Mountains of the Mind


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I wanted my life to be this clear in its lines, this simple in its priorities. I came to love them, these men: I loved how inconsistent their rough appearance - their indestructible tweed breetches, their bristling mutton-chops and moustaches, the silk and the bear grease with which they insulated themselves against the cold - seemed to be with their almost fastidious sensitivity to the beauties of the landscapes they moved in. Then there was the combination of aristocratic finickiness the sixty tins of quail in foie gras, the bow-ties and the vintage Montebello champagne that were carried on the Everest expedition, for example with enormous hardihood.

And their acceptance that a violent death was, if not probable, certainly very possible. They seemed to me then the ideal travellers: I longed to be like them. I longed in particular for the thermostat of little Birdie Bowers, Scott's right-hand man, who, during the voyage south on the Terra Nova, washed on deck every morning in a bucket of sea water, and who was able to sleep - to sleep - in temperatures down to C.

Adventures in Reaching the Summit

Above all, I was drawn to those men who travelled to climb the high peaks of the Greater Ranges. So many of them died.

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I learned the roll-call by heart: The list went on and on, through the ranks of the less familiar. The imaginative light the mountaineers cast over me was like that cast by the polar expeditions - the beauty and danger of the landscape, the immensities of space, the utter uselessness of it all - but with high altitudes in place of high latitudes.

Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination

To be sure these people had their faults. They were beset by the sins of their age: And mingled with their bravery was an acute selfishness. But I didn't notice these traits at the time. All I saw was impossibly brave men stepping out into the brilliant light of the unknown. The book which undoubtedly made the deepest impression on me was Maurice Herzog's Annapurna, dictated by Herzog from a hospital bed in I. He couldn't write it himself because he had no fingers left.

Herzog was the leader of a team of French mountaineers which, in the spring of , travelled to the Nepal Himalaya with the aim of being the first group to summit one of the world's fourteen 8,metre peaks. After an arduous month of reconnaissance, and with time running out before the arrival of the monsoon, the French team made their way into the heart of the Annapurna range, a lost world of ice and rock locked off by a ring of the highest mountains on earth.

In the pure morning light this absence of all life, this utter destitution of nature, seemed only to intensify our own strength. How could we expect anyone else to understand the peculiar exhilaration that we drew from this barrenness, when man's natural tendency is to turn towards everything in nature that is rich and generous? Gradually, the team moved up the mountain, establishing successively higher camps. The altitude, the extreme cold and the load-bearing began to take their toll.

But as Herzog grew physically weaker, so his conviction strengthened that the summit was attainable. Eventually, on 3 June, he and a climber called Louis Lachenal left Camp V, the highest camp, in a bid for the top of Annapurna. This final stage of the mountain involved the ascent of a long, curving ramp of ice the team had nicknamed the Sickle glacier, and then of a steep band of rock which protected the summit itself.

Aside from this band, the route offered nothing serious in the way of technical obstacles and, keen to save weight, Lachenal and Herzog left their rope behind them. The weather was immaculate when they departed Camp V, with a pristine sky. Clear skies bring the lowest temperatures, though, and the air was so cold that both men felt their feet freezing inside their boots as they climbed higher. Quite soon it became apparent that they would have to turn back or run the risk of severe frostbite.

In his account of the climb, Herzog describes becoming progressively more detached from what was happening to him.


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The clarity and thinness of the air, the crystalline beauty of the mountains and the strange painlessness of frostbite conspired to send him into a state of numbed serenity, which made him insensitive to his worsening injuries:. I smiled to myself at the paltriness of our efforts. But all sense of exertion was gone, as though there were no longer any gravity. This diaphanous landscape, this quintessence of purity - these were not the mountains I knew; they were the mountains of my dreams. Still in this trance - still immune to pain - he and Lachenal forced a way through the final rock band, and reached the summit:.

The highest mountain to be climbed by man lay under our feet! The names of our predecessors on these heights chased each other through my mind: How many of them were dead - how many had found on these mountains what, to them, was the finest end of all.

Mountains of the Mind - Robert Macfarlane

I knew the end was near, but it was the end that all mountaineers wish for - an end in keeping with their ruling passion. I was consciously grateful to the mountains for being so beautiful for me that day, and as awed by their silence as if I had been in church. I was in no pain, and had no worry. The pain and the worry came later. While descending the rock-band, Herzog dropped his gloves and, by the time he reached Camp IV, he was barely able to walk. Both his feet and his hands were severely frostbitten. During the desperate retreat down steep ground to Base Camp, he fell and smashed several bones in his already devastated feet.

When he was forced to abseil, the ropes ripped away the flesh of his hands in thick strips.

