What We’re Reading: Into the Silence
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest
Wade Davis, Vintage Books
When the English mountaineer George Mallory was asked in 1923 after his attempt to summit the unconquered Mt. Everest why he wished to climb it, he famously answered:
“Because it is there.”
Mallory’s words have echoed for 100 years, being repeated by everyone from amateur climbers trying to articulate their own desires to summit the world’s tallest mountain to a president inspiring a nation to bold action.
“Into the Silence” is a blow-by-blow account of the three British expeditions in the 1920s to reach Everest’s summit. Through gripping detail, author Wade Davis documents the British missions to climb Everest, which combined intrepid exploration, world-class mountaineering and international diplomacy. Of course, there’s a Catholic connection: the first Europeans to arrive in Tibet and adventure into the Himalaya were Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century, essentially laying the groundwork for the British expeditions that would follow.
“Into the Silence” is a masterpiece of history, adventure and biography. It tells the harrowing story of Mallory and the British climbers, along with their Tibetan and Nepalese colleagues who were critical to survival and success on the mountain. Woven throughout the book are glimpses of Tibetan culture and Buddhism. There’s also an in-depth look at the savvy public relations campaign that built support among the British public and created private funding for the expeditions.
Davis sourced his work from 600 book volumes, trips across the U.K., Canada and Tibet, interviews with the climbers’ relatives and a trove of personal journals, reports and maps.
“Into the Silence” is filled with vivid details – from the climbers’ rations (pea soup) and the clothes they wore (tweed jackets) to the contents of their letters home to friends and wives. The book also gives a fascinating overview of the British exploration machine at work while trekking across Tibet: every plant and animal species was cataloged, crevasse photographed and recorded, cultural custom observed and documented.
The context for the quest to conquer Everest is World War 1. Davis opens “Into the Silence” with a look at the horrors on the front lines, from the trenches to the triage tents. In the war’s aftermath, the effort to be the first to reach the top of the world became an Imperial campaign. Each escapade on the mountain dominated front page headlines in the British press, grabbing the attention of a lost generation who survived the war’s carnage and were searching for hope, redemption and a new hero.
In the war’s aftermath, the effort to be the first to reach the top of the world became an Imperial campaign.
It came in the form of Mallory, a public school teacher who had spent his youth climbing in the Alps, socialized with the Bloomsbury Group, fought in the Great War and made summiting the world’s highest mountain an obsession. More than anything, “Into the Silence” is an intimate portrait of Mallory, who leveraged skill, ambition and tenacity to carry the dreams of an empire on one of the 20th century’s great adventures.
Indeed, the expeditions to Everest were marked by great risk, heroism and tragedy. Mallory died along with climbing partner Andrew “Sandy” Irvine in June 1924 on the mountain’s north face, nearly 27,000 feet high. Whether they reached the summit and died while attempting to descend or suffered a fatal fall as they made their final assent remains a subject of intrigue, speculation and debate. After his death, Mallory became a national hero. Today he is considered among the finest mountain climbers to ever live.
There’s a revealing line near the end of “Into the Silence,” where Davis describes how Mallory’s widow, Ruth, raised the couple’s three children after their father’s death: they were brought up to think of him not as a fallen icon or mythical legend who died in the name of national glory, but rather as a man who embodied the best of the human spirit: free, undaunted and open to all the possibilities of life.
“Into the Silence” is a stirring testament to that spirit and how, when confronted with towering challenges and impossible odds, it can lift us to climb the highest peaks of endeavor.