I’ve never understood the mountaineering mentality. When I was at school, and for a number of years afterwards, my mate Mike used to drag me up mountains. I absolutely loved photographing the views from the top, but trudging up the damn things never struck me as fun. Mike went on to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, and to get within calling distance of the top of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalaya.
Robert Macfarlane’s excellent first book explores how people have thought about mountains over the years, from the pre-Romanticism days in which they were seen as appalling, to the Romantics finding them appealing, to modern mountaineers finding them addictive. In among the meticulously researched pages, Macfarlane also finds time to recount a few mountaineering tales of his own.
The self-confessed Darwin groupie in me was delighted to see my hero Charles Darwin receive plenty of coverage in the early chapters, along with his friends the geologist Charles Lyell and physicist and pioneer climatologist John Tyndall. Macfarlane is also very good on the Victorian craze for the Alps, and on George Mallory’s repeated attempts to be the first to bag Everest.
Despite my general bafflement at people’s determination to ‘conquer’ mountains, rather that simply appreciating their aesthetics, I found Mountains of the Mind a fascinating read.