Book review: Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane
Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane. Granta Books/2003 release.
A history of a fascination, the tagline reads and indeed, the redoubtable Macfarlane demystifies much of the intrinsic, intense, often fatal, fascination that mountains hold for human beings.
The most poignant part of this wonderful book for me, was Macfarlane`s recounting of the legend of George Mallory who was badly smitten by the world`s highest mountain, attempted to summit three times, turned away disappointed but with his life intact twice, then in 1924 probably summited but disappeared off the face of Mt Everest as well as off the face of the earth, shortly afterwards.
A full 75 years later, Mallory`s body was found about 2,000 metres below the summit, lovingly preserved by the eternal snows of Everest. Indeed a fatal attraction.
`Galahad` was what Mallory, a strapping handsome man ( (‘Mon dieu,’ Lytton Strachey exclaimed after catching sight of gorgeous George at Cambridge. ‘My hand trembles, my heart palpitates…’) was called in some quarters and indeed, Everest was his Holy Grail.
Mallory had a wife –Ruth–he adored, three small children he loved dearly, a day job at the Charterhouse School but everything came second to Everest. And so he climbed and climbed again, then climbed for the third time, desperate to conquer the might mountain.
Macfarlane says that to read Mallory`s letters and journals from the three Everest expeditions is to eavesdrop on a burgeoning love affair….with a mountain. The author is a tad impatient with the mountaineer`s succumbing to the `glamour` of Everest: that shimmer of suggestion that never becomes clear sight but always hints at something deeper further on.
He is also impatient that Mallory should thus sacrifice himself to the mountain but the reader can`t help but wonder if there was something inevitable about how this love affair would end.
Along with the other `Everesters,` Mallory plots and maps, is involved in photographing and hurdling the lower part sof the mountain, and does many recces. He reads Balzac and Andre Maurois, and Coleridge`s Kubla Khan on the mountain. And every chance he gets to sit and stare at the mountain, he does, like a besotted admirer.
The mountaineer always knew that Everest was a mountain of the mind inasmuch as it was a monolith of daunting proportions that stood there challenging him silently. “Everest, Mallory writes to Ruth, has created an exhilarating life for me.“
It is indeed tragic that he did not live that life in its fullest exhilaration for too long.