Monday, June 1, 2009

The reading binges of childhood

From Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination, Pantheon Books, 2003, pp. 1-9.

I was a twelve-year-old in my grandparents' house in the Scottish Highlands when I first came across one of the great stories of mountaineering: The Fight for Everest, an account of the 1924 British expedition during which George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared near the summit of Everest.

We were staying in the house for the summer. My brother and I were allowed to go anywhere except into the room at the end of the hallway, which was my grandfather's study. We played hide and seek, and I often hid in the big wardrobe in our bedroom. It smelt strongly of camphor, and there was a clutter of shoes on the floor of the wardrobe which made it difficult to stand up in. My grandmother's fur coat hung in it, too, sheathed in thin clear plastic to keep the moths away. It was strange to put a hand out to touch the soft fur and feel the smooth plastic instead.

The best room in the house was the conservatory, which my grandparents called the Sun Room. Its floor was paved with grey flagstones, always cold underfoot, and two of its walls were giant windows. On one of the windows my grandparents had stuck a black card cut-out in the shape of a hawk. It was supposed to scare away small birds but they regularly flew into the windows and killed themselves, thinking that the glass was air.

Even though it was summer, the inside of the house was filled with the cold mineral air of the Highlands, and every surface was always chilly to the touch. When we ate dinner, the chunky silver pieces of cutlery which came out of the dresser were cold in our hands. At night, when we went to bed, the sheets were icy. I 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.

There were books everywhere in the house. My grandfather had not tried to organize them and so very different books found themselves neighbours. On a small shelf in the dining room Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing, The Hobbit and The Fireside. Omnibus of Detective Stories shared space with two leather-bound volumes of J. S. Mill's System of Logic. There were several books about Russia whose titles I did not properly understand, and dozens about exploration and mountaineering.

One night, unable to sleep, I came downstairs for something to read. Against one side of the hallway was a long pile of books lying stacked on their sides. Almost at random, I pulled a big green volume out from halfway down the pile, like a brick from a wall, and carried it to the Sun Room. In the bright moonlight, I sat on one of the wide stone window-ledges and started to read The Fight for Everest.

I already knew some of the details from my grandfather, who had told me the story of the expedition. But the book, with its long descriptions, its twenty-four black-and-white photographs and its fold-out maps bearing unfamiliar place names - the Far East Rongbuk glacier, the Dzongpen of Shekar, the Lhakpa La - was far more potent than his account. As I read, I was carried out of myself and to the Himalaya. The images rushed over me. I could see the gravel plains of Tibet scrolling away to distant white peaks; Everest itself like a dark pyramid; the oxygen bottles the climbers wore on their backs and which made them look like scuba-divers; the massive ice-walls on the North Col which they scaled using ropes and ladders, like medieval warriors besieging a city; and, finally, the black T of sleeping-bags which was laid out on the snow at Camp VI to tell the climbers at the lower camps, who were staring up at the mountain's higher slopes through telescopes, that Mallory and Irvine had disappeared.

One passage of the book excited me more than any other. It was the description by Noel Odell, the expedition's geologist, of his last sighting of Mallory and Irvine:

"There was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere above me, and I saw the whole summit ridge and final peak of Everest unveiled. I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed, and then the first climbed to the top of the step. As I stood intently watching this dramatic appearance, the scene became enveloped in cloud . . . "

Over and over I read that passage, and I wanted nothing more than to be one of those two tiny dots, fighting for survival in the thin air.

* * *

That was it - I was sold on adventure. In one of the reading binges which only the expanses of childhood time permit, I plundered my grandfather's library and by the end of that summer I had read a dozen or so of the most famous real-life exploration stories from the mountains and the poles, including Apsley Cherry-Garrard's tale of Antarctic endurance, The Worst Journey in the World, John Hunt's The Ascent of Everest and Edward Whymper's bloody account of his Scrambles Amongst the Alps.

The childish imagination has more trust in the transparency of a story than the adult imagination: a readier faith that things happened the way they are said to have done. It is more powerful in its capacity for sympathy, too, and as I read those books I lived intensely with and through the explorers. I spent evenings with them in their tents, thawing pemmican hoosh over a seal-blubber stove as the wind skirled outside. I sledge-hauled through thigh-deep polar snow. I bumped over sastrugi, tumbled down gullies, clambered up arêtes and strode along ridges. From the summits of mountains I surveyed the world as though it were a map. Ten times or more I nearly died.

I was fascinated by the hardships these men - for they were almost all men - faced and endured. At the poles there was cold intense enough to freeze brandy solid, to freeze dogs' tongues to their coats if they tried to lick them, and to freeze men's beards to their jackets if they looked down. Woollen clothing stiffened to the rigidity of sheet metal, and had to be beaten with hammers to make it bend. At night the explorers melted their way inch by agonizing inch into their reindeer-hair sleeping-bags, which the cold had hardened into icy scabbards. In the mountains there were the cornices that overhung cliff-edges like horizontal waves, the invisible attacks of altitude, and avalanches and blizzards which could whitewash the world in an instant.

Except for Hillary and Tensing's successful ascent of Everest in 1953, and Ernest Shackleton's salvation of his entire crew in 1916 - Worsley's miraculous navigation, the little James Caird steering its impeccable line across 800 miles of stormy southern ocean, Shackleton remaining imperturbable while above him Europe fractured like pack-ice - almost all of these stories resulted in death or mutilation of some sort. I liked these grisly details. In some of the polar stories barely a page went by without the loss of a crew member or a body part. Occasionally crew member meant body part. Scurvy ravaged the explorers as well, destabilizing the flesh so that it fell from bones like wet biscuit. One man was so badly afflicted that blood seeped from pores all over his body.

There was also something about the setting of these stories, the stages on which they took place, which stirred me profoundly. I was attracted by the bleakness of the places these men got to - the parsimony of the landscapes of mountain and pole, with their austere, Manichean colour scheme of black and white. The human values in the stories were polarized, too. Bravery and cowardice, rest and exertion, danger and safety, right and wrong: the unforgiving nature of the environment sorted everything into these neat binaries. I wanted my life to be this clear in its lines, this simple in its priorities.

I came to love them, these men: the polar explorers with their sledges, their songs and their soft spot for penguins; and the mountaineers with their pipes, their insouciance and their unfeasible stamina. 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 1924 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: unfazed by adversity and unassuming in person. 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 -30C.

Above all, I was drawn to those men who travelled to climb the high peaks of the Greater Ranges. So many of them died. I learned the roll-call by heart: Mallory and Irvine on Everest, Mummery on Nanga Parbat, Donkin and Fox on Koshtan-Tau . . . 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. To be sure these people had their faults. They were beset by the sins of their age: racism, sexism and an unflagging snobbery. 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 195I. 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 1950, travelled to the Nepal Himalaya with the aim of being the first group to summit one of the world's fourteen 8,000-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. 'We were in a savage and desolate cirque of mountains never before seen by man,' wrote Herzog.

'No animal or plant could exist here. 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. They carried on.

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

"There was something unusual in the way I saw Lachenal and everything around us. 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:

"I felt my feet freezing, but paid little attention. 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: Mummery, Mallory and Irvine, Bauer, WeIzenbach, Tilman, Shipton. How many of them were dead - how many had found on these mountains what, to them, was the finest end of all . . . 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.

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: an experience so painful that Herzog begged for death in preference. 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: that the finest end of all was to be had on a mountain-top - from death in valleys preserve me, 0 Lord.