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Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest

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A magnificent work of history, biography and adventure.

If the quest for Mount Everest began as a grand imperial gesture, as redemption for an empire of explorers that had lost the race to the Poles, it ended as a mission of regeneration for a country and a people bled white by war. Of the twenty-six British climbers who, on three expedtions (1921-24), walked 400 miles off the map to find and assault the highest mountain on Earth, twenty had seen the worst of the fighting. Six had been severely wounded, two others nearly died of disease at the Front, one was hospitalized twice with shell shock. Three as army surgeons dealt for the duration with the agonies of the dying. Two lost brothers, killed in action. All had endured the slaughter, the coughing of the guns, the bones and barbed wire, the white faces of the dead.

In a monumental work of history and adventure, ten years in the writing, Wade Davis asks not whether George Mallory was the first to reach the summit of Everest, but rather why he kept on climbing on that fateful day. His answer lies in a single phrase uttered by one of the survivors as they retreated from the mountain: "The price of life is death." Mallory walked on because for him, as for all of his generation, death was but "a frail barrier that men crossed, smiling and gallant, every day." As climbers they accepted a degree of risk unimaginable before the war. They were not cavalier, but death was no stranger. They had seen so much of it that it had no hold on them. What mattered was how one lived, the moments of being alive.

For all of them Everest had become an exalted radiance, a sentinel in the sky, a symbol of hope in a world gone mad.

672 pages, Hardcover

First published October 6, 2011

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About the author

Wade Davis

70 books690 followers
Edmund Wade Davis has been described as "a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet, and passionate defender of all of life's diversity."

An ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker, he holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. Mostly through the Harvard Botanical Museum, he spent more than three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, living among 15 indigenous groups in eight Latin American nations while making some 6,000 botanical collections. His work later took him to Haiti to investigate folk preparations implicated in the creation of zombies, an assignment that led to his writing Passage of Darkness (1988) and The Serpent and the Rainbow (1986), an international best seller that appeared in ten languages and was later released by Universal as a motion picture.

His other books include Penan: Voice for the Borneo Rain Forest (1990), Shadows in the Sun (1993), Nomads of the Dawn (1995), The Clouded Leopard (1998), Rainforest (1998), Light at the Edge of the World (2001), The Lost Amazon (2004), Grand Canyon (2008), Book of Peoples of the World (ed. 2008), and One River (1996), which was nominated for the 1997 Governor General's Literary Award for Nonfiction. Into the Silence, an epic history of World War I and the early British efforts to summit Everest, was published in October, 2011. Sheets of Distant Rain will follow.

Davis is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2002 Lowell Thomas Medal (The Explorers Club) and the 2002 Lannan Foundation prize for literary nonfiction. In 2004 he was made an honorary member of the Explorers Club, one of just 20 in the hundred-year history of the club. In recent years his work has taken him to East Africa, Borneo, Nepal, Peru, Polynesia, Tibet, Mali, Benin, Togo, New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the high Arctic of Nunavut and Greenland.

A native of British Columbia, Davis, a licensed river guide, has worked as park ranger and forestry engineer and conducted ethnographic fieldwork among several indigenous societies of northern Canada. He has published 150 scientific and popular articles on subjects ranging from Haitian vodoun and Amazonian myth and religion to the global biodiversity crisis, the traditional use of psychotropic drugs, and the ethnobotany of South American Indians.

Davis has written for National Geographic, Newsweek, Premiere, Outside, Omni, Harpers, Fortune, Men's Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Natural History, Utne Reader, National Geographic Traveler, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Globe and Mail, and several other international publications.

His photographs have been featured in a number of exhibits and have been widely published, appearing in some 20 books and more than 80 magazines, journals, and newspapers. His research has been the subject of more than 700 media reports and interviews in Europe, North and South America, and the Far East, and has inspired numerous documentary films as well as three episodes of the television series The X Files.

A professional speaker for nearly 20 years, Davis has lectured at the National Geographic Society, American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and California Academy of Sciences, as well as many other museums and some 200 universities, including Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Yale, and Stanford. He has spoken at the Aspen Institute, Bohemian Grove, Young President’s Organization, and TED Conference. His corporate clients have included Microsoft, Shell, Hallmark, Bank of Nova Scotia, MacKenzie Financials, Healthcare Association of Southern California, National Science Teachers Association, and many others.

An honorary research associate of the Institute of Economic Botany of the New York Botanical Garden, he is a fellow of the Linnean Society, the Explorers Club, and the Royal Geographical Society.

(Source: National Geographic)

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Profile Image for Matt.
908 reviews28.1k followers
March 26, 2020
“Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves.”
- George Leigh Mallory, The Alpine Journal (1918)

Years ago, I decided to bring Wade Davis’s Into the Silence with me when I went backpacking in the Cascades – and you can tell just by looking at it. One of my crampons sliced the back cover open, while the front cover rubbed against the sole of my day hiking boots, leaving it scuffed like an old baseball. The tops of the pages were also stained by a leaking bottle of whiskey, a back country essential.

It seemed like a no-brainer to bring a book about mountain climbing into the mountains. Turns out, however, that it actually is a brainer. The book is relatively large and relatively heavy and its size and weight made it a poor fit for my pack. Also, as my friends pointed out, while I remembered to bring a book (and whiskey), I forgot a spoon, a camp towel, a sleeping mat, and breakfast for day three. It also took me about half an hour from the trailhead for me to realize I’d left my ice axe in the car.

This all goes to show that I am a reader first, a lover second, and a backpacker a distant third.

All in all, except for ruining the physical aspect of Into the Silence, it was worth hauling into the wilderness. It gave voice to what we all seek when we seek to get away.

Being in nature allows you to live an essential life. I won’t romanticize it and say I’d like to go back to a more primitive state of being on a permanent basis. That would just make me cry. But for shorter periods, having to focus on basics such as shelter, water, and food, while being utterly exhausted, helps to dissipate modern, first-world stressors. On the trail, I wasn’t thinking about work, or student loans, or my dying car. I wasn’t even thinking about how tired I was, and how I just wanted to lie down on the side of the trail and die.

No, for blessed moments, I wasn’t thinking about anything at all.

British explorer and soldier Francis Younghusband explained this better, when telling of his first experience in the Himalaya: “Such experiences are all too rare…and they but too soon become blurred in the actualities of daily intercourse and practical existence. Yet it is these few fleeting moments, which are reality. In these only we see real life. The rest is ephemeral, the unsubstantial…”

The stated goal of Into the Silence is to tell the story of the first three British expeditions to Mount Everest in the 1920s. By intercutting this story with the experiences of the climbers and expedition members during World War I, a portrait emerges of when who’d seen a horrible thing and were desperately seeking peace. And for them it seemed to work. This is not a book about the “Lost Generation.” These are not guys who slipped away to Paris to drink and write great novels. These are men who’d seen the worst of humanity, swallowed hard, and then set out to climb the tallest hunk of rock in the world.

The challenge in describing this volume is that it will be either too reductive (it’s about climbing Everest, but with some war scenes) or too spiritually gushy (it’s about damaged male psyches healing through dramatic altitude gains). I want to avoid that because Into the Silence is simply one of the best, most well-rounded, emotionally affecting history books I’ve ever read.

It is, to begin, a mesmerizing multi-headed biography of the British climbing expeditions. Some of the names, like George Finch and Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, will sound familiar. Others, such as Dr. Howard Somervell and Charles Howard-Bury are probably unknown to you, unless you’re already versed in mountaineering history.

