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Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 18, 2011
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On June 6, 1924, two men set out from a camp perched at 23,000 feet on an ice ledge just below the lip of Mount Everest’s North Col. George Mallory, thirty-seven, was Britain’s finest climber. Sandy Irvine was a young Oxford scholar of twenty-two with little previous mountaineering experience. Neither of them returned.
In this magisterial work of history and adventure, based on more than a decade of prodigious research in British, Canadian, and European archives, and months in the field in Nepal and Tibet, Wade Davis vividly re-creates British climbers’ epic attempts to scale Mount Everest in the early 1920s. With new access to letters and diaries, Davis recounts the heroic efforts of George Mallory and his fellow climbers to conquer the mountain in the face of treacherous terrain and furious weather. Into the Silence sets their remarkable achievements in sweeping historical context: Davis shows how the exploration originated in nineteenth-century imperial ambitions, and he takes us far beyond the Himalayas to the trenches of World War I, where Mallory and his generation found themselves and their world utterly shattered. In the wake of the war that destroyed all notions of honor and decency, the Everest expeditions, led by these scions of Britain’s elite, emerged as a symbol of national redemption and hope.
Beautifully written and rich with detail, Into the Silence is a classic account of exploration and endurance, and a timeless portrait of an extraordinary generation of adventurers, soldiers, and mountaineers the likes of which we will never see again.
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The annotated bibliography is equally epic, nearly 50 pages long of recommendations for further reading, it's an impressive Everest Geek-fest, probably the best bibliography of its type and worth owning for alone. I'm not sure who to recommend this book to, certainly anyone who has been to Everest, or with an interest in Himalayan climbing history. If your looking for an introduction to Mallory or a gripping mountain adventure, it may be a long hard climb.
Davis accomplishes three major goals in writing this book, whether they were intended or not we do not know, but this is what you get out of pouring your energy into this book.
1st You will understand mountain climbing. You will learn more about the subject than you could possibly want to know. I would think that this book should be mandatory reading for anyone who is involved in this sport. The agony, the pain, the skills needed, and the sheer willpower to climb this mountain or any mountain is clearly stated, and done so in a powerful narrative that will live beyond the book. You feel the pain of the climbers, and the exhilaration of each success. When they are disappointed, so are you.
2nd You will learn more about World War I referred to at the time as the Great War than you would learn, if you read a book entirely devoted to the war. Author Wade Davis has captured the war in all its detail. From trench warfare, to Mustard gas to the futility of the decisions that were made that unnecessarily cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of English boys in the prime of their lives. No doubt is left in the readers mind that England basically lost its status as the number one military power in the world when it lost a generation of its youth - the country simply never recovered.
3rd You will understand English society, and this specific period of history from about 1924 to 1925. What it means to be part of a class and never able to leave that class? What non-acceptance is like, simply because you did not attend the right schools, or come from the correct family background. There's a reason why generations later when English bands become famous, the players like the Beatles, and others choose to live overseas and not in their native England. It's not just taxation. It's about leaving behind class structure, and freedom. John Lennon to his death always referred to himself as working class.
The BASIS of INTO THE SILENCE
From the 1800's into our present era, mankind has been climbing mountains. As an example the Swiss Alpine Club was founded in 1863. Most climbing occurred in European during attempts to climb European mountains. The real quest occurred beginning in the 1900's with the desire to attempt to climb the Himalayan Mountains many of which were 10,000 to 15,000 feet higher and much more difficult to climb than mountains in Europe. Mount Everest at the summit reaches a height of 29,035.
ORGANIZATION of INTO THE SILENCE
There are 13 chapters in this 576 page narrative, and there are many players. The star however is George Mallory born in 1886, he would go on to take part in three separate expeditions to Mount Everest beginning in the early 1920's. More on Mallory later.
What the author does so successfully is bring each participant in the Everest expeditions into the book in different sections and then spends pages going through the individual biographies. A very large part of each person's background is their experiences in World War I. No horrific detail of battles fought is spared in an attempt to have the reader fully understand what that war was like, and how it affected each soldier for the rest of their lives, and more specifically, each mountain climber.
As a reader I began to understand the Great War and fill in the gaps in my knowledge. The book captured a reality that could never be portrayed in the movies because no one would sit still and watch the reality. These men were formed by their experiences in the war, and it is clear how badly scarred they were by these experiences. Essentially England never recovered and would lose its standing in the world. World War II would simply finish them as a world power in spite of the fact that they were the victors.
