Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest – Wade Davis
While I have happily tried, and will try my hand at a variety of outdoor pursuits, climbing mountains holds no appeal for me. Just way too alien an environment. Books like Into Thin Air just reinforced the idea that it is not for me, and left me shaking my head. Dilettantes who have no business being on Everest, who pay small fortunes to have Sherpas literally carry them up the mountain. When I read how every year there is a long line of people waiting to spend a minute at the top so they can claim to be the first - the first deaf Paraguayan on Everest, the first gay Australian on Everest, the first Zambian female on Everest - you realize it’s devolved into goofy irrelevance. (The 9 next highest peaks in the Himalayas, difficult, challenging climbs, likely have no lineup whatsoever.)
Now really being the first, that is interesting. It could be argued that Mallory never actually got to the top. But to me even attempting it, 30 years before Norgay and Hillary made it, is very note worthy.
This one took him ten years to write. The bibliography is almost a publication in itself. Reminded me a bit of Dangerous River by R.M. Patterson in the sense that the actors in both survived the unfathomable carnage endured by all the participants in the charnel fields of WW1. It serves as a stronger backdrop and explanation of what made the participants tick a little more in this book.
(It’s not like I didn’t already know it, but the text drove home some of the unspeakable horrors of those four years. Difficult not to be profoundly moved to read how Britain lost on average 600 dead and 1700 wounded per day. Per day. Descriptions of field hospitals with literally acres of wounded men, doctors having to pick the few they could hope to save and listening to the rest moan and scream until they died, with hillocks of legs and arms behind the surgical tents. How people retained a shred of sanity after enduring all that is beyond me. And it’s difficult to not be angry when you read about men like Haig, who lived in luxury in villas far back from the front, never once visiting the places where he casually sent the cream of his societies crop to be decimated in scenes no horror writer could ever envision.)
Most of the men who participated in the efforts to scale Everest, had miraculously, against all odds, survived the slaughter. The thing that struck me about Dangerous River when I read it, were the astonishing accounts of trekking via snow shoe and dog sled for vast distances in brutally cold conditions. As much as their accounts seemed horrific, I realized that compared to life in the trenches it must have seemed like a paradise. I think for the men in this book, clambering up a huge mountain in freezing gale force winds might not have seemed like such a hardship. After the deafening racket and overpowering stench of war, the quiet, pure air of the Himalayas or the Nahanni must have seemed heavenly.
The biographies of the participants make them seem by turn open minded, athletic poets, men of science, amazingly accomplished, and on the other hand, priggish upper class English twits, petty and back biting, disdainful of new or different concepts, very much a product of their time. To read the accounts of a pompous bureaucrat who had never actually climbed mountains or been out of England for that matter, pooh-poohing the use of oxygen as being “terribly unsporting old chap” beggar belief. Chip chip tally ho lads! On to glory for god, king and country!
There is scorn directed by some of the myriad participants at “colonials” - an Australian (George Finch - who was the pioneer in the use of oxygen that made the whole affair possible) and a Canadian (Oliver Wheeler - whose herculean efforts to map an area that had never been explored by Westerners - no one even knew the approach to take) - had me groaning at the snobbery.
And it’s a little ironic to read of a members disgust with the Tibetan practice of sky burial (logical in a land with a dearth of fuel, and a surfeit of frozen, rocky ground), when they had witnessed the horrors of how their own dead had fared in the fields of France and Belgium. 200,000 young English men simply vanished. Blown to smithereens by a shell blast, drowned in a sea of mud, constantly churned up by artillery. To scoff at Tibetan ascetics living in small caves at the base of a mountain, while trooping past to climb to the top of said mountain, seems like a case of pot calling kettle black. Neither is really productive in any real sense, other than as a spiritual pursuit perhaps.
While it confirmed my complete disinterest in climbing mountains, I couldn’t help but be amazed at their exploits. Reading about their efforts is nothing short of astonishing. Given their gear at the time, the ropes, the boots, the clothes, their nascent efforts to use oxygen – they really were climbing into the unknown. The fact that they achieved what they did, whether they actually got to the top or not is besides the point. An amazing accomplishment for its time, and an amazing chronicle of a chapter in history.