Davis gives these men life and personality. Even though the cast of characters is large (and are always leaving and reentering the narrative), you can keep them straight because of their well-described personalities. Towering over them all, of course, is George Leigh Mallory, who is just about as complicated a leading man as you could hope for. Brave enough to assault the world’s highest peak, he curiously entered World War I far later than most of his companions. Entirely smitten with his wife, he also loved (and slept with) one of his male friends in his youth. A man of beautiful sentiments, he also had a very British sense of condescension and disdain, especially toward the people of Tibet.

From the first page, Into the Silence is powerfully written. The prose is evocative, and equally adept at detailing the horrors of World War I as it is in dealing with the rigors of the mountains. There are times as you read this when you will start to feel the air get a little thin. The level of detail that is provided can feel overwhelming at times. You might think: did I really need to know that? The answer is: Yes! Yes you did. That's how you are immersed. This is as close as you’re going to get to how it felt to be on these expeditions, doing the amazing things they did, not only climbing mountains, but mapping this area for the first time.

Lest you think this is all about men at war and men on mountains, Into the Silence is also a beautiful travelogue. Davis captures not only the scenery of the Himalaya, but does an incredible job with the Tibetan people, their customs, culture, and religion. This aspect of the story takes on nearly equal footing with the climbing itself (as it should).

What I’m trying to say is that this book is an embarrassment of riches. There are even good maps! Plus an annotated bibliography!

Into the Silence feels heavier than other books of comparable size. It might be because I carried it in a backpack for a week, but I like to think it’s because of all the facts stuffed inside it.

The end result of the first assaults on Everest was the death of Mallory and Irvine, leading to an enduring mystery as to whether they reached the summit before dying. Davis gives a brief overview of the evidence and arguments, which have taken up many hundreds of pages elsewhere. Really, though, he does not dwell much on this aspect. Oddly, it is about the only topic that isn’t given a thorough airing. Perhaps it is Davis’s interest in Tibetan Buddhism, but
Into the Silence is not concerned about reaching the top. Nevertheless, he does offer some thoughts as to how it might have unfolded.

[I]t is possible that a drift [from the 1924 storms] accumulated, large enough, if not to bury the cliffs of the Second Step, at least to create a cone covering the most difficult pitches of the rock. Such a scenario did in fact unfold in 1985, albeit in the autumn. Had this been the case, Mallory and Irvine might simply have walked up the snow, traversing the barrier with the very speed and ease that Odell so famously reported. Had this occurred, surely nothing could have held Mallory back. He would have walked on, even to his end, because for him, as for all of his generation, death was but a “frail barrier” that men crossed, “smiling and gallant, every day.” They had seen so much of death that life mattered less than the moments of being alive.

Mountain climbing is a luxury of stable civilizations. Climbing deaths are typically the tragedies of the privileged, and are utterly avoidable by the simple expedient of not engaging in an entirely-recreational activity that serves no utilitarian function. Climbing is trouble that you go looking for. But going up mountains because they are tall and hard and not meant for us makes us human. It is a somewhat irrational act that shows that the human condition transcends mere survival. Though it does not take a mountain’s summit to prove the lesson, Into the Silence is a reminder that you cannot live only to live.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,498 followers
July 21, 2015
This hefty volume appears to have been a ten-year labor of love for the author, and it shows. . George Mallory, who died with an inexperienced 22-year old Oxford engineering student, Andrew (Sandy) Irvine, trying to climb Everest in 1924, has been the subject of countless books. How close they got to the top remains a mystery, but his height record stood for nearly 30 years until the accomplishment of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Nicholas Wade wrote his own editor in 1999, the year the discovery of Mallory’s body unleashed even more articles and books, “What possibly remained to be said about a story that had been covered by so many writers?” The editor “generously replied that he had not offered me a contract because he wanted another book on Mallory but, rather, because he wanted a book by me on Mallory.”

Mt. Everest (elevation 29,085 ft.) from the Buddhist Rongpuk Monastery, where it was considered sacred and guarded by demons (their word: Chomolungma)

Sandy Irvine and George Mallory, who on the 1924 expedition were last seen climbing at about 26,000 feet.

Wade brings some unique strengths to the task. The Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist has made such a mark in writing about various indigenous cultures and remote ecologies of the world, he now serves as “Explorer in Residence” at the National Geographic Society. Thus, he knows what it takes to mount an expedition to remote places and has the background to understand the import and nuances of the important intersection of Western culture with that of the peoples of India and Tibet. Plus, his scientific bent led him to take a systematic approach to plumbing the real question behind this book: how does the terrible experience with World War 1 by 20 out of 26 of the British participants in the three early attempts on Everest help account for the quest to succeed in climbing this mountain at such great cost.

The origins of the push to climb Everest lies with the mountaineering interests of some of the early British visitors to Tibet before the war, a time when England was trying to get its imperial hooks into the country before the Chinese or Russians beat them to it. Wade deftly provides a capsule history of the British Raj in India, its tradition of aggressive military action at the dangerous borders of its “Crown Jewel”, and the sequence of events that led to a massive invasion of Tibet in 1904. With machine guns and artillery against primitive rifles and swords, the toll was over 2,600 Tibetans dead vs. 40 by the British forces (mostly Indian sepoy soldiers). When the spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, fled, they found they had no one to negotiate with, forcing them to retreat, with the outcome of imposition of only a limited trading enterprise.

While the vision of the distant peaks of the Himalayas whetted the imagination of British mountaineers of the British Alpine Club and the Royal Geographic Society, the precedent set by the brutal incursion undermined for decades the trust and stable diplomatic relations that would be required for a serious expedition. (The southern route which Hillary used through Nepal was long blocked by an even greater isolationist outlook by that kingdom.)

Wade excels in capturing the slow understanding of Tibetan culture. The holy capital of Lhasa “appeared to the invaders as decrepit, medieval in aspect”:
The Tibetans [a Times journalist] wrote “were a stunted and dirty little people,” their religion nothing but a “disastrous parasitic disease”, while their government was a theocratic regime, oppressive, inefficient, bizarre, tyrannical, and corrupt. Only in subsequent years, when the diplomatic ground shifted, did it serve British interests to cultivate an image of Tibet as a place of innocence and mystic fantasy it has since occupied in the Western imagination.

With this background, it took nearly 10 years to build up plans for a climbing trip to Everest, by which time World War 1 intervened. The flower of British youth was more than decimated by the war, the toll for which comprised about 1 million deaths and 2.5 million wounded in England alone. At the time Mallory had drifted into a position as a married private school teacher after a period in Cambridge where he was a much desired golden youth among the homosexual literati of the Bloomsbury group and the Apollo Club. While his entry into the war was delayed and ended up not so dangerous as an artillery officer, many of the members of the post-war expeditions were survivors of much more extensive and harrowing experiences. For example, Somerville, Mallory’s closest friend on the expeditions, served as a surgeon at the Battle of Somme and was forever haunted by memories of the hopeless triage work among acres of casualties. Another medical officer on Everest, Wakefield, served with the Newfoundland Regiment at the Somme which experienced a greater than 90% casualty rate. A student and friend of Mallory’s, Robert Graves, estimated that the chances of surviving the war was one in three (1 in 2 for infantry and 1 in 4 for officers).

Howard Somervell, tending the wounded at the Battle of the Somme in World War 1

Throughout the book, Wade interweaves the theme that somehow the extreme drive to conquer Everest was linked to the war experience of the men involved. Against the background of shattered alienation, summiting the tallest peak represented some kind of pure goal for men whose sense of home and noble purpose behind British imperialism was so tarnished. The flippant comment Mallory made once to a journalist, “because it’s there”, holds no weight. Why keep pushing after deaths and so many near-death experiences on each foray (the worst being the seven Sherpas swept away in an avalanche in 1922)? Wade infers that to some extent surviving the war meant that death no longer had the same hold on these men. A publicist for the sponsoring Royal Geographical Society yielded the following insight for Wade:

Buchan would later would wax eloquent about the purpose of the Everest mission. “The war”, he wrote, “ had called forth the finest qualities of human nature, and with the advent of peace, there seemed the risk of the world slipping back into a dull materialism. To embark on something that had no material value was an essential vindication of the human spirit.” These words, which could be written by someone who knew nothing about the reality of war, nevertheless reveal the sentiments that led a desperate nation to embrace the assault on Everest as a gesture of imperial redemption.

