Book review: 'Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest' by Wade Davis

On June 6, 1924, two men set out from a camp set at 23,000 feet on Mt. Everest. They were George Mallory, who, at 37, was already one of the world's most accomplished climbers, and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine, a 22-year-old Oxford graduate with little climbing experience. They walked out of the camp, vanished into the mists that surrounded the peak, and were never seen again until Mallory's frozen body was found in 1999.

In his magnificent, if perhaps overlong, new book, "Into the Silence," Wade Davis tells the full story behind this almost mythic story, imbuing it with historic scope and epic sweep, perceiving the quest to conquer Everest as an emblem of Britain's damaged nobility and infatuation with heroic failure. The background here, the foul compost from which the grail-like purity of the Everest endeavor grew, was World War I, the "Great War," which signaled curtains for the great, lumbering European empires and obliterated almost an entire generation of young men. The few who survived the apocalypse in the mud of France came back broken and haunted.

Three British expeditions set out for Everest between 1921 and 1924 and involved 28 climbers, almost all of whom had seen action and witnessed the slaughter of their friends and comrades. Mallory himself missed the massacres of the Somme and Passchendaele only because, on both occasions, he was recovering from other injuries. Charles Bruce, "cut down with machine gun fire that nearly severed both his legs," was advised by doctors "to retire to a quiet life and to be especially careful never to walk strenuously uphill." Instead he went on to lead two of these expeditions into the Himalayas. Such strong-jawed British phlegm might seem a little over the top, but as Davis makes clear, the Everest climbs seized the public imagination because the horrors of the trenches "led a desperate nation to embrace the assault on Everest as a gesture of imperial redemption."

There was too a spiritual dimension to this derring-do at the top of the world, a collision and mingling of cultures as the children of the Raj met mystical Tibet. Climbing is an adventure of the mind as well as the body. The climbers set their camps beside Buddhist monasteries, with the snows of Everest "looming against a lapis sky."

"I have been half the time in ecstasy," wrote Mallory, seeing the world green again. "We came up to a remarkable pass between two ranges of snow mountains — not a high pass, only about 17,000 ft. There the ground was a wilderness of flowers, rock plants nestling under the big flat stones; most beautiful of all the blue poppy and a little pink saxifrage growing almost like a cushion flower...."

Davis' approach is dense, encyclopedic, his writerly method perhaps mirroring the obsession that the climbers came to feel. He gives vivid accounts of both the war and the earlier survey of India that led to the naming of Everest, an almost hidden peak, and established that it was indeed the highest point on Earth. He shows the patriotic ache that sent these men to the top of the world, as if trying to fill a void they knew in their hearts could never again be filled. Why do you want to climb Everest? Mallory was asked. "Because it's there," was his famously laconic reply. So engines of diplomacy were engaged, sponsorships sought, the wildly ambitious yet almost quixotic expeditions launched.

A large cast of characters flit through these pages, mostly men, and Davis gives each of them his due, filling in his background only when he first appears so that as the story moves forward it remains shadowed by the ghostly presence of the war. Center-stage for much of the action is Mallory himself, an indefatigable Galahad of crag and glacier. As a handsome Cambridge undergraduate in the years leading to the world war, Mallory attracted swooning worship from John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey, among others. He was a man whom others remembered and idolized, even before he started to pass into legend. But his true passion always lay in the thin pure air of climbing, to which he brought, as Davis writes, "an unprecedented level of athleticism, combining the grace and strength of a gymnast, another sport at which he excelled, with a mental focus utterly modern in its intensity."

Nothing had quite prepared Mallory and his companions, of course, for the technical and physical problems that Everest (the Tibetans called it "Chomolungma," meaning "goddess mother of the world") would offer up. With inadequate equipment, and (at first) no oxygen, the British climbers encountered exhaustion, dizziness, sickness, hallucinations, simultaneous frostbite and sunstroke, and howling winds that could spring up in an instant and strike them with the ferocity of an artillery bombardment. "In this altitude they were all like infants in a new world, learning to breathe for the first time," Davis writes.

Mallory and Irvine might indeed have reached the peak at the end of the 1924 expedition. Davis casts doubt while not wishing to completely deny its possibility. We can never really know. Edmund Hillary, who, along with the Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, finally became the first to scale the summit in 1953, remarked that the success of any expedition must in part be judged by whether its members survive or not. In this majestic telling Davis takes a less hard-boiled view, telling us that glorious striving can indeed regroup the spirit.

Davis comes billed as National Geographic's "explorer-in-residence," an odd and rather funny idea. In a previous book, "The Serpent and the Rainbow," he investigated voodoo in Haiti and the scientific background of zombiedom. "Into the Silence" is very different, a long book about the excitement and danger of explorative climbing; but like Davis' other book, it is also concerned with the human need for different sorts of religious transcendence.

Rayner is the author of "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age."

"Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest"
By Wade Davis
Alfred A. Knopf: 672 pp., $32.50