If you offered to transport me anywhere on earth for a day, I’d choose a meadow in India beneath the mountain of my dreams. Picture it: a long crescent ridge curls uphill, then sharpens into a pinnacle of ice over 25,000 feet high, the jet-stream whipping a ribbon of cloud from its summit. On every side, a citadel of lower peaks rises up in two concentric rings. And lurking within, at the foot of the holy mountain known as Nanda Devi, lies an inviolable Shangri-la of golden grassland, silent but for the rumble of avalanches and the plaintive bleats of bharal sheep.
Remote, awe-inspiring, transcendent — the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, a glacial basin in India’s Garhwal Himalayas, embodies everything that I love about mountain-country. It is a region I’ve been fortunate to glimpse from afar, and nowadays I see a panorama of it daily, hung in a frame on a wall at home. Chances are I’ll never reach it — an all but impassable box canyon, the Rishi Gorge, offers the only route in. But perhaps it is enough just to know that it’s there — places like this can make the weariest cynic admit some faith in the divine.
My interest in mountains, whether climbing them or merely being in their vicinity, began with stories of heroic mountaineers — there wasn’t much altitude in my home boroughs of London. But my baptism came on a gleeful school-trip to north Wales, spent bouldering among the granite crannies of Snowdonia. By the time a post-university trip took me south to north up the spine of the Andes, bookish curiosity had graduated into full-flung passion.
In the years that followed, as I began to travel in earnest, it was an obsession marked by euphoric highs and crushing lows. I’ve seen crystalline dawns break over the Peruvian cordilleras, spent nights beneath yak-hides in a yurt among the Ala-too steppelands of Central Asia, sat mesmerized by the raging dance of a volcano’s lava lake in DRC. I’ve also contracted snow-blindness in Iran and almost fallen into a crevasse in Bolivia. I once skidded 300-feet down a couloir on my ass in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, my progress halted only by the sudden, cartoonish interjection of a snow-drift. An urge to ascend is not without its pitfalls.
Yet ask me to distil what it is about mountains that so possesses people and I falter. The legendary climber George Mallory, speaking to a New York Times journalist shortly before his ill-starred attempt on Everest in 1924, uttered perhaps the most celebrated explanation for the pull of high places: “Because it’s there.” That this glib refrain should have become so famous an explanation for summit-fever — the default riposte to the lowlander’s question of “why?” — tells you all you need to know about the visceral, ambiguous allure of mountains. Some of us just can’t help seeing a peak without wondering what might be visible from its summit, and we’re not sure why.
This much is certain: the fever that gripped Mallory is an urge more cultural than instinctive. For millennia, our relationship with mountains was defined by fear — perilous obstacles, best-avoided, their plummeting temperatures and nefarious weather deterred human incursion. Only in the eighteenth century, as early holidaymakers realized that you cannot enjoy a view without having a vantage, did trepidation evolve into active adventuring. Those fearsome characteristics — the exposure, the extremity, the potentially fatal consequences of a misplaced foot — have now become reasons to go.
For me, however, the emotional draw of mountains has always taken precedence over the pursuit of adrenaline. There is something about ascending that embodies escape, as if the sight of the lowlands receding — houses reduced to child’s bricks, humans to ants — provides sweet refuge for the urban soul. People talk of changing perspectives, of perceptions heightening in the face of natural permanence and grandeur. The world’s great mountains resist the civilizing tendencies of humanity — they are too tall, too steep, too wild and too cold. Never more so than now, amidst the fevered politics and broken societies of 2020, there is some solace to be found in a landscape that cannot be tamed. Not for nothing are mountains, from Kinibalu to Kailash, objects of veneration.
As barriers to onward progress, mountains have always forced travellers to slow down, and intermingle with the communities that cling to them. Few landscapes are as likely to avail you of a stranger’s kindness. Once, in the Ethiopian Highlands, a family welcomed me into their mud-walled hut as a ferocious storm broke over the plateau. They turned out their meagre larder, the mother roasting coffee, the father breaking bread, as the children glared at me — an alien in their midst.
It’s for moments like this, as much as for the varied topography, that a love affair with high places is a quest without end. It would take many lifetimes to properly explore world’s great ranges, many more to the tread the more esoteric trails hidden among cliffs and clouds. Did you know that the table-lands of Venezuela were the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Lost World’? Or that no single point of little Lesotho sits below 4,500 feet? My own list grows.
And even when I’m tied to lower ground — when I’m stuck, as now, behind a computer screen on a brittle winter’s day in England — I can still retreat to the mountains of my mind. To that place in India, under a cerulean sky. Because for me, as for many, a travelling life will always defer to John Muir’s simple invocation: “The mountains are calling and I must go.”