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The mad challenge of ‘Because it’s there’

01 March 2013

William Whyte enjoys Into the Silence, a tale of tragic heroism, by Wade Davis

On the way up: George Mallory (upper left) and his fellow climbers and sherpas in June 1922, a photo reproduced from the book. Less than an hour after the picture was taken, seven of these men were killed by an avalanche

On the way up: George Mallory (upper left) and his fellow climbers and sherpas in June 1922, a photo reproduced from the book. Less than an hour aft...

THE story of George Mallory's attempt to conquer Everest is an undeniably epic one, combining sheer heroism with genuine tragedy. It is a gift to the writer - and has often attracted authors as a result. But surely never before has it been so brilliantly told.

Wade Davis combines all the qualities necessary to illuminate the subject. Not only is he a stylish storyteller, but his background - as an explorer, ethnographer, and scientist - has perfectly prepared him to interpret a series of Himalayan expeditions that were not just about mountaineering.

This is a book that takes the time to describe the pioneering map- making, film-making, and scientific research that went alongside the derring-do of climbing, and which, it turns out, made the whole adventure possible. The result is a richer, deeper, and more compelling account than has ever been written before.

Like all truly great books, though, Into the Silence appears to have escaped the author's control: it seems almost to have taken on a life of its own. This is evident in its length. Surely he can never have intended it to run to more than 500 pages, with a further 20 close-typed pages of bibliographical material? It is also plain to see in his treatment of the subject itself.

Ostensibly, this is a book about the impact of war on a generation. Davis spends some time painstakingly, and superbly, evoking the trenches of Flanders and the battlefields of France. Everest, he suggests, was an escape from all this; or perhaps an expiation; or perhaps a perpetuation of the spirit of war.

None the less, for me, at least, it was not the relationship between these adventurers and their experiences far away in the First World War which stood out as the most striking theme. Rather, it was the more immediate contrast between these modern, Western, self-consciously progressive men and the traditional society of Tibet which they encountered, and which seemed more compelling. In many ways, this is the real subject of the book.

We get to see numerous examples of the mutual incomprehension of Tibetan lamas and British climbers: the British hatred of the local food and drink - not least, a ubiquitous tea made with yak butter - and the Tibetan indifference to men stupid enough to want to climb an unclimbable mountain. Even personal hygiene becomes an issue, as the travellers are shocked by the unwillingness of the locals to wash.

"If one ever wishes to talk with a Tibetan," one member of the party wrote, "it is advisable to stand on his windward side." He went on: "In this matter of physical cleanliness, the Tibetan priests are even worse offenders than the laity; doubtless because they do not marry."

Perhaps most hauntingly, this clash of perspectives is captured in not one, but two, encounters with lone pilgrims. From a distance, they seem to be stumbling, but stumbling "with the predictability of a metronome": standing, falling, and standing, over and over again.

The first meeting is with a Mongolian, travelling 650 miles, one body-length at a time. "From a standing position, he would look ahead, lift his hands touched in prayer over his shoulders as high as he could reach, and then, bringing them back to his forehead, throat, and chest, he would bend forward to the ground. Touching the earth on all fours, with hands flat and squarely on his knees, he placed his forehead on the ground." He would do this all the way from Lhasa to Kathmandu.

The second meeting, towards the end of the book, is with another Mongolian, who is following the same path and prostrating himself in the same way. "It seemed to me", one member of Mallory's team wrote, "not only a futile waste of time, but a terrible denial of life."

Here, of course, is the burning question at the heart of this story. Given what we know about the Everest expeditions, given the loss of life involved, given the fact that the mountain is now the graveyard for more than 200 climbers, was Mallory's journey any more life- affirming than those of the two pilgrims? Were they wasting their lives - or was he?

It was a question posed at the time. Coming across a hermit living in a desolate cave at 17,000 feet, "surrounded only by cliffs and stones and a frozen torrent", one of Mallory's companions reflected on their apparently very different existences.

"No doubt he regards our attempt to climb Mount Everest in much the same light as we look on his incarceration. Each to the other must seem futile and ridiculous; yet each in his own way earns merit, and each is of no doubt equal value, the gain being purely moral and spiritual and of little, if any, practical use."

Whether we agree with this will tell us much about our attitudes to this book. Still more, it will tell us much about our attitude to life itself.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Tutorial Fellow in Modern History at St John's College, Oxford, and Assistant Curate of Kidlington.

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the conquest of Everest by Wade Davis is published by Vintage/Random House at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-0-09956-383-9.



How far do you agree with Davis's assertions about the effect of the First World War on the climbers and their mission?

Have you read any other books (fiction or non-fiction) about attempts to conquer Everest? If so, how does this one compare? If not, are you likely to seek any out?

Why do you think that the author thought it so important to include all the details that he has chosen?

How would you describe the relationships of the climbers with the Tibetan people?

Can you think of a 21st-century equivalent to the challenge of climbing Everest in the 1920s?

What do you consider to be the greatest achievement of the climbers?

What kept the men going against all the odds in treacherous conditions?

Do you think that Mallory and Irvine made it to the top? Is it surprising that it took nearly 30 more years after the 1924 expedition for anyone (else) to reach the summit?

"Because it's there." Mallory's famous words about Everest are quoted, followed by his statement: "Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man's desire to conquer the universe." Is this why the Everest Committee were so determined to organise a successful climb?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 April, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. It is published by Headline at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-7553-8053-4).

Author notes
Eowyn Ivey was born and brought up in Alaska, and lives there still with her husband and two daughters. They have a semi-traditional lifestyle: hunting meat, fishing for food, growing produce, keeping hens and turkeys, away from mains water. She took a degree in journalism and creative writing at Western Washington University, before undertaking a graduate course on creative non-fiction at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. She spent ten years as a newspaper reporter for the Frontiersman, before moving to work in a bookshop. The Snow Child is her first book.

Book notes
Mabel and Jack lost their only child many years ago. In search of a new start, they move to the wilds of Alaska. On a snowy night, they build a snow girl. By the next morning, it has gone, but it seems that a real child has been in the area that night, too. Not knowing where she has come from, Mabel and Jack befriend the girl, and she changes their lives. Ivey's story is based partly on a Russian folk tale, "Snegurochka".

Books for the next two months:

May:  The Recovery of Love by Naomi Starkey
June:  Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov

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