Just when you think that everything that could be said about Mallory and Everest along comes Wade Davis who has produced a truly extraordinary book. Into the Silence won the Samuel Johnson prize for Non Fiction in 2012 and it certainly deserved to do so!
Davis has not simply written a book about Everest expeditions, he has asked the question why did people behave as they did? The expeditions came about in the wake of a truly dreadful World War. How did the war experience effect the expeditions and can they help explain the attitudes these mountaineers had to risk?
Into the Silence begins by juxtaposing two events. Firstly, we have Mallory and Irvine setting off on the morning of they fateful climb, the expedition planners looking on with perhaps a sense of inevitability; time was running out in the race to get up to the summit before the Monsoon arrived. At more or less the same time, group was gathered at the top of Great Gable in the Lake District to remember the climbers and members of the Alpine Club who had died dying the great war.
British mountaineering had been decimated during the war and had lost many talented climbers. Those — like Mallory — who survived had witnessed extraordinary suffering and carnage. And, as we now now, many of the strategic planners and commanders never really appreciated the realities of the scale of loss that their tactics led to. During the early stages of the book Davis takes us through — in some detail — the war experience of those who were to become the key actors on Everest through the three expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924. This first section is a pretty comprehensive and still shocking description of that war. We also see how the key strategists saw the war, with commanders like General Haig adopting a policy of not visiting the front because it effected his health _ it as Haig who famously asked whether it could really be true that so many men had been lost during the war.
It is clear that this British approach to the war, and the split of experiences, was replicated in the expedition planning. In simple terms (mine) those planing the expedition int he Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society had little experience of the horrors of war and of danger. Theirs was a world of honour and endeavour based almost on chivalry.
Davis takes his time to set the scene properly; then he moves on the expeditions themselves.
In 1921 a survey mission left for the Himalaya under the command of Charles Howard Bury but although only a reconnaissance mission Mallory (first amongst then natural climbers) always hoped for a crack at the top. Mallory himself was a comfortably off if not wealthy school teacher, unhappy with his job and work. Even though Mallory’s experiences of the War were horrific we can see some of Britain’s history reflected rather unhelpfully in his views. Arguably, one of the heroes of this expedition was the Canadian climber and surveyor Oliver Wheeler. Wheeler was not only strong climber but someone skilled in the new Canadian skill of map mapping from photographs, which involved the carrying of less equipment. During the 1921 expedition Wheeler and his small team of Sherpas spent longer at high altitude than other members of the expedition. It was Wheeler who observed the rout that would be the key to finding a route to the top of the mountain. Mallory was dismissive of Wheeler’s work even failing to acknowledge its significance in official reports. As he wrote to his wife Ruth, he simply didn’t rate Canadians!
The expedition in 1922 aimed to get to the summit. Those such as Mallory who signed on again effectively had less than half a year with family and friends before going out again. Wheeler was not to go on this mission although the nature of his survey work ventrally found him to be head of the Indian Survey.
This time the expedition was led by Charles Bruce who in a sense had to learn about Tibet and the Himalaya from scratch. Davis gives an enthralling account of the expedition’s search for the missing route to the top. In 1921 the ageing mountaineer Alexander Kellas (who was a veteran of climbing who may have been there at all if younger men had lived) first raised the notion of using oxygen to support climbs although sadly Kellas dies on the 1921 expedition. In 1922 the Oxygen theme was taken up by George Finch, one of the outstanding Alpinists of his day. Like Wheeler Finch was never really accepted by the establishment indeed he had been blocked from taking part in 1921 inn the grounds of a rather dubious medical — it was clear he was not really wanted. Finch’s achievements in the Alps in 1921 made it more or less certain that he would be part of the expedition in 22. However, this scepticism of him and his character is evident and like Wheeler before him his talents were not properly appreciated — Mallory was initially dismissive of both Oxygen and Finch himself, although he did become very appreciative of Finch’s talents on the mountain.
Davis also gives a fascinating account of the business foundation of the expeditions. The expeditions had to generate cash not only to finance the next outing but to some extent to finance the lives of climbers such as Mallory who were not independently wealthy men. The ’21 expedition had made a fair surplus but the ’22 expedition had been nowhere near as lucrative. Mallory, for example, was despatched on a lecture tour of the USA and Canada that failed to break even. It was hoped that there would be an expedition in ’23 but in reality it was impossible.
Mallory himself nearly missed the fateful expedition of ’24. He was feeling the strain of being away from his young family so much. He found a job with the Workers Education Association which was more to his liking to teaching at public schools. Mallory prevaricated as to wether he would actually sign up for 1924 and there is some evidence that he hoped his boss would not give him permission to go. However, establishment intervention saw the WEA giving Mallory 6 months leave at half pay. there was no chance that he would not go.
In 1924 Bruce again headed the expedition although he his health was so ropey that his position was quickly taken by Edward Norton. The whole focus opt this expedition was a rush to the mountain and yet there were still few young and skilled mountaineers on the team. Irvine was young an inexperienced yet he made his way up the rankings on the basis of his strength and ingenuity — it was Irvine who took on the mantle of maintaining and operating the Oxygen.
Davis gives fascinating, full and frank accounts of each expedition. This is a book that despite its size gets read through pretty quickly. Once the book moves into expedition territory the excitement of the expeditions really grabs you. Yet all the time the reader is conscious of the World War background to not only the expeditions but to the individual characters involved.
An epilogue sketches over the next set of expeditions which could only follow after the end of the second World War. The first man to the top was, of course, a New Zealander, Edward Hillary, something that would have been un-imaginable in the 1920s. Davis also follows the search to discover whether Mallory and Irvine actually reached the top of the mountain.
This is a magnificent book a far greater achievement than most books that look at mountain expeditions. For Davis the War experiences shaped the expeditions and the characters of those who were members of them. Talking of Mallory, Davis reflects at the end of his book:
He would have walked on, even to his end, because for him, as for all his generation, death was but a :”frail barrier” that men crossed, “smiling and gallant every day.” They had seen so much of death that life mattered less than the moments of being alive.
Top class writing. Recommended. Go buy it!