You are camped on a windswept plateau in Tibet when, in the distance, you see a man approaching. He staggers and falls, picks himself up but collapses almost immediately. Again he rises, again he falls. It’s hard to make him out through the dust and haze, but he’s obviously at the end of his limits, in need of urgent assistance… Ah no, it’s just a Buddhist monk prostrating his way from Lhasa to Kathmandu.
It’s details like this that make history interesting, and Wade Davis’ excellent book is full of them. Into the Silence traces the conquest of Everest – from its earliest sighting by British army officers and surveyors in India, to the tragic demise of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine in 1924 – and the birth of mountaineering’s greatest mystery: did they or didn’t they reach the top?
More than just a tale of how the mountain was climbed, it is an examination of why it gripped so fiercely the ambitions and imaginations of the British. At the beginning was the Raj, with its determination to keep China and Russia away from its imperial preserve. To this end, geographers and spies were despatched to map the Himalayan peaks that separated India from the rest of Asia. It was then that they spotted a mountain so massive as to defy belief, hovering somewhere on the skyline between Nepal and Tibet. Naturally, it had to be conquered.
Despite its looming presence, the pioneers struggled to find where Everest was, let alone how to scale it. By 1914 they were still no nearer the top and were beginning to despair. Having been beaten to both the North and South Pole, surely it was within Britain’s ability to win the so-called ‘Third Pole’? But then came the Great War and the whole world changed.
The generation who emerged from the trenches in 1919 were no braver or more competent than their predecessors, but they were of a different stamp. When they resumed the attack on Everest, it was in military fashion and with a casual acceptance that they might die in the process. As one of Mallory’s companions remarked, “the price of life is death”.
The story of the final push for the summit in 1924 has been told many times, but Davis’ account is the best yet. He is fascinating on the politics, shenanigans and sacrifices that were involved in simply getting to the foot of Everest. We share every blistering moment of the sheer feat of survival at high altitude. In one memorable episode, a climber can’t get his breath, so thumps himself on the chest and coughs up the frozen lining of his wind-pipe.
Needless to say, there are the usual examples of British pigheadedness: when one expedition member invents a down jacket he is greeted with derision; and the idea of climbing with oxygen is regarded with deep suspicion. Which makes it all the more poignant when one considers how far these tweed-clad climbers got with such basic equipment.
Davis has an eye for a bizarre incident, recounting eccentric individuals. He writes with verve and a dry wit, but above all he brings his characters to life – and that, in the end, is what makes this such a rewarding read. According to the blurb Into the Silence was ten years in the making. It is worth every minute.
Fergus Fleming is the author of Barrow’s Boys. His latest book, A Traveller’s Daybook, will be published in November by Atlantic.