George Mallory's three attempts to conquer Mount Everest is what this book is all about. History records that each of Mallory's attempts failed. There is drama in this book. There is action, and pain, and fear, and always HOPE. It is the hope of conquering a goal accompanied by unbelievable hardship in the attempt to realize the goal, which is standing on the summit of the tallest mountain in the world, even if only for a moment.
There is always the element of LUCK. Think about it, one moment you are within a 1000 feet of the summit, looking out 100 miles at unlimited mountains in one direction. The temperature is a pleasant 30 degrees - no wind. An hour later, a storm is coming in from the other direction. Temperatures drop 40 degrees in that hour. The wind goes to 60 miles an hour. You can't stand, you are fighting for your life. Whether you live or die is up to forces you do not control. In the end, the elements can break you, no matter how strong your body is how strong willed you are.
Perhaps you are that strong in both your mind and your body, but one of your companions breaks down. What do you do? Climb to the summit alone and succeeding because you left someone else to die a 1000 feet below? Do you instead abandon the summit and help your companion make it back down to camp and save his life. This is precisely what happened to George Finch in the 1922 expedition. Finch would have made the summit. He was using oxygen and Mallory who preceded him by a day did not. George Finch was accompanied by Geoffrey Bruce, and when Bruce could not go on, Finch made the decision to save Bruce's life rather than go on to fame and fortune. He chose honor.
There is one point in the book when Mallory and two other companions are on a shelf within ten feet of the edge and they must stay the night. They are inside a tent which has a base to the tent. There is an intense storm through the night. Winds are gusting at 70 and 80 miles per hour. They feel the wind at one point begin to pick up the base of the tent, and there is nothing they can do but continue to place their full body weight on that base. Just a little more wind and they would be swept over the side into an abyss that would last for 1000's of feet. Every step on Everest whether thought about or blindly taken can lead to death. That is what this book is all about. You are putting your life on the line for 29,000 feet both up and down the mountain.
Into the Silence is an incredible adventure story for all of us, and readers of all ages. In the end Mallory does not conquer the mountain. England mourns its hero and the hero's death that he embodied. Those that lived while Mallory died do not know how Mallory died. They only know that he died attempting to conquer the summit. They did not know if he made it to the very top or not along with his companion, Sandy Irvine, because they both disappeared high on the North East Ridge. They were sighted less than 1000 feet from the summit before the end.
It took another almost 75 years to begin to unravel the story and learn the truth or as much of the truth as can be learned. An expedition was sponsored to try to find Mallory's remains and with the remains the story of the end. This was 1999. I will not go into that expedition, but they were successful in finding the remains, and most of the mystery. Some still believe Mallory made it to the top, and others have their doubts.
It took 30 additional years after Mallory's last steps before another Brit named Edmund Hillary placed his feet on top of the summit. With him was Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. When asked while on a lecture circuit why are you trying to climb Everest, Mallory responded with the classic, "Because it's there." The real answer is so much more complicated than that and will have you at the edge of your seat for 500 pages. You will not want this book to end, and you will walk away from it, so much richer for the experience. Thank you for reading this review.
Though the author's discussion of the horrific and predictable butchery of World War I constitutes a relatively brief part of the book, it is the most graphically insightful and moving section of this long and detailed exposition. I've read other treatments of the nightmare of trench warfare, and I've seen films that purported to document the fact that thousands of soldiers, many of the MIA's, were simply buried alive when tons of earth were thrown into the air by highly explosive shells fired from large artillery pieces. I've also read about the unforeseen consequences of hideously debilitating trench foot, and the insurmountable difficulties of maintaining reasonable levels of sanitation during months in water-logged trenches surrounded by the decaying dead. Nothing else that I've seen or read, however, has made me as acutely aware of this unfathomable loss of life, limb, and spirit as Into the Darkness. The author's descriptions of No-Man's Land are devastating, making one wonder what kept the troops going, especially since they must have known, as at Gallipoli and the Somme, that their commanding officers were disengaged, stupid, egotistically indifferent to their fate, unwilling to acknowledge catastrophic blunders, and willfully unaware of the soldiers' suffering.
