In a speech to his constituents on Armistice Day, 1922, Winston Churchill meditated on the mood of the nation, indeed, the mood of the world: “What a disappointment the twentieth century has been. How terrible and melancholy is the long series of disastrous events, which have darkened its first twenty years.’’ One is sometimes tempted to think of the 1920s - the Jazz Age - as one long party, a great efflorescence of music and literature and art, and to lose sight of the actual backdrop, the hideous grotesqueries of World War I, which were still so terribly present.
These horrors - “[n]early 1 million dead in Britain alone, some 2.5 million wounded, 40,000 amputees, 60,000 without sight, 2.4 million on disability a decade after the end, including 65,000 men who never recovered from the mental ravages of shell shock’’ - are devastatingly detailed in Wade Davis’s new book, which is at least as much a social history of Britain during this period as it is a tale of adventure and tragedy on the slopes of the world’s highest mountain.
“Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest’’ recounts the story of three British expeditions, mounted in the years 1921, 1922, and 1924, to reconnoiter and climb Mount Everest. Dressed in their Norfolk tweeds, their puttees, and their felt hats, the climbers appear like characters from some distant age, which of course they are, with attitudes as quaint and curious as their clothing. Davis, who is Canadian, draws our attention to the entrenched snobbery of the British upper classes (from which, of course, all the expeditionary members were drawn), toward colonials in particular, their knee-jerk arrogance, their clubishness, their serene obliviousness to the limitations of their own views.
And yet it is by no means an unsympathetic portrayal. The ascent of Everest, Davis suggests, served as a sort of stand-in for the innocence and idealism that had been lost in the nightmare of the trenches, buried by the mud and gas and piles of decomposing dead. The men in this story had, for the most part, been young in 1914, bright and energetic and full of dreams. By 1918 those who had survived had seen and done things that no one should have to know about, and Davis does a magnificent job of detailing their experiences, setting up the rest of the story - the expeditionary saga - as a logical response, even an inspired rejoinder to the soul-destroying realities of war. In the stunned aftermath of these hostilities, the glittering pinnacle of the Himalayas emerged as “a place and destination of hope and redemption, a symbol of continuity in a world gone mad.’’
Everest, which would not be successfully climbed until 1953 when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit, was essentially an unknown quantity in 1921. And much of the story of these early expeditions involves the gradual revelation of just how big a challenge the mountain would ultimately prove to be. Substantial parts of the book are devoted to the logistical difficulties of just getting there and to the complexly triangulated political relationships among India, Tibet, Nepal, Russia, China, and Great Britain. But running like a thread down the middle of the tale is the celebrated figure of George Mallory, the man who would become most closely identified with Everest, and who, along with the 22-year-old Sandy Irvine, would vanish into the silence of its upper slopes in a final, fatal push for the summit in 1924.
The story of Mallory’s apotheosis - and of the unexpected discovery of his body in 1999 - has been recounted many times. Davis remarks in a fascinating annotated bibliography (really a separate essay on the sources for the book, as well as his own connection to the story) that at one point he wondered “What possibly remained to be said?’’ The challenge, he concluded, “was to go beyond the iconic figure . . . and take the research to new levels of depth and scope.’’ This, he has most certainly accomplished, and it is perhaps the book’s signature achievement that he keeps the narrative zipping along toward its inexorable and tragic conclusion while so thoroughly and persuasively contextualizing key events.
Davis is a fine storyteller, and it is hard to resist the drama of the final moments - the image of Mallory and Irvine heading to their death, two black spots moving slowly up the Northeast Ridge, until the clouds sweep in and they vanish “in a world known only to them.’’ For me the great takeaway is the group portrait. One comes away with a feeling almost of tenderness for these men, of admiration for their stoicism in the face of extreme suffering, and their willingness to risk everything for a transcendent ideal. It is, I think, a reflection of the author’s own view. A deep current of sympathy runs through the book, and it did not surprise me to discover that it is dedicated to Davis’s grandfather and namesake, who served in France during World War I. The quest, finally, is not for the summit of Everest, or even for the story of how it eluded these men, but rather for a complex and compassionate understanding of the world in which they lived and died.Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review and the author of “Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.’’