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!