Harvill Secker £16.99

Ararat: In search of the mythical mountain, By Frank Westerman

Climbers of all creeds are captivated by Mt Ararat

Frank Westerman is not the first man to become obsessed with a mountain, but his book is as much about himself as it is about Mount Ararat. While he gives us a comprehensive account of the mountain's mythology and history, and tells the story of his determination to climb it, he also explores a more personal issue: that of his loss of religious faith.

Westerman was brought up in the Netherlands among strict Protestants who believed in the literal truth of the Bible. His grandfather insisted that the earth was 6,000 years old. His mother reacted with horror when the young Frank showed her a school essay that began with the statement that man was descended from the apes. But his own faith dwindled and died: "It seemed to me that my faith had been chipped away at gradually, more or less without me noticing," he recalls. It had, he says elsewhere, "trickled out of my life", and he wanted to know why.

His own attempt to explore the reality and myth of Ararat was to be, he notes, "a sort of pilgrimage, but then again, the pilgrimage of a non-believer". Along the way he recalls childhood experiences, enjoys discussions with geologists, mountain guides and fellow travellers, and recounts the story of the mountain and attempts to conquer it. A particular hero is Friedrich Parrot, who was first to climb to the summit, in 1829. When he came down, unfortunately, he found it difficult to get anyone to believe him.

On the border between Turkey and Armenia, Ararat was for years the front-line between Nato and the Soviet bloc, and is still highly militarised. But it also forms a border between Christianity and Islam, and, in a sense, between belief and scepticism. Westerman explores the many versions of the story of Noah's Ark – which according to Genesis came to rest on Ararat – in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions, and also in older and more remote versions. He is particularly good on the Book of Gilgamesh, providing an admiring account of how the book, with its pagan version of the flood myth, came to be pieced together at the British Museum by George Smith, a self-taught assistant in the Assyriology department. But he also shows that the myth continues to cast a powerful spell, particularly on Christians of an evangelical bent who are still searching the mountain for remnants of the Ark; many of them in the belief that the discovery of the Ark will lead directly to the Day of Judgement. One ark-seeker was James Irwin, a former Apollo astronaut, who claimed – some time after the event – to have sensed God's presence while he was walking on the moon. He made six trips to Ararat without finding anything.

To get on to the mountain at all takes remarkable persistence. Westerman details his struggles with Turkish bureaucracy as he attempts to get the correct documentation for his climb. Apart from anything else, the area is a war zone, with the struggle between Turkey and Kurdish separatists just the latest in a long line of conflicts. "What kept most climbers at bay," he notes, "was not the three- or four-day climb itself, or the need for crampons and an ice axe. A far greater threat was the rattle of machine guns heard in the region from time to time."

Nonetheless, he perseveres, acquiring a large pile of equipment, a handful of altitude-sickness pills, some boots that blister his feet, and masses of advice. He also goes on an odd training exercise: wadlopen is the apparently popular Dutch hobby of mud-walking, which involves wading through the deep sludge around the coastline. A vividly-written chapter reveals it to be both utterly exhausting and potentially life-threatening. It is, Westerman says, sometimes called "horizontal mountain-climbing", and you can see why.

This is an episodic, discursive book, with some episodes less relevant than others. Nonetheless, the book is studded with information, skilfully constructed and fluently written. The translation from the Dutch, by Sam Garrett, is relaxed and colloquial. He has surely broken new ground by providing English translations of Westerman's text messages home: "CAMP 2 4100M" reads one. "NRBY SNW & CLDS. NO TRBL W/ALT SCKNES."

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