Many of my friends are smitten by mountains.
There was a moment, 180 million years ago (or thereabouts), when Mount Everest – known to Tibetans as Chomolungma (Mother Goddess of the World) and to Nepalis as Sagarmatha (Skyhead) – was, astonishingly, at the very bottom of the Tethys Sea, an ocean located between the ancient continents of Gondwana and Laurasia.
Over millions of years, the landmass we now call India was formed by layers of marine sediment – sand, coral debris, and the corpses of minute aquatic creatures. When that landmass departed northward at a rate of six inches a year, it was set on a collision course with the Tibetan Plate. When they eventually met, in the twinkling of a geological eye, the leading edge of India rode up over the Tibetan Plate and the enormous bulk of sediment became subjected to enormous heat and pressure, petrifying it. Billions of tons of rock were forced upwards.
As Robert Macfarlane recounts in his wonderful book Mountains of the Mind (2003):
“In this way the Himalaya were created. India hurtled into Tibet, and the marine sedimentary material packed between the landmasses was coerced upwards to form the four curvilinear ridges of the Himalaya, the high point of which was Mount Everest… So what is now the highest point on the earth’s surface was composed in one of the earth’s deepest places. In the yellow rock-band which stripes Everest just below its summit, there are the fossilized bodies of creatures which lived in the Tethys Sea hundreds of millions of years ago. The rock up which the so many people aspire to climb has itself climbed tens of thousands of metres vertically upwards, from the darkness of the Tethys trench to the sunlight of Himalayan skies.”
Mountains of the Mind is described as “A History of a Fascination”. Interesting, imaginative, intuitive, it is clearly the work of a genius (who followed it, incidentally, with The Wild Places and The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot). Joining up the dots big time, it explores an obsession that has led to the deaths of hundreds of people, and which still has the allure of vanquishing gods who “kill us for their sport”.
Macfarlane laments the disappearance of the world’s untrammelled wild places, while confessing that he would cross an expanse of newly fallen snow solely in order to look back and know that he had been the first to traverse it.
Wildernesses, of which mountains are a part, challenge the belief that the world was created for human beings and are, in fact, evidence of the indifference of the cosmos to our existence. Mountains embody unimaginable forces and are clamorous witnesses to inconceivable spans of time. They confirm human fragility and by rights ought to instil great humility. Yet, most of the time, they make us foolhardy.
As Macfarlane notes in his book, “Those who travel to mountain-tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.” Words that might be the epitaph of the 290 people known to have braved its heights, but who never made it down.