Vancouver-born and now resident in Washington as the National Geographic Society’s Explorer-in-Residence, Wade Davis, 58, is one of the most celebrated Canadian scientists and authors of his generation. The ethnobotanist, anthropologist and historian has written 15 books, none closer to his heart than his newest, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize. Davis loves the wild places of the world and has always been fascinated by the social and cultural upheavals wrought by the First World War, still a living memory in his childhood. “Both my grandfathers were in the war, and the headmaster of my school had been at the Somme,” he recalls. “When I was in Nepal I heard the stories of the postwar expeditions—the Englishmen reading Shakespeare to each other in the snow—and I knew by their ages that they too must have been in the war.”
The result is a book Davis calls “the best I’ve ever written,” a beautifully evocative exploration of the inchoate motives of a group of British climbers who attempted to scale Mount Everest in the early 1920s. There was patriotism, of course, but also a desire for cleansing redemption. That ascending the world’s tallest peak was of no practical use added immensely to its appeal; privation and the very real possibility of death, to men who had survived the trenches, was scarcely worth mentioning.
The story is framed around the iconic figure of George Mallory, famous for his throwaway explanation of the climb (“Because it’s there”) and famous too for his disappearance—vanishing into the mountain mist on June 8, 1924, not to be seen again until his body was recovered 75 years later. But Into the Silence is really about the unbearable sadness and shock the Great War inflicted on an entire generation.
On the morning of June 6, 1924, at a camp perched at 23,000 feet on an ice ledge high above the East Rongbuk Glacier and just below the lip of Everest’s North Col, expedition leader Lt.-Col. Edward Norton said farewell to two men about to make a final desperate attempt for the summit. At 37, George Leigh Mallory was Britain’s most illustrious climber. Sandy Irvine was a young scholar of 22 from Oxford with little previous mountaineering experience. Time was of the essence. Though the day was clear, in the southern skies great rolling banks of clouds revealed that the monsoon had reached Bengal and would soon sweep over the Himalaya and, as one of the climbers put it, “obliterate everything.” Mallory remained characteristically optimistic. In a letter home, he wrote, “We are going to sail to the top this time and God with us, or stamp to the top with the wind in our teeth.”
Norton was less sanguine. “There is no doubt,” he confided to John Noel, a veteran Himalayan explorer and the expedition’s photographer, “Mallory knows he is leading a forlorn hope.” Perhaps the memory of previous losses weighed on Norton’s mind: seven Sherpas left dead on the mountain in 1922, two more this season, the Scottish physician Alexander Kellas buried at Kampa Dzong during the approach march and reconnaissance of 1921. Not to mention the near misses. Mallory himself, a climber of stunning grace and power, had, on Everest, already come close to death on three occasions.
Norton knew the cruel face of the mountain. From the North Col, the route to the summit follows the North Ridge, which rises dramatically in several thousand feet to fuse with the Northeast Ridge, which, in turn, leads to the peak. Just the day before, he and Howard Somervell had set out from an advanced camp on the North Ridge at 26,800 feet. Staying away from the bitter winds that sweep the Northeast Ridge, they had made an ascending traverse to reach the great couloir that clefts the North Face and falls away from the base of the summit pyramid to the Rongbuk Glacier, 10,000 feet below. Somervell gave out at 28,000 feet. Norton pushed on, shaking with cold, shivering so drastically he thought he had succumbed to malaria. Earlier that morning, climbing on black rock, he had foolishly removed his goggles. By the time he reached the couloir, he was seeing double, and it was all he could do to remain standing. Forced to turn back at 28,126 feet, less than 900 feet below the summit, he was saved by Somervell, who led him across the ice-covered slabs. On the retreat to the North Col, Somervell himself suddenly collapsed, unable to breathe. He pounded his own chest, dislodged the obstruction, and coughed up the entire lining of his throat.
By morning, Norton had lost his sight, temporarily blinded by the sunlight. In excruciating pain, he contemplated Mallory’s plan of attack. Instead of traversing the face to the couloir, Mallory and Irvine would make for the Northeast Ridge, where only two obstacles barred the way to the summit pyramid: a distinctive tower of black rock dubbed the First Step, and, farther along, the Second Step, a 100-foot bluff that would have to be scaled. Though concerned about Irvine’s lack of experience, Norton had done nothing to alter the composition of the team. Mallory was a man possessed. A veteran of all three British expeditions, he knew Everest better than anyone alive.
Two days later, on the morning of June 8, Mallory and Irvine set out from their high camp for the summit. The bright light of dawn gave way to soft shadows as luminous banks of clouds passed over the mountain. Noel Odell, a brilliant climber in support, last saw them alive at 12:50 p.m., faintly from a rocky crag: two small objects moving up the ridge. As the mist rolled in, enveloping their memory in myth, he was the only witness. Mallory and Irvine would not be seen or heard from again. Their disappearance would haunt a nation and give rise to the greatest mystery in the history of mountaineering. Never did Odell doubt that they reached the summit before meeting their end. Nor did he question the sublime purpose that had led them all to cross hundreds of miles on foot, from India and across Tibet, just to reach the base of the mountain. Odell wrote of his two lost friends: “My final glimpse of one, whose personality was of that charming character that endeared him to all and whose natural gifts seemed to indicate such possibilities of both mind and body, was that he was ‘going strong,’ sharing with that other fine character who accompanied him such a vision of sublimity that it has been the lot of few mortals to behold; few while beholding have become merged into such a scene of transcendence.”
Excerpted from Into the Silence: Everest, Mallory and the Great War by Wade Davis, published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada. Copyright © Wade Davis, 2011. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.