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, the Rockies, 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)