Dhaka, Bangladesh
Mountains of the mind

The Times Book Club:

Mountains of the mind

A lifelong fear of heights has never stopped me skiing or flying. But it does keep me away from the top diving boards in swimming pools and from climbing trees, walls and, most of all, from climbing mountains. The dubious thrill of scaling rocks was one I did not even wish to experience vicariously until my Scottish snow-holing brother-in-law recommended Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind in 2003. It stayed unread on my bookshelves for months, rather as the tip of Snowdon peeked over the sill of the window in my parents' Strait-side mill in Anglesey. They were both tempting, both to be attempted one day, but not yet. And then I read Mountains and climbed Snowdon in three-inch heels and the problems of that year melted away like the snow on Snowdon in summer. Few mysteries remain in life, but one is in this book. We never really understand why travelling hundreds or thousands of miles to regions distant from most modern technology to risk your life on terrifying peaks should bring resolution. The only verifiable answer to any spiritual question is death itself, and the mountaineer confronts this daily. "What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die," MacFarlane writes, forcing me to accept that my own acrophobia is nothing more than a fear of death that is also reflected in my religious adherence to a faith that believes it has conquered death. The spirits of Mallory and Irvine haunt this book, their deaths regarded as a waste to none - none except their friends and families, he writes. And to that list, he can add me, even if that makes me a heretic. Macfarlane tells us how mountains were once believed in the West to be the home of supernatural entities. Giant chamois, trolls, imps, dragons, banshees and other sinister beings patrolled the slopes, while divinities dwelt on the summits. One summer I worked as a horseback guide in the Colorado Rockies. One day, as we were trekking through a windy fir-lined path halfway up a mountain, a sudden storm descended out of a clear blue sky. Stumps and rocks smouldered on the path, lightning crackled, my hair stood on end and, feeling a coward, I dismounted. The next day, I was compelled to ride back up, to the very top. The sky was cloudless again but still my heart pounded as I peered round every corner for the dragons of my dreams, my ride a literal cliff-hanger of indescribable beauty. So I suppose I do get it, a bit. But the great gift Macfarlane gave me in this book was neither life nor death, nor an induction into the cult of the mountain. He helped to inspire me to begin an ascent of the most terrible mountain in my own mind, the one that stands in the rocky path that goes from "hack" to "writer". One day, I'm going to conquer that mountain, and write a book like this. Next Friday read the verdict of Roger Boyes An exclusive interview with Robert Macfarlane is inside the free magazine accompanying The Times Book Club Pack. Our first three titles are only £19.95 with free p&p (rrp £26.97). Visit timesbooks.co.uk or call 0845 2712134 quoting KB950

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