The challenges of just getting to the mountain and finding any kind of plausible route to the summit were overwhelming. The overland trip of more than 300 miles on a plateau at 17,000 feet was a logistical nightmare. Hiring hundreds of porters and yaks was necessary. For the 1921 expedition, it took months of scouting out and mapping the remote terrain to even get close to the mountain. The unheralded role of the Canadian Wheeler in discovering the only effective passage between the peaks and glaciers appears to represent a fresh contribution by Wade’s account. The first foray demonstrated the necessity of provisioning multiple camps at successive elevations and of using oxygen at the higher camps (despite the pervasive contempt of its use as “cheating”). They also learned the hard way that all climbing attempts should be made before June if they were to escape the ferocious blizzards brought by the monsoon. The adoption of support by the Ghurkas from the Indian Army and the Sherpas from Nepal was another essential step for the better success of later expeditions.

Route of Mallory up the North East Ridge in 1924 It remains unclear if he succeeded in passing the "Second Step" and reached the top

The book was a very rewarding experience for me to read. Although coverage of so many players in the treks made for a challenge in keeping track of who was who, I learned to just ride along with the leaky memory problem, as all of British together form a mosaic of the culture of the times. Some were affected by classism and imperial superiority more than others, some were more egotistical and jealous, while others were more spiritual and selfless, but all were ultimately heroic and made me feel somehow proud to be a member of the human species. This contrasts with the moral malaise I ended up feeling from Krakauer’s brilliant account of a disastrous climb in 1997 under the management of commercial guides, “Into Thin Air”. For anyone contemplating the time investment of reading Wade’s book, I recommend this preview piece: London Daily Mail, Nov. 28, 2012

This book was a Goodreads "Giveaway" from Vintage Books.

Profile Image for Sarah (Presto agitato).
123 reviews160 followers
August 14, 2012
Many books have been written about the British Mount Everest expeditions of the 1920s that culminated so mysteriously in the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine, last seen "going strong for the top," on June 8, 1924. What more could be added to the story that hasn't been discussed before? Wade Davis takes a different approach in Into the Silence. He examines the influences of World War I on the expeditions - on the political backdrop in England, India, and Tibet, as well as on the participants themselves. Almost all of the British members of the expeditions served in some manner during the Great War. Davis weaves their war stories into his discussion of the planning and execution of the expeditions. These snapshots of individual war experiences, including many from the "secondary" characters in the Everest drama, combine to give a highly effective, moving, and horrifying picture of the British experience during World War I. Davis's thesis that the Everest expeditions were felt as somehow redemptive for the generation and nation that had lost so much during the war has validity, and perhaps goes a long way in explaining why these men would choose to subject themselves later to such brutal and dangerous conditions to accomplish something with little pragmatic value.

Davis's account of the 1922 and 1924 expeditions, while well-written and engaging, does not add much new information to what has been published elsewhere (though he does expand quite a bit on Wheeler's role in the 1921 reconnaissance expedition). Where this book contributes to the Everest story is in the meticulous research into the backgrounds of some of the lesser known participants in the expeditions and in the compelling discussion of the social, political, and military background for the events. The annotated bibliography at the end, replacing footnotes or endnotes, should not be missed. There are several fascinating details there.

As for the mystery of whether or not Mallory and Irvine reached the summit, Davis addresses it in the Epilogue in only a cursory fashion. Much more detailed discussion of the arguments and evidence for and against is available elsewhere (I would recommend The Mystery of Mallory & Irvine and Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory & Irvine). Into the Silence is not about their ultimate success or failure, but about the motivations that inspired their attempt.
Profile Image for Numidica.
362 reviews8 followers
October 10, 2021
Wade Davis tells a very engaging and detailed story of the three British Everest expeditions of the 1920’s, in which he explains the profound impact of the Great War on the men who made those first attempts to climb the mountain, while also explaining how Buddhism came to Tibet, how it spread, what it meant to the people of Tibet. In the course of the story, Davis gives a wonderful travelogue of the Himalayas and their foothills, and ultimately describes Mallory’s fatal summit attempt. Davis spent ten years writing this book, and the massive amount of research he did, both on the ground in the Himalayas, and in libraries and discussions with descendants of the climbers shines through in the detail. He creates a full portrait of each man, and that makes the book more vivid by making the reader care about the expedition members.

I’ve never climbed a mountain that required real climbing skills, and I've never really had an inclination to do so. However, in the process of backpacking I've hiked at 14,400 feet, and that was high enough that I experienced slight hypoxia which temporarily impaired my map-reading skills. While we were having lunch near the summit, my friends and I remarked on the fact that we were less than half as high as Everest, and yet we most definitely felt the effect of the thin air on our physical performance. Later I looked up the respective air pressures for 14,400 and 29,000 feet, and found that we were experiencing about 60% of sea level pressure on our mountain, whereas at the top of Everest the air pressure is only 30% of sea level. While it’s true that they had early oxygen tanks of limited capacity, it is still amazing to me that Mallory and Irvine got as high as they did with the equipment (boots, ropes, parkas, tents) available in 1924, and yet they did. It is entirely possible that they reached the summit, and they almost certainly got above 28,000 feet. But then something went badly wrong - we will likely never know what, despite the discovery of Mallory’s body in 1999 with many intriguing clues still intact in the form of papers and equipment stashed in his clothing.

Almost all the men who formed the expedition parties had served as British Army officers in WW1, and as veterans of that bloodbath, they were a breed apart. They were not comfortable with their civilian contemporaries who had not served; an unbridgeable gap of experience divided the two groups. Men who had lived with death for months or years, both the threat of it, and the physical presence of the dead – the sight and smell of them – had difficulty at times fitting back into civil society in Britain. And then there was the veteran’s desire for meaning, or, less nobly, for an adrenaline rush that they had become accustomed to in combat. Many of them cast about for ways out of a boring, normal life, or for a mission with meaning, and Everest drew the climbers among them like a magnet.

Some of the information that Davis presents about WW1 was new to me, such as General Haig’s penchant for a) always kicking off attacks at exactly 7:30AM after an artillery barrage, and b) his edict that British soldiers must walk, not run, toward the German lines. These idiotic consistencies of Haig’s mediocre intellect and unwillingness to learn from repeated failure insured that a) the Germans always knew what time to get ready, and b) allowed them plenty of time to mow down the walking British soldiers with machine guns. In some cases, the Germans would just stop firing when the Brits began to retreat, because they pitied such brave men being commanded by such appalling dolts, who sent them to their deaths in pointless, hopeless attacks, not once, but over and over. Haig deserves the low opinion that Davis, and most historians have of him. Davis says, “he acted as if he were on a one-man mission to reduce the population of (Britain)”. It was the great misfortune of the men of Mallory’s generation to be commanded by a such a man in that war.

The book goes into great detail about the approach marches and reconnaissance climbs of 1921, perhaps too much, in my opinion. While there is interesting detail about flora and fauna, I think a summary of the various ways in which Mallory et al. attempted to find a route to the North Col would really have made the book flow better. Also, inserting maps at appropriate places in the text would have helped the reader understand the wanderings of the 1921 group. I read the excellent annotated bibliography that Davis provided, and I respect the amount of research Davis did to fully understand the expeditions, but sometimes he tells us just a bit more detail than we need to know, in my opinion. Nonetheless, the descriptions of green valleys at 12,000 feet, lush and full of wildflowers, have stayed with me. The description of Buddhism in Tibet, and the reactions to it by the British was intriguing, and the British Raj comes in for treatment by Davis which makes me curious to know more.

