The shortlist for this year’s Boardman Tasker Prize was announced this month, and once again five out of six books on the shortlist are about climbing. You can be certain that the winner will be one of the five. [*]
This is not surprising for a prize in memory of two climbing greats, but it’s disappointing for an award whose aim is to ‘promote literature by providing an annual award to authors of literary works, the central theme of which is concerned with the mountain environment’ (a sentence that could perhaps do with some editing for readability).
While the Boardman Tasker Prize was truer to this vision in its early years, with a more eclectic range of winners, there has only been one winner in the last 20 years that wasn’t about climbing (Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, which won in 2007).
This is a shame. Books about climbing represent only a narrow segment of mountain literature. This means the same authors and publishing companies tend to get nominated every year, and many books of a far higher standard miss out.
Some readers look to literary awards for inspiration when deciding which books to read next. Many great books about mountains will therefore get overlooked by potential readers because they’re not considered for the Boardman Tasker Prize.
Authors and publishers of books with a mountain theme will be deterred from nominating books if they know they have little chance of winning (and they may not even realise their books qualify – last year’s winner, the respected American climbing writer David Roberts, was surprised to win because he believed the award mainly honoured British writers).
Some readers find the insouciance, machismo and tribalism that characterises a lot of climbing writing annoying. In my case, I enjoy reading about mountain exploration, but when writers start describing specific climbing moves and techniques, I tend to switch off. A book about an epic ascent of an extreme climbing route can’t really avoid this though.
Alongside this, I sometimes find the ‘fine writing’ style favoured by judges – where the writer tries hard to turn every sentence into a line of poetry – a bit over the top. My preference is for writing in plain language – a style that is every bit as much of an art, but one that is underrated.
These are some of the reasons I don’t get super excited when I look down the list of past winners, and there are only a handful more I’d like to read. So to inspire others like me and demonstrate that there is far more to mountain literature than this, here are ten of my favourite books with a mountain theme that having nothing to do with climbing.
1. Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby
If travel writing were to be rated in terms of diversity of travelling style, Eric Newby is arguably the greatest of all travel writers. From travelling the oceans as a deckhand on an ancient yacht, dragging a boat along the Ganges, cycling around Ireland, trundling around the Mediterranean in a battered old van to – perhaps most memorably – hiking across Afghanistan to attempt an unclimbed peak, he’s done it all.
Many people consider Love and War in the Apennines – which isn’t about any of these things – to be his best book. It’s certainly my favourite.
The book is more autobiography than travelogue. He was taken prisoner off the coast of Sicily during the Second World War and interred in a prisoner-of-war camp. He escaped with the help of Wanda, a Slovenian girl who later became his wife and star of many of his books. He then hid out in the Apennines for a summer, shielded by friendly Italian peasants who resented their German occupiers.
The book documents this period of his life and is full of the humour and warm-heartedness that characterises much of his writing.
2. The Mountains Look on Marrakech by Hamish Brown
Most people associate Hamish Brown with hill walking in Scotland. In the 1970s he became famous for being the first person to complete all the Munros in a single continuous walk, and he later went on to invent the mass-participation two-week trek from coast to coast across Scotland that is now known as the TGO Challenge after the outdoor magazine The Great Outdoors.
But Hamish Brown’s heart also lay across the Mediterranean in Morocco. From 1965 he started exploring the Atlas Mountains, and spent several months of every year there for the next 30 years or so. Many popular trekking routes in Morocco were first explored by Hamish Brown.
The Mountains Look on Marrakech is his Moroccan magnum opus. In the early 2000s he, his friend Charles and two Moroccan guides completed a long traverse of the Middle and High Atlas mountains from east to west over the period of three months.
The book is his love letter to the Atlas Mountains. As well as documenting a long trek, it has a Tolkienesque historical depth. He often passes through valleys, mountaintops and villages that he’s been to before, and he peppers the story with anecdotes from these previous treks.
3. Measure of the Earth by Larrie Ferreiro
In 1735 a group of French scientists set out across the Atlantic on what was to become one of the longest maths field trips in history.
Their destination was the volcanoes of Ecuador, and their objective was to measure the length of a degree of latitude at the Equator in order to end a long-standing debate about the shape of the earth.
