My Mountains: Robert Macfarlane

For our series of chats with well known hill folk Fiona Russell talks mountains, chilli peppers, and dream walking companions with acclaimed author Robert Macfarlane, perhaps the biggest name in 'new nature writing', a genre which has helped rekindle a popular interest in the literature of the outdoors and nature.

Robert Macfarlane is a well-known author of a series of award-winning books about mountains, nature and people, including Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, The Old Ways and, most recently, Landmarks. A Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, his essays have appeared in the Guardian, the New Yorker and Granta among other places, and been adapted for film, radio and television.

Summitting a peak in the Graubünden   © Jon Miceler
Summitting a peak in the Graubünden
© Jon Miceler

Robert, who lives in Cambridge with his family, recently wrote the film Mountain, which premiered at the Sydney Opera House in June, directed by Jennifer Peedom and voiced by Willem Dafoe. It arrived in the UK this autumn, and goes on cinema release here from December 15th.

After years of social media abstinence, Robert joined Twitter –@RobGMacfarlane – eight months ago, where every day at 7am he posts a new "word of the day" to do with landscape, nature or place. "Landskein", for example, means "the blue weave of horizon-lines in hill country on a hazy day", and "hiraeth", the resonant Welsh term that means "a painful longing for an unreachable place in time". His word-tweets have become very popular and some have been re-tweeted up to 15,000 times. Robert said: "It's been fabulous to find this new means of bringing together peoples' love for landscape, language and nature."

Robert is especially passionate about children and nature. He is the founding trustee of a young charity called Action For Conservation, which is dedicated to inspiring children aged 11 to 18 to take action on behalf of the natural world.

In October, Penguin published The Lost Words: A Spell Book, written by Robert with art work by Jackie Morris. Robert said: "It's a huge book, literally: A foot-and-a-half high and 128 pages long. We wanted to make a book like no other with a collection of modern-day 'spells' that might conjure back the magic of everyday nature for children of all ages."

What is your first memory of walking in the hills or mountains?

I can see the scene as clearly as if it were last week, though I couldn't tell you how old I am at the time. Five or six, I think. I do know that I'm in the northern foothills of the Cairngorms, not far from Tomintoul where my grandparents live. The sun is hot and I can hear the cry of curlew from the shoulder of moor across the valley.

The heather is in pink flower and there are patches of late yellow gorse, so it must be July or August. I've just found a roe deer antler bleached white by the sun and weathered smooth. It feels like treasure.

It is – and was – a dream of a Scottish day, among modest hills.

Who introduced you to the joys of the great outdoors?

My parents and my grandparents. My grandfather was a mountaineer and brought up in the Swiss Alps, where his father had been invalided to a sanatorium. He climbed and ski toured and he was an early inspiration for me.

My parents have also been passionate, lifelong walkers and mountain-goers. They passed their love of the hills on to me and my childhood was filled with climbing, walking and maps.

I still remember going up Great Gable, in the Lake Dsitrict, in gumboots and a cagoule in deep winter, with icicles hanging off our dog's coat.

Early adventures in the Cairngorms
© John Macfarlane

The Macfarlane family at Coire an Lochain
© John Macfarlane

When did you realise you would be a keen life-long walker?

I know when I realised I wouldn't be a lifelong walker. I was 16 and I'd just done the Lakeland 3000 footers in a knackering 20-hour push. That same summer I'd walked from Fort William to Glen Brittle on Skye, through the Rough Bounds and Knoydart, and lost several pints of blood to the midges.

I formally declared to my parents my resignation from all things mountainous and hilly!

Of course, a year or two later I was back in the hills, trad-climbing in Wasdale, Cumbria, and Gogarth, Anglesey, and laying plans for a mountaineering trip to the Canadian Rockies.

Once the hills are in the blood, there's no getting shot of them. To borrow a lovely Scots word, used by Nan Shepherd in her hill-walking masterpiece The Living Mountain, I've been "thirled" to the hills from a young age.

Coast, hills, moorland or mountain ridges?

Mountain ridges. Why? Because: A hand for the rock, an eye for the view, space falling away to either side and a sense of the land's wide reach.

Are you a fair weather or "any weather" walker?

Winter mountains – harder, harsher and silver – draw me back in ways the summer hills can't. Some of my most extraordinary hill memories are of being in blizzard and in white-out on Scottish mountains, at the edge of safety, feeling as if we were flying in deep white space.

Although like the next person, I do love the feel of sun on my face.