One of the things that was shocking to me, from the excerpts of diaries, was how often the men were short of water. We now know that one of the primary ways that high altitude kills climbers is through dehydration, which turns blood in climbers’ bodies to something approaching sludge, but in the 1920’s, this was not understood. I have been in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona short of water, and I know what that means - it's awful. I sympathized with the oft-reported difficulty of getting up and going on a bitterly cold morning in the Himalayas – there are few things worse than trying to roll up cold, wet canvas in the morning with cold, numb hands, not to mention having to exit a warm sleeping bag to dress for the day when the temperatures are below freezing. One of my mentors in the Army summarized this with a saying, “The problems of a cold man can never be fully understood by a warm man”. This came to mind as I read about the Everest Committee Chair, Mr. Hinks, sitting in his office in London, who dispatched increasingly impatient letters to the expedition leaders asking for regular reports.

Sandy Irvine emerges from Davis’ account as an amazing athlete and a mechanical genius. It’s sad that I’ve only previously read of him as an inexperienced climber who was possibly a drag on Mallory; instead, it seems he was the strongest, fittest man on Everest that year, despite his newness to climbing. He was also an inspiration, in a way, to the older men, who were all veterans, because he represented to them the best of England, emblematic of what they felt they had been fighting for in WW1.

As the book went on, I felt more and more compassion for George Mallory. It’s true he could be judgmental, unfair, and overly critical, but I believe he felt trapped into doing the third expedition, and I don't think he really wanted to be there. His failure to sign on until the very last moment is revelatory of his ambivalence. He certainly knew his value to the expedition, and in some sense he wanted to climb Everest because he knew he was one of very few men with the fitness and skills to do it, but he also knew the extreme risks he would have to take. The war had been over for five years, and it seems to me that his desire for the adrenaline rush, common to most men who have been in combat or in elite military units had faded, as it does for most men. Ruth, his wife, was “transparently decent and good”, and he missed her and his children deeply. It seems to me that he just wanted it to be over so he could get back to his family, and he also knew that if he summited Everest, it would mean financial security for his family, from book contracts and speaking tours; after all, Mallory was not a wealthy man, and he had three children. The Mallory of 1924 was a different man than the one who went out in 1921. And yet, his familiarity with death, so aptly described by Wilfred Owen in his poem, “The Next War”, allowed him to move calmly right up to the edge of fatal danger on Everest. That was both a great advantage to him as a climber, but also a curse.

Davis defers to Everest climbing experts as to whether Mallory and Irvine might have summited, and there are credible scenarios for that. Opinions differ. Noel Odell, who was watching the mountain during Mallory / Irvine’s ascent, said he saw the climbers “rapidly ascending” the second step, which is the gateway to the top. If that observation was accurate (and Odell was a giant in the climbing community, respected by all), it is possible that a snow pack had formed on the second step, something which has happened before, and it is really the only way a rapid ascent of the sheer face of the second step would have been possible. And if Mallory made it to the top of the second step, there was nothing except hurricane force winds, always a possibility at that altitude, that would have stopped him from summiting. Mallory had promised his wife, Ruth, he would leave a photo of her at the summit. It was well known that he always carried her photo on his person for that reason, but the photo was not among his effects and papers in his clothing when his body was found. When his body was found, Mallory was not wearing his snow goggles – they were stowed in his pocket – which indicated that he and Irvine were descending after dark. If, as Odell said, they were at the second step at 1PM, that argues for a summit by Mallory & Irvine, followed by a descent at night, which then went awry. But of course, the simple truth is that we will never know for certain, and really, it doesn’t matter. Whether they summited or turned back, the courage and skill of Mallory, Irvine, and the others who climbed Everest is not diminished, a point the book makes crystal clear.
Profile Image for Steve.
794 reviews220 followers
May 2, 2012
I tried, more than once (like Malory), but at close to 600 pages, this is a book in need of an editor. And this is frustrating, because Davis can write, and write beautifully. The idea behind this book is fascinating, seeing the explorers of Everest through the filter of the Great War. Davis is excellent in his accounts of the great World War 1 battles (the Somme, Ypres, etc.), and contrasting these great slaughters with the individual biographies of those who would eventually be involved in the Everest effort. There were times, as I read through the early portion of this book that I thought of Paul Fussell’s awesome Great War and Modern Memory, since Davis seemed to be writing more a cultural history (or an epitaph, like Graves’ Goodbye to All of That) than a story of mountaineering.

And the story is more than mountaineering, but there were warning signs since Davis seemed intent on giving each significant character equal time, and thus giving the reader repeat trips to the Somme, Ypres, and Loos. By the time the reader gets to the first attempt at Everest, the pattern of repetition is well established, and what follows, in excruciating detail, is an account that goes literally mile by mile. This is further multiplied by explorers being broken up into small groups finding their own way to Everest. On at least two occasions I set the book down when I was given yet another account of a cataloguing of wild flowers. I understand what Davis was seeking here, which is the creation of a greater context or chronicling than just the attempt (and thus its more narrow history) to climb a very high snow blasted rock. He does this, and much more, since the impression is one of recreation of actual day-to-day notes. These were brave men, no doubt, but in his attempt to memorialize them, Davis threw in everything, and then the kitchen sink.
Profile Image for Tony.
897 reviews1,482 followers
November 5, 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.
Profile Image for Betsy.
969 reviews145 followers
May 25, 2021
The book starts slowly as as it discusses politics, geography, and religion of India, Tibet, and Nepal. There is also a long segment on the Great War, and its effect on Britain and mountain climbing. That was much more of interest until the author arrives at the first 'attempt' on Everest undertaken by George Mallory in 1921. Reading about all the preparation that was required to survey and actually try to climb was exhausting in itself as innumerable challenges were met, but that attempt was met by failure, even though much was learned which would be valuable in later attempts. We also learned much about the men on the mountain, who pushed themselves to greater heights among snow, ice and health-destroying weather. Mallory emerges as one of the strongest climbers, but not always a likable fellow.

The second attempt in 1922 is not as detailed as the first, but reiterates the problems faced in the first. Age and physical conditioning raised their ugly heads again, not only in the British contingent, but even among the bearers. Many were untrained and were expected to carry heavy loads to greater and greater heights. The surveying of the first attempt was largely put aside, but one of the participants experimented with the use of supplemental oxygen, which turned out to be quite successful. This created a controversy between those purists who wanted to climb without oxygen and those who did. In the end, the deaths of seven bearers in an avalanche put an end to the attempt short of the summit.

The final attempt is the shortest. There are new faces and abilities for this monumental effort. The newest and most promising was Andrew 'Sandy' Irvine. Strong and expert in the use oxygen, he is destined to partner George Mallory on the last effort to reach the top.
Since we know the tragic end, there isn't any surprise, but that doesn't lessen the sorrow of the loss of two young climbers. Both men had dedicated themselves to finding success. Instead they only found lonely deaths in an icy world.

The book ends with a brief look at the history of the mountain until Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally conquered Everest's heights in 1953. I enjoyed this book a great deal. It has its slow moments, but the basic courage of all those who participated can't be denied.
Profile Image for Paula.
428 reviews36 followers
July 10, 2016
Its a book about the great war and an iconic historical figure who dies on a great adventure. How could it possibly be bad? Because its dry. Arid. Written like a text book outline- on this day this many men were sent into battle on the british side, this many from Germany, at X location, N miles from Y and Z miles from Q, this many died. This was the weapon of choice, this is a list of injuries the doctor treated that day-

Catastrophic injuries are listed in a manner so disconnected its almost as if they separate and apart from the human being who suffered the injury. The doctor is working a 20 hour day. He should be exhausted, hungry, disillusioned, heartbroken.

