Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest

Publication Year: 2012.

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. Wade Davis. Knopf, 2011. 672 pages. Black & white photos. Hardcover. $32.50.

I begin with a confession. Opening Wade Davis’s Into the Silence for the first time, I found it difficult to believe that there was enough new left to be said about the celebrated English mountaineer George Leigh-Mallory, or about the Everest expeditions of the 1920s, to possibly justify the books nearly 600 pages of narrative. After all, there are at least five worthy biographies of Mallory already in print, including Peter and Leni Gillmans excellent The Wildest Dream, and any number of broader histories of Everest and/or the Himalaya that deal extensively with 1920s expeditions, including Walt Unsworth’s comprehensive Everest. There is also a raft of more recent books inspired by the discovery of Mallory’s body on Everest in 1999, including Conrad Anker and David Roberts gripping first-hand account, The Lost Explorer.

But I was wrong. With the publication of Into the Silence, Davis, a Canadian anthropologist, “explorer-in-residence” at the National Geographic Society, and prize-winning author of a dozen books about outdoor adventure, natural history, and other topics (including zombies!), steps into the front rank of mountaineering historians.

The 1920s British Everest expeditions did not succeed in climbing the mountain but were tremendously influential in shaping the history of Himalayan mountaineering. Their influence went beyond setting the pattern for the large-scale expeditions of the mid-20th century, which went forth with the double burdens of promoting national prestige and reaching for the worlds highest summits. The initial British push on Everest also made Himalayan mountaineering an abiding object of popular fascination in the West, chiefly through the romantic image conjured by the disappearance into the mist on June 8, 1924, of Mallory and climbing partner Sandy Irvine, somewhere in the vicinity of the second step on the mountains northeast ridge.

The events leading up to that dramatic tableau are part of an oft-told story. What’s new and exciting about this book is that Davis begins by establishing links between the Great War of 1914–1918 and the Everest expeditions of 1921, 1922, and 1924. The typical account of Everest in the 1920s has heretofore been based on a few well-explored archives: the British Library, the Royal Geographic Society, the Alpine Club, and Mallory’s correspondence from Everest with his wife, deposited at the Magdalene College library at Cambridge University. Davis mined all of these traditional sources but in addition put in many hours in hitherto ignored or underused archives, including those in Londons Imperial War Museum, from which he reconstructed the military experiences of a score of British mountaineers who made their way up the Rongbuk Glacier to the North Col of Everest after the war. Except for the youngest and oldest, the mountaineers on those expeditions were almost to a man veterans of hard fighting in the ghastly trench warfare on the Western Front that killed nearly a million British and Commonwealth soldiers and wounded over two million others. As Davis writes of Canadian surveyor and mountaineer Edward Oliver Wheeler, a member of the 1921 expedition, “By the time he was twenty-eight he had witnessed the deaths of hundreds, encountered the shattered bodies of thousands. Death’s power lies in fear, which flourishes in the imagination and the unknown. For Wheeler there was nothing more that death could show him, short of his own.” The wartime experience of the Everest pioneers did not necessarily make them reckless climbers obsessed with the summit at all cost (a charge sometimes leveled against their German and Austrian counterparts in the inter-war era), but they certainly did share a war- bred fatalism. The three expeditions to Everest in the 1920s would cost the lives of three British and seven Sherpa climbers, deaths often keenly felt by the survivors, but accepted as necessary sacrifices in a common effort dedicated to a greater cause.

The war changed the climbers—and also shaped the perception of the public at home who eagerly followed their exploits, as conveyed through newspaper articles, expedition books, and the new medium of film. Military officer John Noel was a key figure both in launching the post-war British push on Everest and in popularizing the effort; a pioneering filmmaker, he accompanied and documented the 1922 and 1924 expeditions. Of the resulting films, Climbing Mount Everest (1922) and The Epic of Everest (1924), Davis writes, they “fed into a greater quest, embraced readily by a tired and exhausted people, to show that the life and death of an individual could still have meaning, that the war had not expunged everything heroic and inspired. The image of the noble mountaineer scaling the heights, climbing literally through a zone of death to reach the heavens, high above the sordid reality of the modern world, would emerge first from the imagination and through the lens of John Noel.”

Mallory would come to epitomize the image of the death-defying mountaineer embracing a noble end; hence his inclusion in the subtitle of Davis’s book. But what is striking about this Everest history is Mallory’s absence until Chapter 5 (entitled “Enter Mallory”). Indeed, until the narrative reaches the 1924 expedition, nearly 500 pages in, Mallory is often a subsidiary character in the unfolding drama. That this is the least Mallory-centric history of Everest in the 1920s works to the book’s advantage, for it creates room for such important but often neglected figures as Alexander Kellas (student of high-altitude physiology, champion of the Sherpas) and George Finch (champion of the use of bottled oxygen) to come into their own.

Davis seems at times a little irritated with Mallory’s shortcomings in the practical skills of exploration, even as he acknowledges his stellar abilities as a climber. In 1921 Mallory repeatedly missed a key landscape feature, the mouth of the East Rongbuk Glacier, that would provide the expeditions of the 1920s and beyond a route to the North Col and potentially the summit. It was Canadian Edward Oliver Wheeler, the expedition’s mapmaker and topographer, who correctly read the mountain’s secrets, while Mallory floundered around pursuing dead ends. Wheeler’s journals and personal correspondence, uncovered and used to good effect by Davis, will be as crucial to future accounts of the 1921 expedition as Mallory’s papers have been in the past.

“The challenge from the start,” Davis writes in a detailed bibliographic essay that supplements his narrative, “was to go beyond the iconic figure of George Mallory….” He has succeeded splendidly in meeting that goal.

Maurice Isserman