By the time they completed their work in January 1743, most of the team had been in Ecuador for nearly seven years. They had lost one man to malaria, another had been murdered during a bullfight in Cuenca, and two Spanish naval captains who accompanied them had nipped to the coast for a few months in the middle of the expedition to fight a quick war with the British. They witnessed large eruptions of Cotopaxi and Sangay, and lived through a major earthquake in Quito.
The team was led by Louis Godin, but its leading scientists were Pierre Bougeur and Charles-Marie de La Condamine. They hiked up many mountainsides to complete astronomical observations and triangulate the land, and explored and documented Ecuador in a way that had never been done before.
Measure of the Earth is the definitive historical account of that expedition, which debunks many myths and fills in many gaps. As well as being thoroughly researched, it is extremely readable, clearly explaining scientific concepts in layman’s terms in the tradition of Dava Sobel’s Longitude.
4. Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart
After a lifetime of sheep shearing in southern England, Chris Stewart decides to emigrate with his wife Ana to the mountains of Andalucia in southern Spain and forge a life for himself as a jobbing farmer. He ends up staying there for the rest of his life, supplementing his income by writing books about the life of an ex-pat Brit in the mountains of Spain. For all I know, he’s still there.
Driving Over Lemons is the first of a trilogy that documents his life in Spain. Full of warmth, humour, humanity, and a memorable cast of characters, it’s a delightful book to read. His accounts of planting, cultivating and farming the land around the valley where he lives, and forging friendships among his neighbours, bring the culture and landscape to life.
I’ve never been to the mountains of Andalucia, but thanks to Chris Stewart, I feel like I know them well.
5. Andes by Michael Jacobs
Erudite art historian Michael Jacobs spends several months backpacking the length of the Andes from Caracas in Venezuela to the wilds of Patagonia. He documents the colonial history, explores Inca ruins, meets politicians and professors of art history, and enthuses in depth about Spanish architecture.
This might sound boring to some of you, but Andes is a travelogue, and Michael Jacobs is an engaging writer who also likes to party. The book is full of dialogue and quirky conversations with local people and other travellers he meets in bars, buses and tourist destinations along the way. He isn’t the ‘aging backpacker’ he describes himself as, and is in reality an intellectual who delves deeply into the history of the land he travels through. But he comes across as someone who would be an interesting travel companion.
In terms of erudition, this book far surpasses 99% of climbing literature, and is far more readable than climbing writers such as Jim Perrin who can claim to be in the 1%. Ironically, on the one occasion that Michael Jacobs strays into mountaineering history, he makes a mess of things. As he travels through Patagonia, he describes the climbing history of Cerro Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, but he seems to think they are the same peak, and conflates the history of both into a single mountain.
6. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
This little 80-page gem about the Cairngorms, was written by Nan Shepherd in the 1940s and kept in a shoebox until it was eventually published in the 1970s, just four years before her death (actually, I’ve no idea where it was kept, but lost treasures usually seem to be kept in shoeboxes or found down the back of a sofa).
The book has since become a classic of nature writing. Nan Shepherd was an English teacher and keen hill walker who spent a lifetime exploring the Cairngorm Mountains around her home.
Each chapter of The Living Mountain explores an aspect of the natural world based on her observations of nature in the Cairngorms. Obvious themes include the plants, animals, landscape and geology, but there are also chapters on water, frost and light which include images such as the ripples of water on a lake, winter ice forming an a rock, and the play of light through the trees.
She was a wonderful observer, and noticed things that most ordinary people wouldn’t. The writing is poetic and after reading this book, a walk in the countryside will never be the same.
7. In Ethiopia with a Mule by Dervla Murphy
Climbers (and that includes climbing writers) are often judged on their fearlessness and capacity to accept risk. Many of the most respected climbers are those who have died young. As far as I know, the Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy couldn’t climb to save her life, but in terms of bravery she was right up there with the best climbers in the world.
She was also a survivor. Brave, inquisitive, forthright and adventurous are all words that have been used to describe her. I prefer to call her a nutter, but I mean that in the nicest possible way. In her book In Ethiopia with a Mule about – that’s right – walking across Ethiopia with a mule, she was robbed three times. On one occasion she looked into the eyes of her attackers and relaxed when she studied that look and realised they weren’t going to murder her after all.
