On the morning of June 8 1924 George Mallory and Sandy Irvine set off from their high camp on the slopes of Mount Everest for the final push to the summit. Watched from below, these two dark figures on a great expanse of snow and rock were swallowed by mist and never seen again.
So began one of the great mysteries of mountaineering, which has haunted generations of climbers ever since. Though Mallory’s body was finally discovered in 1999, the question remains: did he and Irvine reach the summit almost 30 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953? This central mystery is buttressed by another: why climb Everest at all? When asked by a journalist, Mallory is famously said to have replied: “Because it’s there.” In Into The Silence, Wade Davis offers a rather more considered answer.
Davis, author of more than a dozen books and currently the National Geographic’s “explorer-in-residence” (a contradiction in terms, surely?), suggests the characters of those men who set out for Everest during the 1920s were forged in the carnage of the first world war. When the armistice was signed, it ushered in not real peace but disillusionment and alienation.
Into the Silence is partly a group biography of the men who made up the three Everest expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924, and partly a social history of what drove them. Of the 23 climbers who would take part, all but six had fought in the war. Some were medics, such as Howard Somervell, who had been a surgeon in the Somme; others were fighters such as General Charles Bruce, leader of the second and third expeditions, who had been cut down by a machine gun at Gallipoli and whose torso was a canvas of bullet wounds.
For the British, beaten in the race to the South Pole in 1912 by the Norwegians, the ascent of Everest became, as Davis puts it, a “grand imperial gesture”. But it was also something of a redemptive act; Everest, or Chomolungma, the “Mother of the World”, was “a sentinel in the sky, a place and destination of hope and redemption, a symbol of continuity in a world gone mad”.
Mallory was ideal for the task. The pre-eminent climber of his generation, he was the model for George Emerson in EM Forster’s A Room with a View. The painter Duncan Grant said of Mallory: “He looks like, is called and apparently is an Arthurian hero.”
“Heading for the summit of Everest in 1921 was as exotic as heading for the surface of the moon,” writes Davis. Getting to the base of Everest itself took them the best part of four months, scaling numerous peaks, crossing high passes, struggling to maintain their supply chain and in the process charting 12,000 sq miles of unexplored territory before even attempting to climb the mountain itself.
What is striking is how allied the years of the “red horror of war” are with the “white warfare” – as Ernest Shackleton put it – that followed only a few years later. The language of assaults, thrusts and final pushes is the same in both – death no longer held any true mystery.
Although the energy flags occasionally, weighed down by the numbing statistics of the first world war or the altitude of cols and arêtes, camps and summits, Davis has produced a magnificent, rigorously researched account of the expeditions that set out to regain glory for an empire in decline but, instead, created some of the most enduring legends of the 20th century.
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis, Bodley Head, RRP£25, 672 pages