Mount Everest echoes a nation's dark history in Wade Davis’s Into the Silence

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      Books about the scaling of Himalayan peaks are inevitably about the frailty of the human frame and the nearness of death. This is doubly true of Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, Wade Davis’s grand new history of three British attempts in the early 1920s to reach Earth’s greatest summit, some 5,000 feet higher than anyone had ever climbed.

      It’s a story that’s been told many times before. George Mallory, the brilliant mountaineer who led the ascents, was mourned by a nation after he vanished into mists high on Everest in 1924 during a last desperate bid for the top. The discovery of his frozen body in 1999, on the mountain’s forbidding north face, resulted in a raft of books and documentaries about him and the 25 other adventurers involved in the perilous 1921, ’22, and ’24 expeditions.

      But Into the Silence, a dozen years in the making and packed with original research, is unique. It’s an epic tale of an entire era: mesmerizing, hyperdetailed, and alive with psychological insight rooted in harrowing accounts of the First World War, the cataclysm that virtually all of these men experienced firsthand, years before setting foot on Everest.

      “I was never interested in whether Mallory got to the top,” Davis, the renowned West Vancouver–born anthropologist, says in an interview at the Georgia Straight offices, referring to the central riddle of the 1924 expedition. “My interest was: who are these people? And I just had this sense that in some of these earlier books…individuals would be introduced as characters and there’d be one comment, you know: ‘He fought at the Somme.’ But at that level, no one really knows what that means, and I wanted people to feel what it means. More importantly, my idea was that for this whole generation, death held no mystery. They’d seen so much of it that death had nothing more to teach them, and that life mattered less than the moments of being alive. This wasn’t to suggest that Mallory was cavalier about death, or that he was in any way prepared to risk his life at the expense of his family to get to the top of the mountain. It was more that this was just this worldview that invariably came out of the trenches.”

      The book fans out from these scenes of mechanized brutality and desolation. As it does so, the biographies of the men become lenses through which whole stretches of century-old British history snap into focus: the class-bound pressures of the English school system, the cruelty of the Raj’s armies, the cunning of its diplomats, the brilliance of its mapmakers (among them Oliver Wheeler, a tough and ingenious surveyor from Western Canada who, as Davis tells the Straight, was “the unsung hero” of the 1921 expedition).

      Into the Silence also creates fascinating images of Tibetan society at the time, in which modern geopolitics jostled with ancient religious practices. Based on Davis’s extensive travels in the region, as well as on translations he commissioned of contemporary Tibetan documents, these vivid passages are meant in part to erase half-baked, often heavily romanticized notions that took hold in Mallory’s day and have flourished ever since.

      “It’s amazing how Everest has provoked so much silly hippie ethnography—like ‘Chomolungma, mother goddess of the world’,” Davis says of an early, loose rendering of the mountain’s Tibetan name. “That’s a total fabrication. No ethnographic justification whatsoever….It’s just so much more complicated and rich than a throwaway line. How many documentaries of Everest have you seen where the damn climbers do the habitual puja with the juniper and put up prayer flags by the tent when they don’t understand what prayer flags really are?”

      The chasm is indeed wide that separates us from the stark landscape and intricately mystical culture of lamas, villagers, and cave-dwelling ascetics that Mallory and his cohort met, and were often baffled by, on their path to the mountain. Yet, as Davis points out, making the imaginative leap to the mindset of the British adventurers was just as difficult.

      “They’re made out of different stuff in so many ways,” he says. “People often say to me, ‘What was it like to try to understand the Tibetans?’ Well, it was just as hard to understand the kind of worldview of these guys in prewar England as it was to understand the monks of prewar Tibet.”

      In several of the expedition members, that mindset included an almost comical sense of superiority, an imperial scorn for most things that failed to be thoroughly English. (Mallory, for one, not only held a dim view of Tibetans but also had what he termed a “complex about Canadians” like Wheeler.)

      Such a trait, Davis says, naturally dampens your admiration, but it was hardly shared by all of the climbers. What they did share, almost to a man, were enormous reserves of energy and personal courage, along with an astounding indifference to comfort. This is hinted at in the black-and-white photographs of the men next to their flimsy tents on the mountainside, many of them decked out in tweed jackets and scarves designed for an afternoon hike. And it’s made plain in descriptions of their previous travels, such as botanist Sandy Wollaston’s journey across Africa on foot, or engineer and mapmaker Henry Moreshead’s four-month jaunt in northeastern India, which he spent hacking his way through dense, humid forests populated by tigers, all on a diet of “rice, dog meat, and beetles”.

      “The men who went on those expeditions are just so irresistibly Homeric and intriguing, flawed as they all were,” Davis remarks. “These are truly great characters. It’s a different mental state. I mean, I’m always really embarrassed when people describe me as an explorer. Compared to lots of people, I’ve been to lots of exotic places and lived in many uncomfortable situations, and lived with all these indigenous people. But, my God, it’s so different. I know enough to know how little I’m like these guys.”

      There’s an impulse toward nostalgia here, for a time before all places on the globe were visible to satellites, and before Everest’s summit became crowded with wealthy thrill-seekers. But the panoramic scope of Into the Silence won’t allow it. “In a way,” as Davis tells the Straight, “Everest echoed everything that happened in British society.” And the loudest of those echoes came from battlefields bloodier than any in history.



      Rogera Annis

      Dec 31, 2011 at 5:19pm

      This is a good story and review of Into The Silence. It is an extraordinary book that weaves together the grisly experiences in the trenches of WW1 of most of the future mountaineers, the politics of the Great Game, the history and culture of Tibet and the detailed unfolding of each of the three expeditions of the 1920s that tried and failed to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The amount of research that has gone into its writing is truly impressive.

      I am surprised that this book has not appeared on any of the year-end book lists I am reading. And I haven't seen many reviews of it in Canada. A good review appeared in the UK Observer (Guardian).