Instead it is presented like a punched time card and bills sent to the insurance company.

The characters he does introduce come rapid fire- and even the most irrelevant character gets the full treatment. He includes so much information about who they were with, where they had met, what they do for a living, where they went to school, the town where they grew up, who they are married to, their parents occupations and club affiliations and other innumerable biographic tangent tidbits that its impossible to tell which will eventually become the direction or person relevant to the story.

That is the research that should go into a great book- a great author is supposed to turn those dry facts into a compelling story, not regurgitate the statistics. I cant help thinking, is this gonna be on the test? I bet this is going to be on the test.

In fairness, I haven't completed the book yet and I definitely will, because even if it were a text book, I'd still read it. I was just hoping for something with more humanity.

UPDATE : I finally had to give up on this book- again- at least temporarily. Its a struggle to stay awake. They are into the actual expedition, the author reviews every step, every flower they saw along the path, (even though its the same flora they saw along the path yesterday and the day before) every note, comment, mail delivery, every action taken and a psycho-analysis of why along with speculations of what they might have been thinking in addition to what was actually recorded, and every possible tangent about any of it. It just goes on forever with meaningless boring extraneous data and commentary- the book records every single step taken. I don't mean, step 1 prepare for trip, step 2, board boat- I mean left foot, right foot, left foot.

2016 update: Three years and as many attempts later- I've decided this might be almost as mind-numbing as the thin air and frigid temps at the top of the world, perhaps requiring almost as much effort to conquer. I Finally donated the book... becasue if it AINT there... well, you know.
Profile Image for Ian.
21 reviews15 followers
April 1, 2017
If you think this is a mountaineering book solely about Mallory's ill-fated attempt to reach the summit of Everest then you will be both pleasantly mistaken and astonished at the breadth and scope of what the author has accomplished.
At the heart of the book is an engrossing account of the three expeditions to Mt Everest carried out by the British between the years of 1921-1924, but it is the background information that really sets this book apart from its contemporaries. It contains some of the most evocative writing on the horrors of WWI that I have ever read and it ties this into the psyche of the climbers, all of whom lived and fought through the carnage of the Great War. It also describes the social and cultural attitudes of the early 20th century and contrasts the carefree British values of prewar England with the much more cynical and acceptance of ones fate that existed after the brutality and massive death toll of the war.
There is very detailed information and background of each of the main characters involved, including their war service and what drove them to give so much of themselves to the goal of conquering the highest mountain in the world.
Another pleasing factor is the amount of time given over to Tibet and the local people, their customs, and voices, and what impact the coming of European travelers had on the country and people.
Be prepared for a lot of detail, especially of Tibet and it's customs, and of the mountain region itself. If however, you enjoy learning about subjects and events that you were perhaps unfamiliar with, then the amount of supplemental information will be more than welcome.
The only negative, which may be limited to the kindle version, is the absence of maps, especially of the Tibet region and the various camps on the mountain itself. The distance that the expeditions covered and the many villages, temples, and fortresses they visited in Tibet makes it extremely hard to follow unless maps are provided to give any sense of location. It was also hard to visualise just where the various camps were set out on the ascent to Everest which was frustrating given the amazing number of trips back and forth made between each camp by the climbers, especially on the 1924 expedition.
Nonetheless, this was a fascinating read, much more so because it actually delivered so much more than I was expecting, and because of the authors fluid writing style, which made it so easy to read and so hard to put down.
A great book and highly recommended.
Profile Image for Ian.
17 reviews2 followers
February 17, 2012
Into the Silence is a masterful piece of research and writing, struck through with fascinating and authoritative insights, and an almost impossibly capacious grasp of history and the mindsets not just of men but of whole nations. I expected Davis to write well about the mountain, and he delivers brilliantly on that. I was less prepared for the thorough and unvarnished evocation of the war and the multiple traumas that flowed from it, and for his fluid yet acute capture of the Bloomsbury Group, the colleges, the intrigues, and the politics of the times. His sense of the class and social milieu is absolutely bang on. As to the expeditions themselves, Davis is critical but respectful, thoroughly authentic, the narrative delivered with such confidence and certainty (the result of superb research, obviously) that as a reader, I counted him as among the climbers every step of the way. He is is not the slightest bit obtrusive, yet so observant it seems impossible he was not actually on each of the voyages he describes. To me as a reader, no greater satisfaction would be than for Davis to have an opportunity to compare notes with Mallory himself, as absurd as that sounds. His is a brave book, absolutely worthy of the man and his memory, and were they ever to meet, it would be as rare equals.
Profile Image for Christine.
6,550 reviews473 followers
January 3, 2013
I was sick when I read this book, which is why it took me so long to read. You know, that sick where you can't even read. I hate that type of sick. This book, however, did make me feel better about my cough because at least I wasn't coughing up my throat lining. (And at least this offically qualifies for the first book of the year in the TBR Challenge).

The reason why I point this out is that the book is totally engrossing and despite being stuffed with facts, a very easy, almost speedy read. It is actually particulary engrossing when Davis goes into detail about the first World War (he should write a history of that) as well as the travel to Everest itself. In some ways, the account of climbing the mountain pales to these other parts.

What I found especially interesting (besides the fact that people are drawn to do things that are really quite stupid) is the amount that class and social customs played in determining who climbed the mountain. Mallory developed a dislike, for instance, towards one of his fellow climbers simply because the man was a colonial; at least Mallory was honest enough to admit it. So using the War as well as British social aspects, Davis shows the reader why Everest and why those men.

Good read. It is also quite easy to find a podcast where the author discusses this book.

Profile Image for John.
1,154 reviews25 followers
December 2, 2012
The amount of detail in this book is astounding. It is hard to imagine how much research must have gone into it. Depending on your point of view this detail can be the strength or the weakness of the book. If you enjoy the background of Mallory's school life, teaching, WW1 career, Indian and Tibetan history and religious customs; along with the backgound of various other players then you will really enjoy the book. If you are impatient like me you will have to endure 3/4 of the book before they get on with the climbing.

The Mallory and Irvine's climb is mythical. Reading about all of the physical and mental challenges they had to endure makes me wonder why anyone would want to do that just to summit a mountain. But I guess great reward requires great sacrifice!
Profile Image for El.
1,355 reviews504 followers
March 1, 2013
I'm a pretty big nerd. I get excited about things like the finding of George Mallory's body, I love when 75 years of history is unfolded before my very eyes, I'm amazed anytime something so spectacular is so close. It seems like something that is so far removed from me and my life, but there it is - you can watch it on YouTube.

I'll admit that I knew the bare minimum about George Mallory before reading this book. Luckily the author is a pretty smart cookie with a gazillion degrees and a lot of thoughts and talent, because I learned a lot from this book. Not just about Mallory and his team, but also about Everest, the Great War, how the war affected the climbs, the state of India at the time, how that affected the climbs... it's like the knowledge Davis had about these topics wouldn't stop. At first I was a bit turned off because I had a little difficulty getting into the book; the first whatever pages involved information about people I didn't know and I couldn't understand why I needed to know. But it does all come together.

I feel like ass lately, so writing this review feels about as incredible as climbing Mt. Everest - imagining accomplishing a feat like climbing a mountain makes me throw up a little in my mouth.

Just... read this damn book, 'kay?

