What an absolutely wonderful book this is, an engaging mix of history, of the advent of climbing, of Mr. Macfarlane’s own climbing adventures, all coming together in a delightfully informative, exhilarating read.
The author weaves his own climbing trips into his exploration of how mountaineering evolved from the mid-1700s to become the high adrenalin, summit-bagging endeavour that it is today.
Mr. Macfarlane is an eloquent, lyrical writer, and is clearly fascinated by everything around him, more especially if it relates to mountains in any way. He can make even a topic such as geology sound magically alive:
“To understand even a little about geology gives you special spectacles through which to see a landscape. They allow you to see back in time to worlds where rocks liquefy and seas petrify, where granite slops about like porridge, basalt bubbles like stew, and layers of limestone are folded as easily as blankets.”
Oh, for school science teachers who explained concepts in such an exciting, visual way.
Climbing in Scotland one day the author chances upon an unusual band of sedimentary rock which, he decides to investigate.
“Between two of the grey layers I noticed a thin silvery stratum. I pushed the adze of my walking axe into the rock, and tried to lever the strata apart. The block cracked open, and I managed to get my fingers beneath the heavy top lid of rock. I lifted, and the rock opened.And there, between two layers of grey rock, was a square yard of silver mica, seething brightly in the sunlight – probably the first sunlight to strike it in millions of years. It was like opening up a chest filled to the brim with silver, like opening a book to find a mirror leafed inside it, or like opening a trap door to reveal a vault of time so dizzyingly deep that I might have fallen head-first into it.”
Heady stuff, right?
Mr. Macfarlane brings to life everything he describes, always with affection and sometimes with a dash of humour – like this account of the climbing of the Mont Blanc glacier in the summer of 1741 by 2 British men:
“That first night, they camped on the fields at Sallanches, and it was there, to the wonder of the locals, that Pococke dressed himself up as a panjandrum (he had brought the clothes with him from Egypt, along with a wooden coffin containing a mummy from Saqqara and a stone statue of Isis)… Occasionally, the young man whom the locals had come to see would push back the heavy canvas flap and one of the tents and take a turn about the campsite. He was swathed in the tight turban and the luminous robes of a Levantine potentate, and at his waist hung a dagger whose curve rhymed with that of his exorbitant slippers. His friend walked with him and they laughed together to see the astonished faces of their witnesses…”
Anyone with a love for mountains should read this book, because it is absolutely not “just about” mountaineering. Not at all. It is about how people perceive mountains, how they change people, and how they influence us. From being places people feared, because they did not know what or who lived there, to being the magnet that draws adventurers to ever extreme heights and risks, mountains are part of our world.
A beautifully written, lyrical book.
Absolutely loved it.
And definitely a book to re-read and to savour.