Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest
This hefty volume appears to have been a ten-year labor of love for this British Columbian author, and it shows. . George Mallory, who died with an inexperienced 22-year old Oxford engineering student trying to climb Everest in 1924, has been the subject of countless books. How close they got to the top remains a mystery, but his height record stood for nearly 30 years until the accomplishment of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Nicholas Wade wrote his own editor in1999, the year the discovery of Mallory’s body unleashed even more articles and books, “What possibly remained to be said about a story that had been covered by so many writers?” The editor “generously replied that he had not offered me a contract because he wanted another book on Mallory but, rather, because he wanted a book by me on Mallory.”
Wade brings some unique strengths to the task. The Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist has made such a mark in writing about various indigenous cultures and remote ecologies of the world, he now serves as “Explorer in Residence” at the National Geographic Society. Thus, he knows what it takes to mount an expedition to remote places and has the background to understand the import and nuances of the important intersection of Western culture with that of the peoples of India and Tibet. Plus, his scientific bent led him to take a systematic approach to plumbing the real question behind this book: how does the terrible experience with World War 1 by 20 out of 26 of the British participants in the three early attempts on Everest help account for the quest to succeed in climbing this mountain at such great cost.
The origins of the push to climb Everest lies with the mountaineering interests of some of the early British visitors to Tibet before the war, a time when England was trying to get its imperial hooks into the country before the Chinese or Russians beat them to it. Wade deftly provides a capsule history of the British Raj in India, its tradition of aggressive military action at the dangerous borders of its “Crown Jewel”, and the sequence of events that led to a massive invasion of Tibet in 1904. With machine guns and artillery against primitive rifles and swords, the toll was over 2,600 Tibetans dead vs. 40 by the British forces (mostly Indian sepoy soldiers). When the spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, fled, they found they had no one to negotiate with, forcing them to retreat, with the outcome of imposition of only a limited trading enterprise. While the vision of the distant peaks of the Himalayas whetted the imagination of British mountaineers of the British Alpine Club and the Royal Geographic Society, the precedent set by the brutal incursion undermined for decades the trust and stable diplomatic relations that would be required for a serious expedition. (The southern route which Hillary used through Nepal was long blocked by an even greater isolationist outlook by that kingdom.)
Wade excels in capturing the slow understanding of Tibetan culture. The holy capital of Lhasa “appeared to the invaders as decrepit, medieval in aspect”:
The Tibetans [a Times journalist] wrote “were a stunted and dirty little people,” their religion nothing but a “disastrous parasitic disease”, while their government was a theocratic regime, oppressive, inefficient, bizarre, tyrannical, and corrupt. Only in subsequent years, when the diplomatic ground shifted, did it serve British interests to cultivate an image of Tibet as a place of innocence and mystic fantasy it has since occupied in the Western imagination.
With this background, it took nearly 10 years to build up plans for a climbing trip to Everest, by which time World War 1 intervened. The flower of British youth was more than decimated by the war, the toll for which comprised about 1 million deaths and 2.5 million wounded in England alone. At the time Mallory had drifted into a position as a married private school teacher after a period in Cambridge where he was a much desired golden youth among the homosexual literati of the Bloomsbury group and the Apollo Club. While his entry into the war was delayed and ended up not so dangerous as an artillery officer, many of the members of the post-war expeditions were survivors of much more extensive and harrowing experiences. For example, Somerville, Mallory’s closest friend on the expeditions, served as a surgeon at the Battle of Somme and was forever haunted by memories of the hopeless triage work among acres of casualties. Another medical officer on Everest, Wakefield served with the Newfoundland Regiment at the Somme which experienced a greater than 90% casualty rate. A student and friend of Mallory’s, Robert Graves, estimated that the chances of surviving the war was one in three (1 in 2 for infantry and 1 in 4 for officers).
Throughout the book, Wade interweaves the theme that somehow the extreme drive to conquer Everest was linked to the war experience of the men involved. Against the background of shattered alienation, summiting the tallest peak represented some kind of pure goal for men whose sense of home and noble purpose behind British imperialism was so tarnished. The flippant comment Mallory made once to a journalist, “because it’s there”, holds no weight. Why keep pushing after deaths and so many near-death experiences on each foray (the worst being the seven Sherpas swept away in an avalanche in 1922)? Wade infers that to some extent surviving the war meant that death no longer had the same hold on these men. A publicist for the sponsoring Royal Geographical Society yielded the following insight for Wade:
Buchan would later would wax eloquent about the purpose of the Everest mission. “The war”, he wrote, “ had called forth the finest qualities of human nature, and with the advent of peace, there seemed the risk of the world slipping back into a dull materialism. To embark on something that had no material value was an essential vindication of the human spirit.” These words, which could be written by someone who knew nothing about the reality of war, nevertheless reveal the sentiments that led a desperate nation to embrace the assault on Everest as a gesture of imperial redemption.
The challenges of just getting to the mountain and finding any kind of plausible route to the summit were overwhelming. The overland trip of more than 300 miles on a plateau at 17,000 feet was a logistical nightmare. Hiring hundreds of porters and yaks was necessary. For the 1921 expedition, it took months of scouting out and mapping the remote terrain to even get close to the mountain. The unheralded role of the Canadian Wheeler is discovering the only effective passage between the peaks and glaciers appears to represent a fresh contribution by Wade’s account. The first foray demonstrated the necessity of provisioning multiple camps at successive elevations and of using oxygen at the higher camps (despite the pervasive contempt of its use as “cheating”). They also learned the hard way that all climbing attempts should be made before June if they were to escape the ferocious blizzards brought by the monsoon. The adoption of support by the Ghurkas from the Indian Army and the Sherpas from Nepal was another essential step for the better success of later expeditions.
The book was a very rewarding experience for me to read. Although coverage of so many players in the treks made for a challenge in keeping track of who was who, I learned to just ride along with the leaky memory problem, as all of British together form a mosaic of the culture of the times. Some were affected by classism and imperial superiority more than others, some were more egotistical and jealous while others were more spiritual and selfless, but all were ultimately heroic and made me feel somehow proud to be a member of the human species. This contrasts with the moral malaise I ended up feeling from Krakauer’s brilliant account of a disastrous climb in 1997 under the management of commercial guides, “Into Thin Air”. For anyone contemplating the time investment of reading Wade’s book, I recommend the preview in the London Daily Mail, Nov. 28, 2012