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Like nothing on Earth

The mountain Robert Macfarlane most wants to climb is some way off

Robert Macfarlane | January/February 2014

Though 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.

The most compelling aspects of “Red Mars” are not its hard-science details or political dramas, but its evocation of the awesome Martian landscape. For Robinson’s pioneers explore an authentic terra incognita. Their footfalls and tyre-tracks are the first to mark the Martian regolith. They are the first to witness the rich berry colours of each Martian dawn. There is a purity to their discoveries that is now impossible on Earth, where queues of climbers jostle and grump on the upper ridges of Everest, and every square mile of surface has been satellite-mapped.

In an early chapter, a small team push north from their base near the Martian equator, heading for the pole. They wear mesh "walker" suits to prevent expansion bruising in Mars's minimal atmosphere, and breathe from backpack airtanks. For weeks they travel, passing through red deserts cratered by meteor strikes, and then a region webbed with dry-bedded canyons. Around latitude 60°, they enter the Vastitas Borealis, an immense lava plain of bare rock, which cedes ten degrees farther north to a band of dunes 500 miles wide, formed of hard-packed grey and purple dust. They watch sunset over this petrified sand-sea, while low in the sky hang two evening stars—Venus and Earth. At last, they enter the Chasma Borealis, a wind-carved valley whose floor is crunchy with CO2 frost, whose huge ice-walls are terraced by wind erosion and sublimation, and whose long tongue guides them deep into the Martian Arctic.

Robinson narrates this epic journey as a kind of future history, telling it so calmly, and with such particularity, that it is hard to believe it has not in fact taken place. We have never reached Mars, of course, but for centuries we have projected our dreams—political, cosmogonical, aesthetic—onto it. To me, thanks to Robinson, it represents a last true wilderness, an extreme geography of hyperacids and thermokasts, and a realm of mineral marvels. Gazing at Mars through binoculars as it glimmers orange in the dark, I seek a glimpse of the true sublime, unattainable on our own polluted and post-natural planet.

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