Mountains of the Mind – a history of a fascination

Home » Our Favourite Van Life and Travel Books » Mountains of the Mind – a history of a fascination

Mountains have fascinated mankind throughout history and Robert MacFarlane’s exhilarating book, Mountains of the Mind, captures the spirit of the brave – and foolhardy – who have attempted to reach earth’s summits.

These gigantic geological phenomena, forged by millions of years of pain-stakingly slow glacial movement, hypnotise us. They draw us closer – like the song of the Sirens – and ever upwards toward vistas we can only hope to dream of.

This review of Mountains of the Mind is written by Hobo Gav and it makes for perfect – and inspiring – holiday reading.

Prepare to be fascinated…

mountains of the mind - book cover

Why do we climb mountains?

Being born and bread in the relative flatlands of Suffolk seems to have instilled within me a yearning for something different; an alternative, more sculptured landscape, carved out randomly by the hands of God.

It wasn’t until a train ride from Settle to Carlisle in my mid teens and then drives across the Pennine Way (the M62, on the way to watch Liverpool FC) that I started to see the attraction of hills and distant mountains.

A teenage crush – that lasted twenty years – became a full-on love affair when I drove over the Spanish Pyrenees aged 40. Never had I been anywhere near 10,000 feet above sea level before.

The drive was a white-knuckle ride, off the beaten track, guided by a satnav that was telling us to take the shortest route; through tunnels, along narrow roads without safety barriers, and then through the clouds until we came out on top…

above the clouds in the Spanish Pyrenees
Above the clouds in the Spanish Pyrenees

And all the time, as well as concentrating on the road, I was trying to marvel at the majesty all around. These towering rocks, looking down on us like gods, held our lives in their hands. One false move and we’d be over the edge.

So it begs the question…why do we want to drive up or climb mountains?

This is what Robert MacFarlane’s book aims to address. And it doesn’t fail to deliver…

The spirit of adventure

It wasn’t until the 1700s that people ventured into the mountains through choice. Up until then, it had been a case of necessity that drove people to traverse the often treacherous stretches from point A to point B. But by the 18th century, something was changing in the human psyche.

The mountains held a romantic allure for poets who weaved their word-magic, spell-binding the reader or listener with visions of other worlds.

Before long, groups of curious – and ill-equipped – travellers could go on guided tours as if it was a day trip to the seaside. Some daring – and perhaps foolhardy – individuals would go it alone, never to be seen again, the Pied Piper leading the unwary adventurer into the mouth of a gaping crevasse.

As Macfarlane points out, “Life, it frequently seems in the mountains, is more intensely lived the closer one gets to extinction: we never feel so alive as when we have nearly died.”

There seems to be a pleasure found within fear – at least for some people.

“What was simultaneously awful and enthralling about the mountains was how serious even the tiniest error of judgment could be. A slip that might turn an ankle in a city street could in the mountains plunge one fatally into a crevasse or over an edge. Not turning back at the right time didn’t mean being late for dinner; it meant being benighted and freezing to death. On the loss of a glove, a day could pivot from beauty to catastrophe.”

But despite the danger, the mountains’ magnetic pull meant that ever increasing numbers of people sought the spirit of adventure. Early explorers, such as Thomas Burnett, said that in the mountains he had ‘discovered somewhere utterly unlike anywhere else’.

In the 21st century, satellite images, planes and drones have all made aerial photography commonplace. But imagine how startling it must have been to reach the summit of a mountain and take in the view, having never seen the like before.

But it’s not just the view that is awe-inspiring up in the mountains…

thunder clouds in the village of Tella, Spanish Pyrenees
Storm clouds gather in the village of Tella in the Spanish Pyrenees

Thunder in the Pyrenees

I recall a magical experience in the Pyrenees. I had the whole day to myself and had driven to a small village called Tella, purportedly a ‘centre of witchcraft’ and it was this that lured me to it.

There was an eerie feel about the place; nobody was about and I saw chickens in backyards. For a moment I felt like Edward Woodward in the film, The Wicker Man, entering a place where I wasn’t welcome.

The atmosphere was still and sultry: a storm was approaching. Despite what had been drummed into me from childhood about avoiding open places in a thunderstorm, I felt impelled to climb. Before long I reached a summit with views all around that were quickly being obscured by the dark, menacing, storm clouds.

Distant rumbles got closer. Flashes of lightning – north, south, east and west – illuminated the dark recesses within the clouds that now felt as if I could stretch out my hand and touch them. I was slowly being enfolded by thunderheads as the raindrops started to fall.

I sought shelter in a stone cabin that resembled a chapel with cross-shaped gaps for windows. Here was a fellow human being who had already escaped the rain; an old Spanish man whose weather-beaten face told me he’d seen these storms many times before. We made futile attempts to communicate in head nods and gestures as the storm raged for the next hour.

Reaching the summit of Everest

Mountains of the Mind artfully leads us up through the foothills to the high peaks, climaxing in the last chapter that had to be about the mother of all mountains, Everest.

The chapter focuses on George Mallory’s three attempts to reach the summit of planet earth from 1921-1924. You can tell by the reading that MacFarlane has poured over Mallory’s correspondence with his wife, tracing the yearning to achieve what he thought was his destiny whilst also reconciling himself to the consequences of his solitary vision; time away from his family.

To him, Everest was ‘the greatest unknown, the deepest mystery.’ It simply had to be attempted.

It was in his darkest moments, separated from his wife by continents and confined to his tent as he sheltered from the unremittingly hostile weather, that he sought solace in the romantic poets, who provided him with a reason to keep going…

I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading, where the wild wind blows in the mountainside

Emily Bronte

Snowdonia, the Scottish Highlands, and the Harz Mountains in Germany

My own pursuits have been far less extreme but I’d like to think that the same spirit of adventure is what has driven (and continues to drive) my forays upwards into the higher places.

In the foothills of Snowdon, sipping tea by the Llanberis Pass, Hobo Trudi and I sat transfixed as we watched two climbers turn into tiny coloured dots – one blue, one orange – before disappearing out of sight.

Up Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons the clouds at the summit parted, like the opening of a play at the theatre, giving us a 20-minute glimpse of the hills below before closing once again.

We’ve been rain-drenched in Glencoe, the gloomy weather still crying the tears of the massacre of Clan MacDonald back in 1692.

And we’ve walked up and across the snow covered Brocken in the Harz Mountains in Germany, almost frozen to the bone in the -16C temperatures.

the frozen trees on the Brocken in the Harz Mountains, Germany
The frozen, wind-sculptured trees on the Brocken in the Harz Mountains, Germany

We’ll never know if Mallory reached the summit of Everest; his body was discovered some 70 years later. But it is George Mallory’s spirit of endeavour that encapsulates – perhaps more than anyone else – man’s fascination with height and all that mountains have come to symbolise.

As MacFarlane so beautifully summarises, “Mountains return us to the priceless capacity for wonder which can so insensibly be leached away by modern existence, and they urge us to apply that wonder to our own everyday lives.”

If you love mountains – whether you’re a serious climber or someone who enjoys a more gentle hike and the amazing vistas along the way – this book has to be on your reading list for your next holiday.

If you like the mountains as much as we do, remember to check out our best road trips that take in some of the most spectacular routes and mountainous drives in the UK.

And for more great holiday reading head over to the other reviews of our favourite van life and travel books.

Extra resources

For more about the Spanish Pyrenees read this excellent travel guide

For the Harz Mountains in Germany we found this excellent website to be our best guide

Information about a train ride through the Yorkshire Dales and into Cumbria can be found at ‘Settle to Carlisle

Back Home