Each month, journalist Ellie Tennant scours the shelves of secondhand bookshops in search of a forgotten vintage tome…
The Mountain Top, by Frank S. Smythe, published in 1947 by St. Hugh’s Press.
I’ve spent the last week in the foothills of the Alps, hiking up parched ski slopes in the hot sunshine and swimming in impossibly blue, cool lakes. By the time the Eurostar train was hurtling us back up through France and the dramatic, rocky outcrops outside the windows were morphing into flat, dull, agricultural deserts – I was already missing the craggy peaks and breath-taking vistas of the mountains.
Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to this intriguing little pocket-sized book, which contains selected passages from two volumes by Himalayan mountaineer, Frank Smythe: The Mountain Vision and The Spirit of the Hills.
It’s short – just 45 pages long – with sparse prose and a handful of Smythe’s beautiful mountainscape photographs, but less is more; The essence of Smythe’s spiritual connection to the mountain landscapes and the inspiration he finds on his expeditions are conveyed in just a few, carefully-chosen words:
‘Mountains possess a power of taking a man by the hand whatever his religion or calling, whatever his beliefs, whatever his sins and sorrows, and of leading him upwards to immeasurable happiness…absorb and be absorbed by the beauty of your surroundings. Then you will know beauty. Then you will feel yourself to be a part of beauty.’
from The Mountain Top, by Frank S. Smythe.
With mountains on my mind, I’ve been reading American Naturalist John Muir’s works recently and his words are still echoing in my thoughts. ‘The mountains are calling, and I must go…’ he wrote in a letter to his sister Sarah. To Muir, going to the mountains was ‘going home’ – a place where he could experience the true nature of existence and be revived:
‘Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.’
- from The Mountains of California, by John Muir.
Frank Smythe’s little volume ends on a similar note, with a photograph of a dry stone wall, a gate and a few sheep, the mountains rising up majestically in the background. The scene is a home-coming – a return to the lowlands and to everyday existence.
‘And so from the hills we return refreshed in body, in mind and in spirit, to grapple anew with life’s problems,’ he concludes. His final photograph is flooded with sunlight.
Sadly, Frank Smythe died at the age of 48 in 1949 (just two years after The Mountain Top was published) when he contracted malaria in India. Fellow mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, who had climbed with him during 1930s Everest expeditions, described Smythe’s last days in his autobiography:
‘He said to me, ‘Tenzing, give me my ice axe.’ I thought he was joking, of course, and made some sort of joke in reply. But he kept on demanding his axe, very seriously; he thought we were up in the mountains somewhere; and I realised that things were badly wrong with him. Soon after, he was taken to hospital, and when I visited him there he did not recognise me, but simply lay in his bed with staring eyes, talking about climbs on great mountains.’
- from Tiger of the Snows: The Boy Whose Dream Was Everest, by Tenzig Norgay.
It’s a tragic ending but, having read the following passage in The Mountain Top, perhaps we can find some small comfort in the fact that Smythe died believing he was among the peaks.
‘On a hill it is possible to sense the unity and continuity of life, a rhythm that sends men and worlds on their way. Life and death no longer seem isolated events, but a part of some pattern woven on the looms of eternity. Death on a mountain is not frightening or appalling…when I am on a hill it seems to me that my consciousness, the very essence of spirit, expands to blend with the universe. It is in such moments of spiritual exaltation that we lose all fear.’
- from The Mountain Top, by Frank S. Smythe.
Words by Ellie Tennant
Books to read:
The Mountains of California, by John Muir.
Tiger of the Snows: The Boy Whose Dream Was Everest, by Tenzing Norgay.
The Living Mountain, by Nan Shepherd.
Mountains of the Mind, by Robert Macfarlane.
My Father Frank: Unresting Spirit of Everest, by Tony Smythe.