Welcome to the first edition of Armchair Travel for 2019, and a breath of pine-fresh, mountain air for the New Year.
The weather outside might be frightful, though not as bad as conditions in some of the books I’ve recommended, so in this post I’m planning on making myself a massive mug of cocoa, wrapping up an a blanket, and vicariously scaling the heights in ten of my favourite books about mountains…
Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer
Dispatched by Outside magazine to write about increasing commercial expeditions on Everest, journalist and mountaineer Krakauer becomes eyewitness to the 1996 disaster. On summit day, with several teams tackling the mountain, a fierce blizzard left several climbers stranded in the death zone* (above 8000m / 26,000′), with eight ultimately losing their lives.
*The altitude above which atmospheric pressure of oxygen is so low, it is considered insufficient to sustain human life for an extended period.
Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination – Robert Macfarlane
A compelling cultural history of how we discovered our love for the mountains, at one time considered nightmare-inducing, monster-filled voids, and continue to indulge that magnetic fascination, alongside a personal account of Macfarlane’s attraction to climbing and eventual rejection of the pursuit of thrills.
What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die.
The White Spider – Heinrich Harrer
A classic of mountaineering, detailing Harrer’s legendary first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, a notoriously challenging climb nicknamed Mordwand (Murder Wall, punning on nordwand, the north wall). He provides accounts of several tragic expeditions in the history of the mountain to give context to the achievement of his team.
It was a hard decision to pick this book over Seven Years in Tibet, an account of Harrer’s escape from a PoW camp in British India into the Himalayas, where he becomes a mentor to the Dalai Lama. It might make it into another list in future.
Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering – Rebecca A. Brown
The literary tradition of mountaineering may seem to mark out high-altitude peaks as a predominantly male space, particularly from the early colonial period of planting flags and appropriating land. But women have been present from beginning of recreational mountaineering, challenging the historic societal belief that we are too delicate to just go out and do what we want to do. This book gathers lesser known stories of awesome women from the early days of mountaineering, and reveals that their goals, the need for challenge, the longing to explore, are every bit as relevant and inspiring today.
My Side of the Mountain – Jean Craighead George
I think I was around 10 when I read this, and despite not really being as enamoured of reading as I am today, completely devoured it. I still don’t really understand why I don’t live in the hollowed-out heart of a hemlock tree on the side of a mountain, with just a kestrel for company (though my childhood dog was named Kes…). Give this book to any young people in your life, or read it together, to share the freedom of nature and the outdoors, and the excitement of an adventure.
Everything was white, clean, shining, and beautiful. The sky was blue, blue, blue. The hemlock grove was laced with snow, the meadow was smooth and white, and the gorge was sparkling with ice. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I laughed out loud. I guess I laughed because my first snowstorm was over and it had not been so terrible after all.
Jean Craighead George
Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dylatov Pass Incident – Donnie Eichar
This is not a book for everyone, but this is EXACTLY the kind of book I’d recommend my sister, dad, and cousins. But not my mam. If you love true horror stories and the unexplained (and piña coladas), you might be aware of the Dylatov Pass incident and the mysterious disappearance of nine hikers in the Ural Mountains. If not, be prepared for shredded tents, bare footprints in the snow, mysterious radiation, violent injuries, and no explanations for what happened on a winter camping trip on a peak called Dead Mountain.
Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Walk Home – Nando Parrado
You may know this story already. The 1972 Andes air crash was written about in the book Alive, and turned into a film starring Ethan Hawk, but Parrado was one of the survivors, and this is his personal memoir. His courage and perseverance in crossing the mountains to find rescue, and honesty and insight into survival in the aftermath of the crash, make for a moving and inspiring book.
The Ascent of Rum Doodle – W.E. Bowman
Some books can’t really be read in public, unless you’re prepared to be stared at for making great, snorting, guffaws of laughter that bring you to the point of accidentally peeing yourself (such as anything by Gerald Durrell, Tony Hawks, and this). A genuinely hilarious parody of the classic alpinist mountaineering epic, it nails the spirit of the genre so accurately, it was thought that W.E Bowman was the pseudonym of a big time mountaineer rather than someone who never in their life ventured to the Himalayas. Read it in companionship with No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby.
Space Below My Feet – Gwen Moffat
Moffat is a remarkable woman, rejecting traditional gender-roles of post-war society and living a transient life in the wilder parts of the UK with several hitch-hiking expeditions to the Alps. As a climber she broke new ground, tackling some of the toughest challenges in Europe and becoming the first woman to qualify as a mountain guide, paving the way for others to follow. She often climbed barefoot in summer conditions, claiming better connection to the rock. Now in her 90s, she recently contributed to a BBC Radio documentary based on her book, worth checking out if you can find it.
The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd
A little known book that was almost lost to time, this tribute to the Cairngorms is an outstanding piece of nature writing, transformative and heart-soaring. A spare, sparkling reminder that when spending time in the mountains, there are times where gaining the summit is just an insignificant distraction. It teaches us to slow down, look closely, and feel deeply to know our surroundings. I’ve recommended this book to everyone I know. READ IT NOW!
However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them.
A recent biography, Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock, explores more of her mountain exploration and writing. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s firmly on my TBR list.