BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The mystery behind Mallory's quest
, June 22, 2013
INTO THE SILENCE:
The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest
by Wade Davis
(London: Bodley Head)
Paperback: 672 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
On June 8, 1924, a large crowd of people assembled on the summit of the Great Gable, a famous mountain in the heart of England’s Lake District, to dedicate a monument to members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club who had been killed in action during the Great War.
On the same day, on the other side of the world in the Himalayan ranges, celebrated veteran mountaineer George Mallory and his climbing partner, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, set off from a camp high up on Mount Everest in an ill-fated attempt to conquer its summit.
They were last sighted only a few hundred metres from their goal. Mallory’s body was discovered as recently as 1999, but Irvine’s body has never been found. It is still a matter of intense debate whether the pair succeeded in reaching Everest’s summit before perishing.
Since 1999, there has been a renewed interest in Mallory, generating an array of documentary films and books.
Wade Davis’s new book, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, explores the three British expeditions to Mount Everest of 1921, 1922 and 1924, in each of which Mallory was a participant. Davis himself is a renowned Canadian anthropologist, botanist, author and photographer, and an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.
His study is distinct from other studies of Mallory and the early attempts on Everest in that it examines the key individuals who took part in these expeditions in the light of the great sufferings most of them had experienced or witnessed during the Great War.
Davis maintains that the quest for Mount Everest, which began as a means to compensate the British empire for having been beaten in the race to the North and South Poles, came to be seen as a mission of regeneration and hope for a country that had lost so many men in the war.
All but one of the 26 major British climbers who took part in the three expeditions had seen military service during World War I. The sole exception, Sandy Irvine, had been too young to enlist.
Most of the men had endured the horrors of the trenches. A very few had not. Mallory, being a schoolmaster, was not released for service until well into the war and was posted behind the front line for major portions of his active service.
Davis examines a chain of significant events from 1856, when the Great Trigonometric Survey of British India established the immense height of Mount Everest (then known as Peak XV), up until the three British expeditions to Everest of 1921, 1922 and 1924.
He pays particular attention to the 1903-04 British expedition into Tibet, led by Major Francis Younghusband. It was essentially an armed invasion and condemned by the authorities in London.
Nonetheless, Younghusband entered Lhasa in August 1904, and a few weeks later signed a trade agreement with Tibet, after which a British agent was stationed in the country.
This was a prerequisite step towards future British expeditions being allowed access to Tibet to climb Everest.
In the wake of the Younghusband expedition, British mountaineers became inspired with the goal of reaching the summit of the world’s highest mountain. Tentative plans were made in the ensuing decade; but World War I intervened, and it was not until after the war that expeditions were actually mounted.
The first of these, in 1921, was essentially a reconnaissance one. As with the two subsequent expeditions, it involved a lengthy journey first by sea to India, then by rail to northern India, and finally on foot with pack-animals to the Himalayas.
All three expeditions were ultimately hampered by adverse weather conditions, particularly the arrival of the monsoonal season.
Compared to the facilities modern climbers enjoy today, the climbing gear and clothing that the mountaineers used in the 1920s look distinctly amateurish.
Nevertheless, attempts on Everest became possible by the 1920s thanks to technical advances in the development of oxygen tanks. Sandy Irvine, Mallory’s companion on his final ascent, proved to be adroit in being able to make necessary repairs and adjustments to the tanks.
However, this equipment, essential as it was for combating the lack of oxygen at high altitudes, could not prevent a number of accidents and fatalities from other causes. In the earlier two expeditions, a number of climbers and Sherpas (a nomadic people of the Himalayas, renowned for their mountaineering proficiency) had already lost their lives. This did not deter Mallory, who felt driven to conquer Everest, from making his fatal attempt in 1924. Then aged 37, Mallory realised that this would be his last opportunity.
Ever since his death — and especially since the discovery of his body in 1999 — there has been speculation as to whether Mallory and Irvine reached Everest’s summit and died on their descent.
In recent years, a mountaineer made a re-enactment attempt, from which author Wade Davis concludes that it was highly unlikely that Mallory and Irvine reached the summit.
The ascent of an aspect of the mountain from the Tibetan side would have been beyond the capabilities of Irvine, and dusk would have come before an ascent and descent could have been successfully completed. Furthermore, the oxygen would have run out.
It is noteworthy that when New Zealand’s Sir Edmund Hillary successfully climbed Mount Everest in 1953, he did so via the far easier Nepal side.
Into the Silence is a fascinating, thoroughly researched and well-written study of Mallory and the expeditions to conquer Mount Everest. It is thus fitting that last year Wade Davis’s work was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize, the most prestigious award in the UK for a work of non-fiction.
The extensive digressions into background information set the context well and are fascinating. However, to avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of detail, the reader should be prepared to read the book systematically and not superficially.