Thursday, March 8, 2012

Into the Silence, by Wade Davis

In his Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, Wade Davis writes a beautiful, comprehensive, and emotionally engaging history of the British Everest climbs of the 1920s. He shows that the 1920s marked a new era in the sport of climbing, that there was "a growing divide between those of a new generation, who played in an altogether different league. The former used the language of war to describe their efforts and intentions on a mountain; the latter had lived through a war that allowed them to walk with grace and commitment at the very edge of death." Twenty of the men who climbed on Everest during the first three expeditions had lived through the ravages of a pitiless war, in which injury was a given and death likely. Davis, for the first time, connects these climbers' war careers with their climbing, providing a depth of perspective into their psyches that is missing from the earlier Everest literature. Davis also uncovers new sources on the expeditions, including Wheeler's 1921 expedition diary and the dzurtal Rinpoche's (of Rongbuk) spiritual autobiography.

I've been waiting to read a book like this one. Davis is careful with his facts, avoids the pitfalls of controversy, and writes vividly beyond my highest hopes for these early climbs. The book took longer than I expected to read, but I found myself savoring passages and rereading details that were new to me (and I've read a few Everest books before!). If you have any doubts about the voracity of his facts, consult his 45-page annotated bibliography, which is both a reference and a semi-narrative of his research efforts. More than anyone, Davis "gets" these climbers, even more so than the climbers themselves at times. With the war narrative comes an explanation for Hazard's solitary nature, Somervell's compassion, and Geoffrey Bruce's courage, among others. Davis uncovers personal details about Finch that explain why he was in such bad condition on the day of his physical that pulled him from the 1921 effort. He brings Wakefield, Morris, Wheeler, and Shebbeare back into the story lines. Time and again, Davis puts in the extra effort to turn the narrative of the three first climbs from a distant and odd happenstance into a living story. Please read this book! 

1 comment:

  1. This is the book that started the Everest and mountaineering madness for me. I picked it up b/c of the author, not the subject matter and figured I'd only get through 100 pages before losing interest. Before this book, I hadn't paid Everest any mind and never heard of Mallory and Irvine. It didn't take long to become absorbed in the history of early British mountaineers and their quest to conquer Everest. I peeked into history to find out about Mallory and even though I learned about his disappearance before I read about it in the book, I found myself rooting for him and his team. I know there has been so much speculation on whether he summitted or not and its not for me to argue one side or the other but I secretly hope he did. And now since reading this book, I've read several more mountaineering books concerning Everest, Annapurna and K2. My friends are sick of hearing about this subject but I can't stop! Would I ever take up mountaineering? Probably not, I like to hike but I'm scared of heights and clumsy. Two traits not conducive to successful mountaineering. But as long as people write about their excursions, I feel I can experience a small bit of their world.