And now, because someone did this, watch this video, not because The Killers are great... but the video is a montage of images of Mallory and his teamsters. Some photographs in the montage are familiar to anyone who has read the book and has looked at the photographic inserts. But some were new to me and it sort of blew my brain a little.
Profile Image for James Hartley.
Author 9 books126 followers
August 4, 2017
On the morning of June 8th, 1924, two British climbers set out for the summit of Everest. They were last seen, two dark spots on the ice, heading upwards, before clouds blew in and obscured the views. Still nobody knows if they ever made it to the top.
This book tells their story, the story of all the climbers involved in that expedition and the two which preceeded it, setting their tale against the backdrop of the First World War and bringing vividly to life a generation which stares weirdly out from old newsreels, papers, photos, poetry and letters.
This is a mountain of a book. The journey is long and there are moments of exquisite horror and pleasure to be had along the way. Descriptions of the Great War battles are vivid and visceral. Each player in the story is sketched with concise, telling strokes - often worthy of books in themselves. The history and customs of Tibet, then an unknown territory, are described. Almost every step on the long journey taken by all the climbers is noted.
Sometimes the journey is exhausting, other times thrilling. It is always engaging because the book is about humanity in the end. Climbers and the will to summit; spirituality and nature; the best and worst behaviour we are capable of as a species.
There are some old films on You Tube (search Everest 1922 or 1924). Look at those strange alien creatures, in their weird, primitive gear and then read this book and meet them. Because, although long dead, they will come alive as you read, specks in the snow, before the clouds roll in again.
Profile Image for Janet.
144 reviews59 followers
December 29, 2011
An incredibly well-researched book that sacrificed its momentum through sheer scholarship. The first third of the book moved quickly drawing a vivid portrait of the horrors of WW1 and the epic scale of human life slaughtered and squandered. By contrast, the remaining two thirds of the book moved at a pace I would liken to the rate of altitude gained in the Death Zone (i.e., glacial speed). For me, this was almost two separate books combined. Intriguing premise - couching the attempts on Everest against the receding backdrop of the war - but not wholly successful. Understand England's desire to boost the country's morale and reassert their supremacy by being the first to scale the world's highest peak however, this was rapidly eclipsed by the unrelenting politics and adherence to the British social caste system that manned and drove these expeditions.

Having said that, I did learn a lot. I learned that Mallory was absent minded and disorganized. I learned that even these early attempts involved the use of supplemental oxygen. I learned that there were many heroes - Somervell & Finch included - who sacrificed their own chances for the history books to safeguard and/or save others. I learned they had really, really bad clothing (tweed jackets and wool mittens!). Mostly I learned that Tibetan sherpas, acknowledged as the linchpin for summit success, were generally treated with less regard than the average dog.
Profile Image for James Murphy.
982 reviews155 followers
July 10, 2019
Well, I'd thought this would be an infectious read, a page-turner, and it was. It's essentially an adventure story, the first attempts on Mt. Everest. As you'd expect--as I did--it's full of man against the elements, British pluck, and all that. The book delivers. Partly because, I'm sure, I knew little of the story, I found it enormously engaging. I couldn't put it down.

These days we're used to photos of climbers in long queues on the face of the mountain waiting their turn at the summit, reports of $11,000 fees (I'm told) charged by companies that provide the experience, and intense media interest when something goes wrong up there. These days it's hard for us to imagine a time when Everest was unknown. We're surprised to learn that no European saw the mountain until 1903. We're not surprised that once its height was calculated and it was established as the highest point on earth that men wanted to climb it. We're not surprised that the British were determined to be the first in the proud interests of empire. Their Royal Geographic Society and the Alpine Club had the organization and resources needed to attempt it. Wade Davis's book tells the story of the 1st 3 expeditions in 1921, 1922, and 1924. What took so long was the Great War interrupted their efforts. Because nothing was known about Everest the 1921 expedition was a reconnaissance designed to map the area and to find the best access onto the mountain itself. The 1922 and 1924 expeditions were attempts to reach the summit. We know they failed, that the summit wasn't reached until 1953 by Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. So in a way this is a book about failure that nevertheless highlights indomitable spirit and courage.

There are many stories told here. The title indicates 3 grand themes. I was confused at first that Davis gave such prominence to the Great War. I even thought the Everest story could have been told without its details. But these climbers were all veterans who'd seen a great deal of action. Early going in the book spotlights their experiences, familiar to us because we've all read of the general nature of the war and the horrific environment it created. Davis's descriptions raised my eyebrows. They're among the most lurid and sensational I've ever read and, to me, served no real purpose because he didn't underline the war's later influence on the men. Only twice does he mention lingering effects: a climber named Wakefield, broken by the war, sought redemption on Everest, and another suffered wounds which restricted him to administrative duties. Such graphic writing on the war becomes heavy fruit in the mind of a reader who's read widely on the subject; it bends the branch of the reader's acceptance and might later breed questions about Davis's descriptions of conditions on the mountain. It's only toward the end of the book that some signals emerge to explain Davis's motives. Some of the men compared the danger of climbing mountains to the war. Even today it's common to hear the phrases "assault on the mountain" and "attacking the peak" used in high-altitude climbing just as those men spoke of it in the 1920s. One of those on the 1922 attempt wrote, "In a struggle between man and mountain, such as this, as in any other battle...the moral effect of turning away from the enemy, after having once challenged and opened the fight, is fatal." In addition, one thing I learned about these attempts on mountains is that they're generally organized using military methods and disciplines these men were familiar with. I feel it's probably true today.

The third theme of the title is George Mallory. I'd begun the book with the idea it's partly his biography. It's not. Details of his life, including wartime and climbing experiences, are included, but so is the same information on every other key member. Mallory's importance was as perhaps the preeminent climber of his generation. He was expected to be the one to succeed. He was a member of all 3 expeditions, made serious attempts up Everest's face, and his fate has made him legendary.

My quibbles with what I consider sensational descriptions of the war don't detract from an entirely satisfying read. Maybe magnificent is a better word, reflecting as it does the subject. There are many stories in the book woven around the 3 large themes. In the end the scope of it encompasses so much more than the 3 expeditions to Everest. Davis's descriptions of Tibet with its unfamiliar culture and spiritual practices make it a marvelous travelogue. British imperial reach is a part of it, as is the nature of early 20th century media coverage, British climbing culture, and so much more.
Profile Image for Barb.
428 reviews2 followers
December 31, 2021
I'd give this 3.5 stars if I could. A lot of the book is completely fascinating; I've read a number of books about Everest, but none about the early expeditions. Reading about these men approaching a mountain without knowing anything about it, their equipment (or lack thereof), their experience levels was incredible.

Davis did a great job tying their experiences with World War I into their attitudes about climbing and death. The stories of what these men lived through during the war years and the attitudes that prevailed throughout Britain during that time provides valuable insight.

It's apparent that Davis did a lot of research. Unfortunately, it seems like he included every detail he encountered. The book details the three expeditions to Everest in the early 1920s--in 1921 to scout out the area, and journeys in 1922 and 1924 to make attempts at the summit. Davis spends far, far too much time on the 1921 expedition. We get full histories of everyone involved and what they did pretty much every single day of the trip. And what they ate. And wore. And what kind of tent they slept in. And whether it was a different tent the next night.

Once he moves on to the 1922 and 1924, the book moves much more quickly. Some of that, of course, is because the groundwork was laid out in the 1921 expedition. But at times it can be hard to decipher which details are important, which are meaningless, and which simply provide flavor. (Except for the times that Davis quite literally says that something will be important.)

I enjoyed learning more about these men and this period of history; I just wish the book didn't drag in the middle so much.
Profile Image for Thomas Vree.
42 reviews1 follower
June 18, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Julie.
1,317 reviews92 followers
October 9, 2011
After devoting two full weeks to this massive book, yesterday I did my own summit push and spent six hours plowing through the final 100 pages, and I must say, I wasn’t disappointed. The fate of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine remains one of the greatest mysteries on Everest, but there were so many other factors leading up to the tragic 1924 expedition.