The much larger sections of the book, devoted to assaults on Everest and the demanding requirements of that endeavor are, in their own way, equally valuable. The descriptions of the dangers and acute discomfort that were necessarily part and parcel of these efforts make one wonder what kept the climbers going, making it almost impossible to imagine how anyone could have gone back for a second time. The troubles with the sections devoted to climbing lie, in good part, in their excessive attention to details of every kind. Unless the reader is thoroughly familiar with the flora and fauna of the part of the world in which Everest is located, much of this account is just a blur of unfamiliar names. Appreciation of these sections requires the highly specialized knowledge of an entomologist, horticulturist, and geologist, as well as mastery of the the peculiar vocabulary of one who is accustomed to thinking about rocky outcroppings, ice formations, snow fields, and other weather-related phenomena found only at extreme altitudes
Furthermore, the long treks to Everest along varying routes, and the environs of Everest itself, are impossible to understand without a detailed knowledge of the geography of the area. If the author had included a map or two so the reader could better follow his discussion, the value of the book would have been substantially increased. As things stand, the reader is often mystified by an abundance of strange names of rivers and locales whose relative proximity and arrangement are crucial to fathoming decisions made by the climbers. The nature of the complex enterprise becomes lost in a jumble of alien sounding designations that are inter-related in ways that are pretty well inaccessible for one who is not a life-long student of Everest.
Nevertheless, the long-term preparation, dangers, suffering, and precariousness attendant to high-altitude climbing are explained in ways that enable us to understand just how overwhelmingly difficult and demanding an effort it was to try to climb the tallest Himalayan Peak. Here, too, there is an enormous amount of detail, but ii is a good deal easier to follow, and seems essential to fully understanding the daunting nature of the endeavor.
The same applies to climbing the mountain. Having read the story of the complex and physically demanding nature of the work required and the suffering endured, the reader will certainly be deeply impressed by the skill, commitment, and courage of the climbers. Simple survival required them to perform in ways that to a non-climber seem impossibly difficult. Progressing toward the summit in arduous stages, from one precariously placed camp to another, is presented in a way that bears keen-eyed witness to the remarkable ability of world-class mountaineers to turn the overwhelmingly arduous into the routine and ordinary.
Still, how many times is it necessary to tell us that some climbers were appalled at the filth and decay contained in each small Tibetan village, and that this was matter-of-factly tolerated by its inhabitants. Yes, I suppose it's true that Tibetans bathe only once a year, but how many times should we be reminded of this, eventually learning that they do it in September, and that they were a bit unsettled by a British climber seen bathing in the summer? And do we really have to know about George Mallory's sex life at Cambridge, including his tepid involvement with James Strachey and the lust felt for Mallory by Lytton Strachey. And John Maynard Keynes, the brilliant and influential economist and mathematician, while at Cambridge was a homo-erotic "copulating machine," though later in life he wed a beautiful ballerina. So? Yes, most of the climbers moved easily in the British upper class and their habits conformed to the norms prevailing in this social location, good to know, but it sometimes takes us too far off topic.
The thematic connection between The Great War and an obsessive, death-defying commitment to conquering Everest is hard to grasp. That those who had been in The War were inured to death and, therefore, not inhibited by fear of dying is offered as part of the story. But more important, we are told, was the need to achieve something clean, pure, and ultimately redemptive, and this could be accomplished by climbing Everest. Maybe so, but I don't see it. After all, Everest itself was a brutally unforgiving foe, and it, too, caused loss of body parts, loss of life, and loss of sanity. It may well be that climbing Everest was a testimony to the drive toward monumental achievement inherent in the human spirit, but I don't think the case has been made. Perhaps it can't be.
I'm certainly convinced that those who repeatedly tried to do the near-impossible on the highest peak in the Himalayas were brave and hardy souls, extraordinary men of skill, strength, intelligence, and steely determination. Surely, however, there must be something more to heroism than climbing a mountain, no matter how difficult and dangerous the task and no matter how many people it inspires. During a time when Britain was financially depleted by World War I, when unemployment rates were extremely high, and life for millions of returning soldiers and ordinary Britons was a constant struggle that they had not chosen and for which they were not prepared, climbing Everest seems quaintly and disinterestedly upper class British. Given the state of their homeland, it also seems frivolous and wasteful.
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