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Show me a hero...
on September 23, 2011
George Mallory is one of the names that those interested in Mt. Everest probably know in some detail. He's a legend, the man who disappeared not far from Everest's peak in 1924, and leading to the mystery if Hillary and Norgay were actually the first two to make the summitt.
But, often, that's ALL he is, just a legend, without a person behind all the effort. That's what he was to me. Sort of "this other guy tried to climb Everest, but he didn't make it." Then when he was found in 1999, it added to the legend, but still not the person. I thought it was neat at the time, finding him after all those years; a mystery solved.
"Into the Silence" provides the context and combination of vast research so a reader sees Mallory as the full-color adventurer of his time. It wasn't that he simply set out to climb Everest; what makes the story so vast is author Wade Davis' careful walkthrough of the decades of planning and imagination that were required by him and many others for years before his climb. Davis describes the entire story, in pinpoint - often heart-wrenching, though sometimes boring - detail. It makes the reader appreciate how impossible the 1924 effort really was, how so far ahead of their time were Mallory and Sandy Irvine. It's fair to compare it to the moon landing - it never should have worked, not with the equipment they had. And unfortunately, for Mallory and Irvine it didn't work.
The epic scope takes readers from the World War I battlefields to colonial India to Everest's North Col in equal detai and description. No part of the journey receives lesser treatment.
Sometime that is too much. The book is nearly 700 pages, and of course it could be edited. Some of the early history of Tibet-English encounters is important, but overwhelms some early chapters. With dozens of relevant names, there are times the 'characters' run together and I had to flip back pages to remember who they were. But, Davis clearly decided to err on the side of comphrehensive information. It might slow down at times, but that's an acceptable flaw. The discovery of Everest, the long process to scout, plot and scheme the best way to make an attempt, all build the narrative.
The World War I scenes are ghastly. One has to wonder that if network television had presented live footage from the trenches of the Somme if there would ever have been another war; one especially wonders how the veterans of that war on either side would send their sons to fight another one in barely 20 years. English newspapers presented lies about "victories" and its no wonder that the deep cynicism of returning veterans like Mallory would lead them to far-off adventures of impossible dreams. After WWI, I can't see how any veteran could go back to a normal life.
The men are far from perfect - they are filled with colonial prejudices, upper-class snobbery and petty jealousies; but the flaws show the real people behind the effort.
The book is five-stars, but it's silly to even measure it by that scale. It's a human tragedy within humanity's best efforts. Like the Challenger and Columbia astronauts weren't trying to be national martyrs, when you see Mallory on the page - Mallory and all who helped him - you realize that Mallory wasn't trying to be a legend or mystery; he wanted to achieve this mighty goal and then come back down.