Snowdon: Biography of a Mountain by Jim Perrin


‘The thing about Google is it doesn’t really get books.’ The speaker is the formidable custodian of Harvard’s seventeen-million-volume library. The date is February 18th, the occasion BBC4’s broadcast of a ninety-minute film Google and the World Brain. For example, continues the librarian: ‘When the company digitised Whitman’s Leaves of Grass it was classified under ‘gardening.’

The writing of Jim Perrin fits, or spans, the twin genres of travel and mountaineering. Snowdon is both these, but in addition it comes clothed in scholarly regalia. It closes with a detailed, critical bibliography reaching back to George Borrow and Theodore Watts-Dunton. It is rich in idiosyncratic, occasionally battling, footnotes that regularly take over a half-page or more of the main text. Snowdon is part treatise – just how ought these small zones of wildness to be treated – part tour through history, part homage to rock and scree, and their challenge to climbers, and part celebration of Snowdon’s sheer, unquenchable Welshness. To all this a dash of Perrin-esque polemic is added.

Jim Perrin the mountaineer predates Jim Perrin the writer. When he makes the twelve or fifteen mile circumambulatory walk around the lower slopes, he can look upward and make comparison with other mountains. He knows Schiehallion and Croag Patrick, Kailash and Canigou, Shivling and Bhagirath, Mount Olympus and Mont Aiguille. He knows that views to rival the one from Snowdon’s summit are few. The western end of Skye’s Cuillins or Brandon Mountain on the Dingle Peninsula perhaps come close.

Snowdon: Biography of a Mountain review
Snowdon: Biography of a Mountain
by Jim Perrin
240pp, Gomer, £14.99

His seventh and final chapter, entitled ‘Colonizing the Vertical’, is Snowdon as climbing challenge. Perrin guides the lay reader into the world of the mountaineer. To the weekend stroller a slab of cliff is just that; to the climber, it breaks down into the Pinnacle Girdle, Serth, the Shadow, Scorpio, Daurigol.  Perrin’s footnotes give away the odd professional secret. A dusting of light magnesium carbonate offsets the effect of sweating on the fingertips; it also leaves the tiniest of indicators on protusions and handholds. Perrin concedes that in this small, unnerving and competitive world ‘some have seen its use as cheating.’

His chapter roves over the clubs and the cabals, the triumphs and the disputes. Looking back on mountaineering’s golden age he looks at a list of those who have come to Pen-y-Pass. He notes that ‘three earned the Order of Merit, four had the Nobel Prize, five became cabinet ministers, seven were made peers, and one a life peer, fifteen were knighted…’

Snowdon is a not a nature guide, although Perrin knows where to find the saxifrages and the Snowdon Lily, the awl-wort, the saw-wort and the holly fern. He could tell where, but he can sense the ghost of his great mentor Bill Condry wagging an admonitory finger. Like that other partisan for the Welsh landscape, Mike Parker, Perrin starts with the inestimable Ordnance Survey. He looks at a map of Eryri. He puts right the misconceptions of history. Rather than being an area overwhelmed by waves of new arrivals, the latest historical research indicates a cultural continuity dating back to the Neolithic period. Perrin follows the newcomers from warrior Plantagenets to rapturous poets. Hazlitt, Southey, Shelley, De Quincey, Pennant and Lhuyd are all part of the story. In an aside, he laments that Eryri was never beneficiary of Coleridge’s rhapsodic intelligence.

It may be a romantic view but ‘just as Montcalm’s defeat by General Wolf brought no change to the essential Frenchness of Quebec, so too did Snowdon remain enduringly Welsh, enduringly and unchangingly so in all the most important considerations of language, culture and community right down to the present day.’

The authorial personality that pervades Snowdon is informed, distinctive, waspish. He writes of himself: ‘it ill behoves old men like me, whose pasts will scarcely bear the weight of scrutiny, to grow sanctimonious’. On every page the reader feels as if the author is enjoying himself. He may occasionally take on the guise of the pedant. A sentence runs: ‘After geology and geomorphology, which we touched on in the previous chapter with perhaps as much detail as a non-specialist account requires, comes prehistory, the disciplines for the exploration of which include palaeontology, archaeology and perhaps even Jungian psychology’. This is surely writerly playfulness.

Jim Perrin is not a medieval historian. His summary of the period is serviceable but Snowdon in this area alone feels like the sum of its sources, to whom he gives full credit. Elsewhere, the book is written from a position of feisty authority. He recalls being on the summit forty-five years ago on an appalling winter’s day to test the efficacy of a newly formulated, supposedly weather-resistant paint.  He appears as expert witness in a coroner’s court for that most modern of enquiries, that into risk, casualty, fault and blame.

He makes a combative critic. The subject may be George Mallory’s debatable climbing skills. He protests against authority’s culling of the mountain’s goats. A page-long footnote assails, ‘the notoriously incestuous community of medieval Welsh scholars’, another ‘the British mountaineering establishment.’ He reads two highly praised novels of recent years. ‘Very much in the UEA ‘creative writing’ mode’ is the Perrin judgement ‘…have scenes set on the mountain, as well as much mechanistic coupling, both heterosexual and gay. Neither convince in terms of character, setting, knowledge of activity described or period detail.’

Print publishing may be in a condition of convulsion against its digital rival with the latter’s near-nil replication and distribution costs. The Snowdon that Gomer presents is in itself an aesthetic object that – for the moment – Nook, Kobo and Kindle cannot emulate. The book comes without dust jacket. Sion Ilar has fashioned a striking cover in just five colour tones, black and white, a couple of shades of orange and grey. The inside cover is a pale grey, the paper quality has a tactile silky surface to it.

Publishers are capable these days of putting out work of editorial vacancy, cut-price glue and paper, and slapdash proof-reading, that together stain the profession. I made comment this winter on a book of weight from Random House that came with a thirty-five pound cover price. It contained pictures of a fifth-rate reproductive quality and lazy, unsupervised captioning.  A deserving toast then to Gomer and all who inhabit that unadorned building high on its plateau above the Teifi.

Perrin’s acknowledgements are fulsome and include teachers, Ty Newydd and Alberta’s Banff Centre. The contributions by Mairwen Prys Jones and Francesca Rhydderch receive special mention. The chapter ‘The Starting of the Wild Idea’ opens with a quotation from Burke on the sublime. Jim Perrin is his own voice, but he is heir to the many names that this chapter reveals. He quotes verse from the period; last word then to William Wordsworth. From ‘The Prelude’:


‘The universal spectacle throughout
Was shaped for admiration and delight,
Grand in itself alone, but in that breach
Through which the homeless voice of waters rose,
That dark deep thoroughfare, had Nature lodged
The soul, the imagination of the whole.’