During the course of the book, she walks across 1,000 miles of Ethiopia’s mountainous interior, carrying little more than food supplies, a hidden supply of cash, a sleeping bag, cooking utensils, a few books, and her notebooks for documenting her experience. She doesn’t even carry a tent, preferring to find the hovel of a local each evening and sleep on the floor. It’s a glimpse into a world those of us who prefer a few comforts will never see.
Dervla Murphy’s writing can be opinionated, but at its core is a deep feeling for humanity and a wish for a simpler, better world. I mused on this book in more depth in a previous blog post earlier this year.
8. Clear Waters Rising by Nicholas Crane
Nicholas Crane is probably best known in the UK as an enthusiastic TV presenter who is obsessed with maps. He invented the TV series Coast, about the coast of Britain, which ran for 10 series and carried on without him. But for many years before he appeared on telly, he was an intrepid travel writer who penned several books with a geographical theme.
In the 1990s, he was studying a map of Europe when he realised it would be possible to traverse the entire continent from Cape Finisterre on the east coast of Spain to Istanbul on the shores of the Black Sea, by following mountain ranges.
For most people that would be the end of the story (though in my case I might get a blog post out of it). But not Nicholas Crane. He shouldered his backpack and over the course of 18 months he walked 6,000 miles across the Picos de Europa, Pyrenees, Massif Centrale, Alps, Tatras, Carpathians and Balkan Ranges.
Then he wrote a book about it and Clear Waters Rising is the result, written in the same effervescent, enthusiastic style as his TV series.
9. A Piano in the Pyrenees by Tony Hawks
Tony Hawks started life as a stand-up comic who appeared on several TV and radio panel shows in the 1990s, including I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and Have I Got News For You (actually he started life as a screaming, dribbling baby, but that’s no different to the rest of us). More recently he has made a name for himself as a comic travel writer. Many people have read his ‘fridge book’: Round Ireland with a Fridge about hitch-hiking – that’s right – around Ireland in the company of a small kitchen appliance.
A Piano in the Pyrenees is one of his follow-up books about buying a house in the mountains of southern France and trying to install a swimming pool. I’d read the fridge book a few years ago and discovered this one last year in the course of writing a blog post about humorous mountaineering books.
In that post I lamented the fact that there aren’t many laugh-out-loud-funny books about mountaineering. There are perhaps more laugh-out-loud-funny books about mountains though, and this is one of them.
Tony Hawks is a sociable character who gets stuck into a new life in the mountains of southern France, meeting the locals, learning to speak French and trying to form romantic attachments. His main aim is to own a quiet place where he can practice the piano, but most of his time becomes absorbed in a madcap scheme to build his own swimming pool with the aid of a jobbing builder from London.
10. From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple
If I told you there was such a thing as a rip-roaringly funny book about the history of Christianity in the Middle East you would probably accuse of me of taking a leaf out of the Boris Johnson book of truth.
But there is, and this is it. William Dalrymple is another one of those writers whose erudition make most books about mountaineering seem like the Mr Men. But he’s also one of those rarest of writers who is both scholarly and hilariously funny.
His first and funniest book, In Xanadu, was written in his early twenties when he was straight out of university. I’m too embarrassed to think about what my own writing was like at that age, but William Dalrymple’s writing has stood the test of time.
In Xanadu is one of the funniest travel books I have ever read. From the Holy Mountain goes a step further by covering the boring old history of Christianity in a way that will have you laughing out loud. The holy mountain of the title is Mount Athos in Greece, an important centre of Christian monasticism. From there, he travels across the Middle East, tracing the life of Christians in countries dominated by other religions.
That might not sound like your cup of tea (if it is, then how on earth did you stumble across my blog?) but even so, I encourage you to read this book, where every potential yawn will turn into a smile by the end of the paragraph. From the Holy Mountain is the work of genius that writers like me can’t even aspire to, but we can at least enjoy reading.
And now, over to you…
Yes, folks. If you enjoy reading my blog then you can pay me back by recommending a few books of your own. What are your favourite books about mountains that have nothing whatsoever to do with climbing? If they have some jokes in them, then even better.
I’m pleasantly surprised to eat my words.
In September I wrote a post about how the Boardman Tasker Prize has become an award for climbing books only https://t.co/mvDI9aAxP8
— Mark Horrell (@markhorrell) November 15, 2019