THE HEIGHTS OF ABSURDITY

Landscapes of the Mind: Robert Macfarlane on the parody of Everest that got him hooked on mountaineering

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013 

When I am unable to get to sleepwhich is most nightsI don’t count imaginary sheep, I climb an imaginary mountain. My route starts on a path that leads up shaley moraine, then onto a glacier riven and mazed with glowing blue crevasses. The glacier brings me to a rearing face of ice, several thousand feet high, up which I make my way by cutting steps with my axe, in the old manner of mountaineers. My pace falters as the face steepens until at last, from some point on that impossible wall of ice, I fall to sleep.

This dream-mountain of mine is based on the make-believe summit of W.E. Bowman’s comic classic "The Ascent of Rum Doodle" (1956, reissued by Vintage Classics in 2010). The fictional Rum Doodlestanding 40,000 and a half feet high in the kingdom of Yogistanis a parody-Everest: supposedly the tallest peak in the world, and the last great prize of modern climbing.

In Bowman’s novella, the British despatch an expedition to claim Rum Doodle led by a blunderer called Binder, and featuring a hypochondriac doctor named Ridley Prone and a navigator named Humphrey Jungle (whose chief skill is getting lost). Predictably, the expedition soon finds itself in trouble as it negotiates the tricky cultural politics of Yogistan, the labyrinthine glacier that flows from Rum Doodle, and the formidable North Wall: 5,000ft of sheer ice to be forced if the summit is to be reached.

I first read Bowman’s book when I was 12 or 13, at my grandparents’ house in the Scottish Highlands. My grandfather, a diplomat and a climber, had amassed a library of exploration books that spread over several rooms. Many of them were official expedition narratives: stiff-upper-lippy accounts of camps established, loads carried and heights reachedpurple in prose, ponderous in tone.

It was these that Bowman took as his target, and he skewered them superbly. How best to describe "Rum Doodle"? Like P.G. Wodehouse on ice, perhaps, with something of the mock-epic magnificence of "Three Men in a Boat", and the pseudo-pomposity of Pooter in "Diary of a Nobody". It is a very funny book.

To my childhood imagination, Rum Doodle itself came to stand as a super-summit: an exaggerated version of all the real-world mountains I had read about and already started to climb. It was one of the books that began my fascination with ice and altitude: the glacier’s fathomless fissures, and the slick North Wall above which seracs formed and fell.

What Bowman also taught me early, though, was the deep-down silliness of climbing. The upper world is a realm rich in danger and beauty, but there is no obligation on anyone to enter it. Climbers arein Lionel Terray’s famous phraseconquistadors of the useless, and all mountaineering is shadowed by absurdity.

In my early 20s, I mounted an expedition to the Tian Shan Mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan. The aim was to reconnoitre a 23,000ft pyramidal peak called Khan Tengri (Prince of the Snows) and to make a first ascent of at least one lower peak in the range. But my ambition far outstretched my ability. When I and my three fellow climberseven younger and less experiencedarrived at base camp on the Inylchek glacier, the Russian guides opened a book on how long it would be before death or injury struck us.

We got heatstroke, frostnip and food-poisoning. We got lost on the glacier, and took half a day to travel a mile. Altitude sickness clobbered me so hard that my prone body was used as a card table by my friends. Near Khan Tengri, we pitched our tents in an avalanche bowl, and were only saved by a passing climber who shook us awake in the darkness and shouted at us to move. We couldn’t have come much closer to re-enacting "Rum Doodle".

The night before we left the Inylchek, the Russians invited us to their hut for a farewell drink. They husked cloves of garlic, sliced peppered lard with their hunting knives, and raised their vodka glasses in a toast which translated roughly as: "Cheers! To your stupidity, and to your survival!"

Robert Macfarlane teaches English at Cambridge and chairs this year's Man Booker prize judges. He is the author of "The Old Ways"

Illustration Su Blackwell