Book Review – Mountains of the Mind: How Desolate and Forbidding Heights Were Transformed into Experiences of Indomitable Spirit

981281Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind: How Desolate and Forbidding Heights Were Transformed into Experiences of Indomitable Spirit is a beautiful celebration of the highest peaks. With lyrical prose, the author covers geology, history, and explorers of mountains, as well as some of his personal experiences on the slopes.

Mountains of the Mind outlines how, for most of human history, mountains represented the fearful and the unknown. Macfarlane tells of the forces that shaped the mountains, then relates that tale to how the mountains have shaped us. One of his themes is how depictions of mountains in art have changed through the times, to the current interpretation of mountains as a sublime transformative experience that strips away pretense and shows who we are.

The subjects covered are varied and interesting. Many, such as Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna ascent and George Mallory’s failed attempt on Everest, are familiar, yet their wonderful renditions here are well worth the read thanks to his insight on what drove men up these slopes. His personal accounts are absolutely lovely, especially one about meeting a snow hare during a whiteout.

Mountains of the Mind is peppered with lovely quotes:

“To know a landscape properly, you must go into it in person. You need to see how in winter a tree gathers warmth to itself, and melts the snow it stands in. You need to hear the rifle-crack of a crow’s call snapping over icy ground. You need to feel the remoteness of a huge grey pre-dawn Alpine sky, with the lights of the nearest town blinking thousands of feet beneath you.”

“This is the human paradox of altitude: that it both exalts the individual mind and erases it. Those who travel to mountain tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.”

For all his phrase-perfect writing, Macfarlane does not romanticize his subject matter:

“And we had talked, as mountaineers always do, about how strange it is to risk yourself for a mountain, but how central to the experience is that risk and the fear it brings with it.”

“One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia.”

As much a guide to human psychology as to the slopes, Mountains of the Mind is a wonderful read by a master author. Highly recommended for lovers of the outdoors and literature.


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