Mountain: Portraits of High Places (A Review)

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Mountain is a prayer in stone and snow, a reach for the divine.
~ Sandy Hill

Mountain is an astonishing book. Assembled by Sandy Hill, a lifelong mountaineer (and author, socialite and former fashion editor) who survived the 1996 Everest disaster, it is a far-reaching, 350-page compilation of 250 mountain photographs from more than 160 photographers…and for anyone willing to follow the mystical exploration these pages provide, much, much more.

If you’re like me, if you’re wired with a passion for mountain landscapes especially, this book will soar in your hands. It's of extremely high production quality – large format, well bound, hefty – and its design pays the highest respect possible to the mountain photography within.

It was a particular joy to encounter on its pages places I have been and photographed myself – the Picket Range of Washington’s Cascade Mountains, The Bugaboos of British Columbia, Devil’s Tower, the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. But of far greater value is the visual journey this book offers.

It dwells upon mountains in three ways. The book’s opening portion presents pure and singular depictions of mountains. Here and throughout the book is a wonderful balance of photographs from contemporary photographers (Jack Brauer, Javier Camacho Gimeno, and Fred Gibrat), some of nature photography’s luminaries (Galen Rowell and Art Wolfe) and also images of remarkable places taken by ordinary people who, as any of us would be, were simply wondrous at their surrounds.

In this, the book is unique. It embodies the power that mountains hold upon us, and acknowledges, through Hill’s deliberate selections, which traverse between the literal and abstract, how the beauty and severity of mountains can strike us all down as equals.

In its second section, which comes upon you as seamlessly as the progression of time, is depicted man in the mountains. This juncture isn’t marked by anything so formal as a chapter or section heading. It simply happens, just as surely as it did in reality.

Finally, we come to something that seems more like our present, man’s presence in the mountains. More than his figure, now we see his habitation in, and impact upon, mountains. And we also see, through Hill’s absolutely masterful progression of images – a progression that unravels like a melody of light and color and shape – how long man has inhabited mountainous terrain, and how profoundly mountainous terrain has influenced our ways.

The book is nearly wordless; it leaves the telling to the images. Even so, each is explained by a brief caption – so brief that many leave you wanting. It’s also punctuated eight times in its 350 pages by written contributions. One is from Erling Kagge, Norway’s most acclaimed living polar explorer. Jack Tackle, one of the most accomplished mountain climbers in the world, is another.

The most touching of these contributions comes, in my view, from Nando Parrado, survivor of the 1972 crash in the Chilean Andes of a jet carrying a Uruguayan rugby team that was depicted in the movie Alive. If you’ve seen it, watch the documentary Stranded (Parrado played an influential, behind-the scenes part in its filming). Once you have, read his passage in Mountain.

His words begin, “I hated the mountains. I hated them with all my strength, with all my sentiments, and with all my guts.” They conclude, “Now I love the mountains”, and in between are lessons that mountains offer about loyalty and beauty and perfection. These lessons we must learn to be whole. The mountains taught them to Parrado, even after they took from him, in the plane crash, his sister, mother, and two of his best friends.

I love this book for all these reasons and more. Its pages are filled with questions unasked, and the pang of adventure. It’s at once a collection of fine art, and of memories, and of our future, of wonderful photographs and finally, the brilliance and desperate beauty that mountains alone possess.

Resources for Mountains: Portraits of High Places
Mountain by Sandy Hill Facebook Page
Sandy Hill discusses the book (YouTube)