Approach to advance camp on the Knud Rasmussen glacier, East Greenland   © Helen Spenceley
Approach to advance camp on the Knud Rasmussen glacier, East Greenland
© Helen Spenceley

What are your three all-time favourite hill or mountain walks, and why?

Braeriach from Coire Cas in the Cairngorms, up via Sron Na Lairige, then circling back down to tiny, hidden, magical Loch Coire an Lochan. In summer on the Braeriach plateau, you can track the source of the River Dee where it rises at the Wells of Dee, amid granite gravel and ptarmigan. In the winter, it's an alien Arctic environment, deeply wild and strange.

Beinn Eighe by Coire Mhic Fhearchair, the Triple Buttress corrie, approaching by the stalker's path that curls round and up into the corrie, then following the full length of that fabulous mountain's ridge, coming over the notorious Black Carls, back down to the valley.

Tryfan by North Ridge from Llyn Ogwen, then Bristly Ridge and the Glyders, and down by Devil's Kitchen into Cwm Idwal. My teenage years were spent exploring Snowdonia, learning to rock-climb on Tryfan Bach and the glorious scrambling pleasure of the North Ridge.

Is the night-time a good time to go walking?

I love night-walking ­– and wrote a chapter of The Wild Places about a winter night walk from the shoulder of Red Pike above Buttermere, along to Haystacks and back again.

I'd bivvied just below the summit of Red Pike. The night was so clear that I could walk by starlight and moonlight, no head-torch; everything was reflecting silver off the ice.

The mountains seemed footless in the dark valleys and their snowfields glowed. It was otherworldly.

L to R Rosamund Macfarlane, John Macfarlane, Jim Macfarlane, me, Edward Peck (grandfather); Alison Peck (grandmother)  © Robert Macfarlane
L to R Rosamund Macfarlane, John Macfarlane, Jim Macfarlane, me, Edward Peck (grandfather); Alison Peck (grandmother)
© Robert Macfarlane

Have you ever been lucky to escape a difficult situation in the mountains?

Yes, probably too often. There have been plenty of occasions that have felt a little "deathy", as one of my friends calls them. I almost came unstuck on An Stuc near Ben Lawers in winter. And again this winter on a solo trip in the Lofoten mountains, in the Norwegian Arctic, I found myself in a situation involving an avalanche that required care and luck to exit safely.

When faced with danger, how do you react?

Mostly calmly, now. And with rather less stress than I do as a parent to young children, I should confess. I seek to break down a dangerous situation into its circumstances and stages, and take a sustained series of small, correct decisions. That's the idea, anyway, but it's harder to put into practice when the adrenaline is pumping, of course.

Are you happy to go solo?

I spent a fair part of my mountain life alone and I relish aspects of being "solivagant" ("inclined to solitary walking"). The Wild Places was in part a book about solitude and wilderness.

But the past decade or so I've loved walking in company, with people who know their landscapes intricately well. The Old Ways is a book of companions and conversations in a way, walking more than 1000 miles following old paths around the world.

Walking boots or trail shoes?

Walking boots. Unless I'm hill running, in which case it's trail shoes.

How do you navigate?

Map and compass. I always have a phone with me but I consider it a matter of basic self-reliance that I carry. I am capable with map and compass, whatever the conditions. I keep forgetting my pacings, mind…

Robert in Greenland  © Robert MacFarlane
Robert in Greenland
© Robert MacFarlane

What three items are always in your rucksack?

Notebook and pencil; map and compass; lightweight wind-jammer. That's five actually!

What goes in your pack as a guilty secret?!

Not guilty, exactly, but most people seem to consider it somewhat eccentric, so perhaps I should be more ashamed than I am, but I always carry a pack of bird's-eye chillies with me. The ones that are as high on the Scoville (pungency) rating as they can come. When my energy is running low, I eat one and the endorphin rush is instant and strong!

What one piece of walking clothing do you favour above all others?

My Haglofs Shield windshell jacket.

Your favourite walking foods?

Apples, cheese, chocolate, red-hot chilli peppers and Jelly Tots. Mash them together for the perfect pemmican.

If you could only pick one area of Britain to walk in, where would it be?

North-west Scotland, from Skye through to Torridon inclusive, if that's not too greedy.

What is your ultimate walking dream?

I'll give you two answers to this: One possible and one impossible. The possible is a full traverse of The Cuillin Ridge on Skye.

The impossible is the dream of walking for several days in the Cairngorms with the writers Nan Shepherd, WH Murray and Edward Thomas as my companions, swimming and talking and watching and walking and laughing.

Will you be walking until you are 103?

Only in the sense that my ashes will be blowing over a hillside somewhere.

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