Robert Beveridge'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
Jan 25, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: amazon-vine, owned-and-still-own, finished
Recommended to Robert by: fan of the author
Recommended for: Wade Davis fans, George Mallory fans, war buffs, everyone really
Read from October 05 to December 18, 2011 — I own a copy , read count: 1

Wade Davis, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest (Knopf, 2011)

Full disclosure: this book was provided to me free of charge by Amazon Vine.

At one point, while a friend of mine and I were both reading this book, we were chatting about it on facebook. I was about 250 pages into it at the time, so it was still all about preparation and backgrounds on the characters and all that rather than actually cracking the mountain. And I STILL said, “these people are bugfuck nuts. All of them.” Well, folks, having now finished it, I'll tell you: by 250 pages in, well, they're all still relatively sane. Things only get crazier after that.

I've been a fan of Wade Davis' since, well, the same time most folks of my generation became Wade Davis fans: The Serpent and the Rainbow. Not the initial publication of the book, but Wes Craven's 1985 film adaptation, which of course played way fast and loose with Davis' Harvard masters' thesis, which got a pretty sizable mass-market printing to coincide with the film. At the time, it was the densest piece of nonfiction I had ever attempted to read, thick with medical, biological, and botany terminology, covered with endnotes, etc. I devoured it, and when his doctoral thesis, Passage of Darkness, was published in 1988, I devoured that one, too. To this day, I credit Wade Davis with my continuing interest in academic nonfiction (to the point where I still read the occasional thesis). Any time Davis pumps out a new book, it's an event. To me, anyway. And this one is so different than his normal ethnobotanical pursuits I couldn't help but be intrigued. What would Wade Davis do with straight history?

Answer: make it compulsively readable, the same way he did with ethnobotany.

As the subtitle will tell you, Davis looks at Britain's obsession with conquering Everest through the lens of World War I and the effective shattering of the British empire. The Raj were still in existence, of course, but rapidly losing hold over India, which would gain its independence soon after World War II (and before, ironically, a British mountaineer would actually make it to the top of Everest). In parallel were the lands of Nepal and Tibet, one a fair-weather ally of Britain's, with an ambassador doing everything in his power to keep it out of the hands of the Chinese (and, through them, the Russians), the other fiercely independent, with the mountain sitting dead the middle. And then there was George Mallory, a man who redefined the term obsession. Mallory would ultimately make three cracks at the mountain in the space of five years, with three different support teams, and the most fascinating part of this book, for my money, is in the politics surrounding the choosing of the members of those support teams. (An equally compelling biography of E. O. Wheeler, in particular, is just dying to be written.) It was during the first burst of these politics that I made the comment about everyone in this book being nuts, if memory serves.

Then they actually start trying to climb the damn mountain, and I'll let you read this for yourselves. You want to; it's a fine, fine book, as is every book Davis writes. Utterly fascinating. Made my 25 Best Reads of the Year list easily. ****

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