. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2012. He is currently a Fellow in English of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

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