First, The Great War. At the time, no other event in history affected the morale of a nation more than the bloody and devastating war that robbed Britain of its sons and its innocence. A majority of the men involved in the first three voyages to Everest had a role in the war and witnessed atrocities that would change their lives. At first I thought Davis was using the war as a device to generate shock value in portraying gory battle scenes. Then I realized that these men’s experiences as soldiers and officers allowed them to tackle a mission with a certain discipline that reflected the attitude of Britain at the height of its imperialism. Thus the sense of patriotism was a driving factor for an entirely English team to be the first to summit the tallest mountain in the world.

Second, the relationship between Tibet and England would determine whether westerners would be allowed to travel through the isolated, mystical country to reach Everest. Davis did a great job outlining Tibet’s history, including the slaughter of hundreds of natives by English troops in an attempt at diplomacy at the turn of the century and the Chinese rape and pillaging of Tibet a decade later. Tibet’s tumultuous past and its fervent religious practices made its leaders suspicious, but clever negotiations allowed the first team of Englishmen to do their initial reconnaissance of the Everest region.

This preliminary scouting expedition in 1921 was vital to learning about approach to the formidable mountain. I will admit that there was some redundancy and tedium to this lengthy part of the narrative, but all of it was essential to understand the territory and the participants. Mallory, of course, would be involved in all three Everest efforts, but there was a myriad of other climbers and people overseeing logistics, hundreds of local porters and tons of supplies. The second attempt in 1922 brought both new and familiar characters, along with the notion of using supplementary oxygen. Though a number of height records were achieved, injuries, frostbite and a catastrophic avalanche that killed 7 Sherpas would affect future approaches.

The culmination of all the knowledge gained in 1921 and 1922 would be applied to an ambitious attempt in 1924. For Mallory, a return to Everest was both an obsession and carried with it a sense of doom. Despite knowing the outcome of Irvine and Mallory’s final summit attempt, the tension of the last 50 pages was excellent. The debate about whether the two climbers ever reached the summit was addressed, but no definitive answer could ever be established. The epilogue was essential, covering the aftermath, Hillary’s successful summit 20 years later, and the discovery of Mallory’s body in 1999. Davis’s meticulous and extensive research lends authority to the entire epic struggle with Everest in the 20’s, and the use of diary excerpts and letters made it feel very authentic. I can say with confidence that this is probably the most comprehensive examination of the incredible efforts put forth by Mallory and each of the individuals involved who were determined to conquer Everest.

I received a complimentary copy of this book via the Amazon Vine program.
Profile Image for George Ilsley.
Author 12 books217 followers
July 26, 2021
A fascinating book with a wealth of detail and research. The first section on the industrial scale slaughter of the first world war almost put me off the book. I can see how Davis felt this brutality was an important underpinning to the events that ensue. Some of the early expeditions and descriptions of the various routes were not that interesting; however the book does pick up and overall it is a grand achievement — even if most of the events skew sad/tragic.

Mountains used to be seen as frontiers still to be conquered. Now they are more like tourist death traps. My favourite Mallory quote is when he was asked by a schoolboy why he wanted to climb Everest. "Because it is there," Mallory is supposed to have said. And in fact, Mallory is still there, his frozen corpse only recently discovered on a high slope (where it and many other mountaineering corpses remain as macabre landmarks). Like the mountain, Mallory is "there" now, too.
Profile Image for Wendy.
543 reviews150 followers
April 4, 2013
*note* I received this book through the Goodreads First Reads program.

Reading this book is an Everest climb in itself. It is long. It is dense. It is packed with historical detail, possibly too much. Dozens of characters are introduced, their backgrounds and experiences in the Great War laid out for us so that we slog through Pachendale and the Somme at least three separate times. It will be hundreds of pages before we understand where these men fit into the Everest story. We will read of every political machination and act of snobbery conspired to forward--or prevent--the first British attempt to summit Everest. We consider giving up, closing the cover, and going home. There are many shorter books we could tackle and summit.

Except that some deep fascination with the unknown, something parallel, perhaps, to what spurred on the climbers themselves, latches onto us. We can't let go now. The summit is all but visible in the clouds. This enormous snowball of facts and politics and natural science that we've been straining against gradually begins to roll on the power of the human story--mostly Mallory and his approaching doom. The tumbling snowball becomes an avalanche.

Getting into this book requires a certain fortitude to stay with it for thirteen long chapters, but it is absolutely worth it. While part of me wishes the book was tighter, less redundant, and perhaps more focused on fewer important players (the Mallory sections are by far the strongest), I love the way Davis puts Everest and the early British attempts at "conquest" into context with history, politics, and culture. At times I had the feeling the author was throwing in every last detail from every diary and letter he could find (I'm not particularly interested in daily expedition dinner menus), but by the time I reached the last page I was unwilling to let go, as if closing the cover might confine Mallory, Irvine and the rest to the forgotten scree-strewn slopes of history.

Except that I can't seem to let go and forget.

Profile Image for Mary.
813 reviews15 followers
October 8, 2017
A remarkable book. Davis begins with WWI and the horrific loss of life and catastrophic injuries that occurred in those grim battles. Often, I had to pause from reading this section in order to comprehend and reflect on the sacrifices made by those brave men.

Climbers and climbing are the focus of Davis' work. The quest to conquer Mt Everest was fraught with political problems, weather problems, health problems, and supply problems, but never a lack of courage or reluctance on the part of the climbers who made up the 3 expeditions put together by the British in the 1920's.

George Mallory, a highly skilled climber and gifted athlete, was the heart of these expeditions. A member of all three teams, he lost his life on Everest. Reading about these teams' attempts and by today's standards the primitive equipment and clothing, they had to protect them from the fierce cold, ripping winds, and blazing sun glare from the ice, I again marvel at the men from this era.

Beautifully written with attention to detail and well researched, this book is a gem that should be read and appreciated by lovers of history and adventure.
Profile Image for LibraryCin.
2,228 reviews46 followers
March 11, 2018
3.25 stars

George Mallory made three attempts to summit Everest in the early 1920s. On his third attempt in 1924, he and a young, inexperienced Sandy Irvine went missing, and no one knows whether they made it to the top or not. This book looks at all three attempts, plus the people who were involved, many who also fought in WWI.

I really liked the last 1/3 of the book (4 stars worth), but the first 2/3 were hit or miss for me. There were parts that seemed really good, but they just didn’t hold my interest. Some of the stuff on the war was very well-written, but overall, that part of the book just wasn’t all that great for me. However, in the last 1/3 of the book, which followed the last two attempts at Everest in 1922 and 1924, I was fascinated (as I usually expect to be when reading about Everest!). It is possible (but hard to say for sure) the not-holding-my-attention in the first 2/3 of the book (over 400 pages!) could simply be due to stress in my life at the moment. There were also a lot of people involved, so sometimes I would lose track of who was who.
33 reviews1 follower
December 8, 2011
This is probably the most thoroughly researched book I've ever read and yet it's easy to read.

The first few chapters on WWI, in my opinion, should be compulsory reading for young adults everywhere. Davis makes clear the tenor of the times which allowed and encouraged the kinds of mind-numbing slaughter that happened on the European battlefields of WWI, and this helped me understand better how that sort of waste of human lives can happen. These chapters are also the perfect beginning for this book in that we see how the characters of many of the early Everest climbers were forged by their war experience.