C.W. McCall - Mountains On My Mind

Once the terrain became less precipitous, it was possible for Herzog to be carried, and he was portaged off the mountain first by piggy-back, then in a basket, then on a sledge and finally on a stretcher. During the retreat, his feet and hands were wrapped and bagged in plastic to save them from further harm. When they reached camp each night, Oudot, the expedition doctor, injected novocaine, spartocamphor and penicillin into Herzog's femoral and brachial arteries, pushing the long needle in through the left and right flanks of his groin, and the bends of his elbows: By the time he was off the mountain, Herzog's feet had turned black and brown; by the time they reached the safety of Gorakpur, Oudot had amputated almost all of his toes and fingers.

I read Annapurna three times that summer. It was obvious to me that Herzog had chosen wisely in going for the top, despite the subsequent costs. For what, he and I were agreed, were toes and fingers compared to having stood on those few square yards of snow? If he had died it would still have been worth it. This was the lesson I took away from Herzog's book: Twelve years after I first read Annapurna - twelve years during which I had spent most of my holidays in the mountains - running my finger along the spines in a second-hand bookshop in Scotland, I came across another copy. That night I sat up late and read it through again, and again fell under its spell.

Soon afterwards, I booked flights and a climbing partner - an Army friend of mine called Toby Till - for a week in the Alps. We arrived in Zermatt in early June, hoping to climb the Matterhorn before the summer crowds clogged it up. But the mountain was still thickly armoured with ice: So we drove round to the next valley, where the thaw was supposed to be a little more advanced. Our plan was to camp high overnight, and then the following morning ascend a mountain called the Lagginhorn by its easy south-east ridge.

At 4, metres, I reflected briefly, the Lagginhorn was almost exactly half the height of Annapurna. It snowed that night, and l lay awake listening to the heavy flakes falling on to the flysheet of our tent.

They clumped together to make dark continents of shadow on the fabric, until the drifts became too heavy for the slope of the tent and slid with a soft hiss down to the ground. In the small hours the snow stopped, but when we unzipped the tent door at 6 a. We set off apprehensively towards the ridge. Once we were on it, the ridge turned out to be harder than it looked from below. The difficulty came from the old, rotten snow which was cloaking the ridge to a depth of several feet, together with six inches of fresh fall lying on top of it, uncompacted and sticky.

Rotten snow is either granular, like sugar, or forms a crunchy matrix of longer, thinner crystals which have been hollowed out and separated from one another. Either way, it is unstable. Instead of picking our way cleanly from rock to rock, we had to clamber along the snow, never sure if there was a rock beneath each foot placement, or air. There was no path broken to guide us, either: And it was cold, too, violently cold.

Where my nose ran, the liquid froze to my face in plump trails. The wind made my eyes water, and the eyelashes on my right eye froze together.

Mountains Of The Mind

I had to separate them by pulling my eyelids apart. After two hours of work we were nearing the summit, but the angle of the ridge was becoming more severe and our progress had become even slower. I could feel the cold chilling me deep inside. My brain, too, felt slower, more slurred, as though the temperature had congealed my thought processes, turned them viscous. We could have turned back, of course. The danger and physical hardship -- all often seeming almost arbitrary the freezing weather front, or fog that rolls in playing a greater role in success or failure than almost any decisions the climber takes -- are part of the fun, the fact that an element of luck is vital to success and, occasionally, survival part of the fascination as the reactions to the death-rolls he keeps presenting also seem to attest to.

Macfarlane captures the physical hardship of mountaineering well, almost gleefully recounting historical and personal frostbite-episodes, and the suffering that many have endured in their battles against mountains. Luck, also, is conveyed both in accounts of personal experiences -- rocks bounding down at him, his life depending on the last bounce of the boulder, or the slip into a glacier crevasse -- and historical examples generally of less fortunate folk.

Macfarlane has travelled fairly widely, and he alternates between personal accounts on mountains large and small most enjoyably in Central Asia, in parts truly unknown and discussions of others' generally historic adventures, from ladies on glacier-excursions to more serious mountain conquests. The book culminates with a chapter on George Mallory's ill-fated attempts at the greatest peak of all, Everest. The mix of grand and small is nicely done, and he covers a lot of ground in this book. Macfarlane presents the material well, though occasionally a bit too frequently for comfort he over-reaches: Oil painting is an appropriate medium to represent the processes of geology, for oil paints have landscapes immanent within them: But overall the book is certainly a success.

He conveys the enthusiast's passion for what is certainly in part an irrational pursuit convincingly, and while it fortunately may not be enough to get all readers to lace up their hiking boots and set out for the nearest base camp, it makes for a fine trip for the imagination in the comfort of one's own home. About Mountains of the Mind The basis for the new documentary film, Mountain: Inspired by Your Browsing History.

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