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
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
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
Why do you think that the
author thought it so important to include all the details that he
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
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
"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).
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
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
The Recovery of Love by Naomi Starkey
June: Oblomov by Ivan