LIKE NOTHING ON EARTH: Landscapes of the Mind

Robert Macfarlane in More Intelligent Life:

LoM%20-%20MarsThough I am nearing 40, it remains an ambition of mine to climb a previously unclimbed mountain. I have in mind possible peaks in Bhutan, Sichuan and north-western Tibet—all of them elegant in their architecture and severe in their remoteness. But my first choice would be the shield volcano Olympus Mons. Its main slopes present little difficulty to the mountaineer, rising as they do at an average angle of five degrees. Its summit is a caldera, or collapsed crater, whose jagged upper rim requires no ropework to reach. Seen on a plan-view map, indeed, it appears to offer little obstacle to an easy ascent. Except that Olympus Mons is on Mars.

I first heard of the mountain in a Pixies song: “Sun shines in the rusty morning/Skyline of the Olympus Mons/I think about it sometimes”, yowled Black Francis, setting my teenage self dreaming. Research revealed its astonishing statistics: the second-highest peak in the solar system, three times the altitude of Everest, one hundred times the mass of Mauna Loa (the largest volcano on Earth), the size of Arizona in area, encircled by an escarpment up to eight kilometres high, and its peripheries engulfed by dust storms that can last for decades. The ludicrous notion of climbing Olympus Mons only occurred to me when I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s remarkable work of areology, “Red Mars” (1992). The first of a trilogy of novels, it begins in the year 2027, when a hundred-strong team of humans make landfall on Mars. Their task is to terraform the red planet from a frozen and irradiated wasteland into a habitable environment, ready to receive future waves of colonists from Earth.

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