Into the void

Mountains of the Mind

Robert Macfarlane <em>Granta, 291pp, £20</em>

ISBN 1862075611

At the beginning of this book about why some people are obsessed with climbing mountains, Robert Macfarlane remembers a summer he spent at his grandparents' house in the Scottish Highlands. He was 12. Unable to sleep in his "icy" bed, he sneaked downstairs and looked for a book. He could have chosen Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing or The Hobbit, but the one he picked out was The Fight for Everest - a book about the 1924 expedition, in which George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared, last seen as tiny dots disappearing in the clouds. "I wanted nothing more than to be one of those tiny dots," he says.

What would a psychiatrist make of this? Macfarlane says nothing against his grandparents, but he does tell us that "when we ate dinner, the chunky silver pieces of cutlery which came out of the dresser were cold in our hands". At night, he would "wriggle as far down the bed as I could go, and hold the top sheet down over my head to create an airlock. Then I would breathe as deeply as I could until I had warmed up the bed."

At this point, it should be clear what kind of mountaineering writer Robert Macfarlane is. He is not drawn to triumphant tales of Hillary and Tenzing, whose successful climb, the first, took place 50 years ago. No, his is the Everest of Mallory and Irvine, who climbed in herringbone jackets and leather boots. Mallory hung around with the Bloomsbury set. He once went to Everest with a former schoolfriend who brought along a pink umbrella. Another friend, Rupert Brooke, once sent Mallory a postcard on which he wrote: "My soul yearns for the mountains, which I adore from the bottom."

In the 17th century, Macfarlane tells us, people didn't care for mountains; they were referred to as "boils", "warts", "wens", "excrescences", and even "nature's pudenda". By the 19th century, though, scientists were scrambling up mountains in search of knowledge, and before long intellectuals were gripped. Ruskin, for instance, loved the Matterhorn. "Even the gravest philosophers cannot resist it," he wrote. Victorian imperialists loved the symbolism of mountains. Since then, Macfarlane believes, mountains have become increasingly popular - as we get more urbanised, we obsess more about areas of wilderness. "At bottom," he says, "mountains . . . challenge our complacent conviction - so easy to lapse into - that the world has been made for humans by humans."

The thing about mountains, Macfarlane tells us, is that they "stretch out the individual mind and compress it simultaneously"; like some hallucinogenic drug, they make us feel both big and small. He gives us some good heart-stopping moments when mountains made him feel small. There is a great deal of physical uncertainty. He describes a hairy moment in the Alps, when he was stuck on "a more or less vertical wall of slushy snow", with frostbitten fingers that looked "like old cheese". Terrified, he hung on. "A tingling began in my buttocks," he tells us, "and then scampered to my groin and my thighs." He can feel the power of the empty air around him "as though it were inhaling me; pulling me off into its emptiness".

Macfarlane's account of George Mallory's relationship with Everest is fascinating. Mallory had been separated from his wife during the First World War, but when he was offered a chance to climb Everest, in 1921, he jumped at it. It was, Macfarlane says, "a love affair with a mountain". The key question, he says, "is how he could fall in love with a lump of rock and ice, when his own flesh and blood wife loved him so very much". Mallory's answer, that the lump of rock and ice "was there", sounds like an honest answer from an unfaithful husband.

It's a good, thoughtful read; it doesn't make you shudder and squirm as much as Joe Simpson's Touching the Void, the scariest mountaineering book, and it isn't as cynical as Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, an account of the 1996 Everest disaster, in which eight people died during a single day. In the end, this book is about how climbing mountains makes you think, mostly about your own insignificance; sometimes it makes you think so much that you go mad, and fancy yourself a tiny dot, disappearing in the clouds.