Tony's Reviews > Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest

Into the Silence by Wade Davis
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's review
Oct 03, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: wwi, science-nature, top-10-2011
Read from October 18 to November 05, 2011

Because it's there.

Yes, George Mallory said that. But it was not, I've now learned, some mystic koan of distilled wisdom meant to channel a spirit of emptiness and pure purpose. Om. No, he was just tired during an American tour between his second and third attempts at Everest and replied with pique to being asked for the umpteenth time 'why'. George Mallory did not suffer fools. But why should he, or the other mountaineers of the 1920s? After what they'd been through?

Wade Davis thematically sets these earliest attempts at scaling the world's highest peak in the context of the numbing psychological devastation of the First World War. These were men, he argues, not quite ready to go home. He wisely and thankfully doesn't push the point. Nonetheless, the war histories of these men are beyond poignant, beyond heartbreaking and serve to explain how these men could hold that "the price of life is death."

World War I is told here through the experiences of the climbers. For me, this was the best part of the book. The fifteen pages dedicated to the battle of the Somme is the best summary of that military debacle I've ever read. General Haig, I hate you. I really, really hate you. A man who never came near any of the trenches that he sent boy after boy after boy out of to certain death and could ask a subordinate, "Have we really lost half a million men?" Wade Davis, with marvelous touch, just lets that question sit there.

The middle part of this book deals with the first attempt at Everest. As such, it covers the many assays to find a route to the mountain, as Everest is shielded by other peaks. This dragged; and while probably necessary to a full understanding of the early efforts, did I really need to learn such minutiae as Bullock and Wheeler sharing a Meade (kind of tent) while Mallory and Morsehead slept in a Mummery?

Into the Silence never falls to mere adventure - the writing is too good, the scholarship too sharp - but the telling of the three attempts to summit are thrilling enough (enough to take the book to work, anyhow).

Wade Davis has a great eye for nuance and the trenchant phrase, like Haig's words of detachment quoted above. So he can paint both large and minimalist, as needed. When seven Sherpas plunge to their deaths in the 1922 attempt, it is enough for Davis to quote the reporting of that event by one of the English climbers, "All whites are safe."

This book is as much about the culture and ethos of Edwardian society as it is about WWI and mountaineering. Don't ask, don't tell? Seems silly after reading about the schooling, then soldiering of these men.

Along the way:

Davis quotes Somervell, "The trouble with Christianity is that it has never been tried."


Davis tells about a dinner party at the Majestic Hotel in Paris in 1921 with just these four: James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust and Igor Stravinsky. Davis again wisely finds it unnecessary to say what food was served and who picked up the check.
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message 1: by ·Karen· (new)

·Karen· Wonderful review, Tony. It echoes my reaction to Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That. A lost generation indeed. Even those who survived.

Tony Graves figures prominently in the early part of this book. He was a student of Mallory's at Charterhouse and Mallory would serve as best man at Graves' wedding. His war experiences are told faithfully and summarized as follows:

For some, like Robert Graves, the conflict had marked their entire adult lives, with each moment of it, as he later recalled, having provoked an inward scream, the duty to run mad.

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