Review of Into the Silence by Wade Davis

Into the Silence, The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis, New York: Vintage Books, 2011, 655 pp.
A few years ago I saw a documentary on the discovery of the remains of George Mallory, a man who with his colleague Sandy Irvine had died attempting to climb Mt. Everest in 1924. The enigma of whether Mallory and Irvine made the summit before succumbing to their deaths makes for one of the greatest debates in mountaineering history.
My interest in Mallory and the early attempts on Mt. Everest was rekindled earlier this year when I acquired and read an original copy of the account of the 1933 expedition; the Attack on Everest.
To start at the beginning of the Everest saga however, I picked up Wade Davis’s Into the Silence. In this I found an excellent book.
Davis, who has the enviable if oxymoronic job title of National Geographic Explorer-in-residence, spent fourteen years researching this book. His research is almost too detailed; as if here were there one hundred years ago with these men who fought in the trenches in The Great War and then set out to conquer the world’s tallest mountain.
The chapters on World War I are excellent in themselves. And Davis does an incredible job detailing the lives and personalities of those who would go on the Everest expeditions of the 1920s. But it was the expeditions to Mt. Everest themselves that first brought me to read this volume.
The 1921 reconnaissance expedition is the most thoroughly covered. This was exploration at its best, reaching into the unknown places of Tibet where no local had ever met a European before, carrying along the way a letter of passport from the Dalai Lama. Everest, as Davis explains, had been known as the highest mountain in the world since the late 19th century. But the 1904 Younghusband expedition of the British military into Tibet (with the pretended goal of preventing a Russian invasion) and its subsequent massacre of Tibetans soured relations between Tibet and the West for years. It was only in the 1920s that the British again were allowed into the country. The 1921 expedition did extensive surveying work in the area around Mt. Everest. Also one member of the expedition focused on collecting botanical specimens. Only late in the season was an attempt on climbing the mountain made. Reaching some point over 23,000 ft elevation Mallory and his colleagues almost broke the existing altitude record before being turned back by cold and high winds on the mountains. Without the knowledge of the effects of high altitude that later climbers would have this attempt on the summit made a number of mistakes, such as camping at too high of an elevation and therefore slowly be weakened by lack of oxygen before making a push up the mountain. They had also tried climbing in the wrong season. So the next expedition would start earlier the next year.
The 1922 expedition focused their goal on summiting Everest and featured a greater number of strong climbers. The team of Mallory, Norton, and Somervell would make it to just shy of 27,000 ft elevation, easily breaking the existing altitude record. They also established the highest camp in mountaineering history to that date. Davis’s account of the harrowing retreat from the highest point reached is enthralling. I almost forgot that I was reading a book, and not actually present as a member of the climbing party itself. Supplemental oxygen was brought on this expedition, but not used by Mallory’s party. George Finch and Geoffrey Bruce did use oxygen and made it to 27,300 ft elevation where Bruce’s oxygen apparatus failed and they turned back. Oxygen proved its worth as the party with it ascended at 900 feet per hour compared to the 330 feet per hour of those without. A final attempt at the mountain was met with disaster as an avalanche killed seven porters and nearly took out the whole climbing party.
Throughout the book Davis keeps the reader informed of developments back in England and around the world. The newspapers, he writes, regularly covered the expeditions in Tibet. Following the 1922 failure, he notes, “the promise of a third expedition, a final gesture of heroic redemption—what more could the newspapers want?” (p. 455) He also details the complexity of the climbs as the weather was unpredictable, the porters often brave but not always dependable, and relationships among the Englishmen often strained.
The 1924 expedition proved to be the final of the three expeditions of the 1920s. Though perhaps better prepared than previous expeditions, weather again was a major challenge; the cold especially putting lives at risk. Norton and Somervell broke the altitude record climbing over 28,000 ft. With Somervell’s body failing and Norton nearly snow-blind they were forced to turn back. The attempt then of Mallory and Irvine that has become hiking lore then commenced. Davis notes that at “27,760 ft they rested and dropped a gas cylinder.” Presumably this is the gas cylinder found by a later expedition and determined to belong to the 1924 attempt. Then, famously, Odell, from 26,000 ft noted in his diary that given a short window of break I the clouds, “At 12:50 saw M & I on ridge nearing final base of pyramid.” And he would soon write “My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot silhouetted on a small crest beneath a rock step in the ridge; the black spot moved. Another black spot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. The first then approached the great rock step and shortly emerged on top; the second did likewise.” He realized that they were far behind schedule. Davis notes, “They were unexpectedly, even dangerously, behind schedule. What might have held them back was anyone’s guess. But if they were indeed beyond the Second Step, as Odell reported, though the hour was late, they would still have had time to reach the summit, assuming they could gain roughly 650 ft in elevation in the remaining hours of daylight.” (p. 544) Only in 1999 would George Mallory’s body be found at 26,760 ft elevation, having apparently died in a fall. Sandy Irvine’s body has not yet been found.