UPDATE 11/13/2012: Against stiff literary competition, NG Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis has now been awarded the 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for “Into the Silence”, the book described in the article below. This annual award aims to reward the best of non-fiction and is open to authors in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts. In speaking of Wade’s work, chair of the judges, the Rt Hon David Willetts MP commented, “This fascinating historical narrative of a great adventure manages to shed new light on events and stories we thought we already knew.”
Wade Davis has spent decades traveling to remote locations studying little-known cultures, and sharing his experiences in thrilling books, articles, and films. Over the past ten years he has also been at work researching and writing the story of an adventure from an earlier generation.
From 1921-24, British mountaineer George Mallory lead multiple attempts to scale the world’s highest mountain. Whether he ever made it to the top remains a mystery, as he and his climbing partner Andrew “Sandy” Irvine disappeared near the summit in 1924. His body was found 75 years later. That much of the story most people know.
Wade Davis realized from the start though, that the mountain was only part of the story for the men on these expeditions. Based on their ages and positions in society, he knew that most of them must have fought in World War I. Telling the full arc of their story, from the war to the mountain, is the heart of his new book “Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest.”
Wade was recently here at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C. and spoke with us about the book and the real lives related within its pages.
Death With No Mystery
“After the war there was an incredible impulse to go anywhere but home,” explains Wade. Hemingway and other “Lost Generation” writers embarked on artistic and emotional odysseys in the cafes and clubs of Europe. Mallory and other climbers did things much more concretely.
“It wasn’t they were cavalier or that they courted death, as much as that death had no mystery for them. They’d seen so much of it that death had no hold on them…life mattered less than the moments of being alive,” says Wade.
Anything But Silence
The book also helps to bring to life the full sensory experience of both the war and the climb, bringing out details that are often overlooked. “When people think of WWI,” says Wade, “the two things they forget are how noisy it was and how it stunk.” He refers to the stench of bodies abandoned in the trenches, and of course, the ear-splitting artillery fire. “You’re talking about two million shells fired in a day. The sound hovered in the air like something tangible men say.”
Given that background it could seem like the “silence” in the title refers to what the men were approaching by climbing Everest. But at the summit, silence is one of the last things they would have found. “Obviously if you’re high up on the North Col and the wind’s blowing, it’s hardly silent. In fact, in those expeditions they often compared the wind to machine gun fire,” says Wade. “But when you’re in the spacious silence at the base of the camp there is an extraordinary sense of quietude.” The silence, even at such an extreme distance from the war, was still something that one could catch only in passing.
Birth of the Modern Sherpas
The other major element of the book is that for the first time it tells the story from the side of the Sherpas, the people living in the high mountain region of the eastern Himalaya. While well adapted to life at high altitude, the Sherpas of the 1920s were not the mountain-climbing experts they are known as today. Their beliefs about the physical and spiritual landscape put a premium on humans thriving in more temperate areas. The extreme conditions, remoteness, and danger of mountains kept them for heavenly beings. “ Surprisingly,” says Wade, “[the nearby people of Tibet] saw Everest as a place you’d be a fool to go.” It was Mallory and his team who “taught the Sherpas how to walk on ice and scale icy mountain sides,” he adds, “a practice the Sherpas have maintained even to this day.”
Legacy of the Expedition
People still speculate on whether Mallory made it to the top of Everest. Whether or not he was the first to summit, he was nowhere near the last to try. After Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful climb in 1953, hundreds more have followed. The wave of extreme adventuring that Mallory and his companions set in motion has grown in recent decades, involving more people going to more places, attempting more feats than anyone in the 1920s is likely to have imagined. As Wade and his book make clear though, for all the similarities that may exist in the activities pursued, Mallory and the others of his generation remain in a class of their own, going where none had gone before, and shaped by experiences in the Great War for which there still seems no better response than silence.