I've read many books on Everest climbs yet, to me, this was the most enlightening and educational of all of them. The story is told simply, but with compelling details that allow the reader to 'be there' - and a book on Everest is about as close as I want to get!
Profile Image for Natalie.
587 reviews2 followers
May 5, 2022
What a massively exhaustive, extensive undertaking this book must have been. Davis did an over the top meticulous job weaving the history and war time events around the discovery, mapping, surveying and climbing of Everest for the first time. All of the players received detailed histories involving schooling, upbringing, romantic trysts, war time duties, injuries and accomplishments. He does such a good job, in fact, that he turns this novel into a textbook, and has lost the reader before anyone sets foot on the famed mountain itself. Politics between England and China are discussed ad nauseum, and the first surveying team in 1921 goes on for over 100 pages as every single letter home from every man on the team is discussed and quoted, from the flowers they see, to every meal they eat. When I tell you that the most exciting thing that happens in 100 pages is Mallory put the slides in the camera backward, I'm not joking. Full disclosure here; I skipped the middle third of the book, because Davis was simply losing me and I couldn't read another page about surveying the Rongbuk Glacier.
There are good things here, don't get me wrong. Davis humanizes Mallory so well- to the point where he comes alive through the pages. He's no longer just one of the first people to climb Everest. He's an actual person, with hopes and dreams and aspirations for himself, his colleagues and his country. I also learned a lot about World War I, which often gets lost in the shuffle and overpowered by the second world war in history and film. In the climbing of Everest itself, I was astonished by the fortitude, strength and skill of these men who were determined to go where literally no man had been before, and were willing to give their lives to the cause.
Sections and certain chapters of this book are definitely worth reading- but I don't believe all of it is. You'll get bogged down with politics, dates, numbers and meals that ultimately will sway your attention and interest. The introduction, the chapter on Mallory, the chapter with the 1922 attempt, and the last two chapters are really all you need to get a good picture of the history and story.
Did Mallory and Irvine make it on their final attempt? I'd like to believe so, but the cynic in me says otherwise. I don't think that's what matters though- they lit a fire in the world's collective imaginations, and still do so to this day. In that, they will never be forgotten.
Profile Image for Rob Twinem.
823 reviews36 followers
July 4, 2020
“...caught on the barbed wire, drowned in mud, choked by the oily slime of gas, reduced to a spray of red mist quartered limbs hanging from shattered branches of burnt trees, bodies swollen and blackened with flies, skulls gnawed by rats, corpses stuck in the sides of trenches that aged with each day into the colours of the dead”............”This was not war he wrote; it was the monstrous inversion of civilization. To call it war was to imply that something of the sun remained, when in fact all that existed was a bruised sky in a bitter night of cobalt rain”......”Not a village had been taken, nor a single major objective achieved. Machine guns cut the men down like scythes slicing through grass”..

And so starts this epic novel of human endurance and human spirit told against the backdrop of the senseless slaughter of WW1 and the cold unforgiving heights of a treacherous Mt Everest. Before George Mallory embarked on his third, and what was to tragically prove his final attempt at ascending this great mountain, he was asked what was the purpose of conquering such a merciless foe he simply replied….because it is there. Yet such a simple response hides the enormity of the task that faced Mallory and Irvine as they set about vanquishing all their fears and summit this frozen mountainous landscape, many years removed from the mud and blood of never to be forgotten names...Ypres, Verdun, Somme (the Somme in particular accounting for more than a million men from all sides killed wounded or captured, British casualties on the first day alone amounting to over 57,000) It is perhaps of little wonder that the men who had survived the battle fields embraced with such passion a need to climb, a need to cleanse their souls, find some meaning in wasted lives, sacrifice, and perhaps by reaching out they might touch the hand of God…

Into the silence is a large novel that requires some perseverance and dedicated reading time to fully appreciate what is being described to the reader. I felt that the earlier part of the book with its gory WW1 imagery was some of the most disturbing I have ever encountered. The preparation for and the 3 ascensions of Everest were a little too detailed giving at times overlong historical and geographical descriptions as various permissions were sought and the lower reaches of Everest constantly surveyed in an attempt to select the best and most practical route for a successful ascent. This however is a minor criticism and for the most part I was enthralled by this boy's own adventure unfolding before me, where amongst other noteworthy facts oxygen was used for the first time. If we also appreciate how simplistic the standard of equipment was compared to the present then the achievements of these earlier innovators is outstanding. Many years were to pass before the ultimate fate of Mallory and Irvine was known, it had always been hoped that they had reached the summit and that speculation still remains today even though Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999 it gives little clue as to his final moments…

An important read not only for its historical significance but a wonderful study of the essence of man and his ability to rise above all adversity in the search of a dream…..”from that day it was certain that he had found in snow mountains the perfect medium for the expression of his physical and spiritual being”......”His great desire she wrote very simply was for the spirit of man to exercise itself freely and fearlessly and joyously as a climber on a hill”.......
Highly Recommended
Profile Image for Mark Mitten.
Author 7 books27 followers
April 6, 2013
Mr. Davis did a very thorough and meticulously researched bio on George Mallory, and the team members on the 1921, 1922 and 1924 Everest expeditions. It is a substantial tome, but a very worthwhile read for anyone with a dedicated interest in the history of mountaineering, and of course Everest in particular. I remember when Conrad Anker found Mallory's body on the mountain, and everyone was hoping the mystery would be solved concerning whether or not Mallory & Irvine made it to the top. Davis explores the question, and suggests (following Anker's lead) that it is unlikely. If Irvine's body is ever discovered, and if their camera is found with it, then perhaps the answer can be objectively known.

As someone with a lifelong passion for mountain climbing, and a personal interest in mountaineering literature, this book was fascinating. I don't really have any criticism, but if I were to offer a critique to readers, I would prepare them for the extensive background of the team members' experiences in the first World War. It is thorough, unsanitized, and certainly affords a grim look at what the horror of war is like. Yet it is a part of who these men were, and informed their characters and actions, and helps explain the psychological necessity, the collective conviction, for the Everest ascent--something positive, something "good", a pure achievement of the human spirit, following such a dark period in European history. A second critique, would be that Davis explores the homosexual experimentations in men's private-school settings during that time period in the UK. This seems unnecessary to the story, and because of its placement early in the book, feels like the author may be trying to capitalize on sensationalism to solidify his readership. Does an author need to capitulate to our culture's preoccupation with political correctness, revisionist assessments, and "gotcha" journalism to sell a story? This portion of the story is not extensive in content, and so does not become too distracting.

The three ascent expeditions make for a very satisfying read. Again, thoroughly researched. Including personal letters to & from family members. The expedition members are no longer names to the reader, they are people. This, as much as anything, will give readers today a sense of what was accomplished--even without the actual summit. The story reminds us how unique and rich (and unrepeatable) certain moments in time are. Everest today, while still a worthy goal, is a very different scene. A highway of commercialism, where the summit is lined with paying clients with little to no mountaineering experience. The greatest danger is not the mountain--it is standing in line in the Death Zone, waiting behind less competent climbers, and playing Russian Roulette with frostbite. Not quite the same existential award. Paying for any achievement that is better earned, seems to violate what ought be sacrosanct. There is something so meaningful in the struggle to achieve, that seems lost on the mountain today. Which makes the lesser known peaks, the road less traveled, the more desirable path.

A must-have for any Everest aficionado! A satiating read, and inspiring.
Profile Image for Ula Tardigrade.
175 reviews7 followers
February 7, 2021
A masterpiece. It left me in awe, craving for more, despite its length of about 600 pages (without notes).

As I am interested both in mountaineering and the heroic age of exploration, I've read some books about first expeditions to Everest (most notably, The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mt. Everestby Conrad Anker and David Roberts, and Maverick Mountaineer by Robert Wainwright). It didn't diminish the pleasure of reading Into the silence, though, on the contrary - knowing this story allowed me to better understand what was at stakes. And, as Wade Davis writes in his Annotated Bibliography,

'What possibly remained to be said about a story that had been covered by so many writers? Assuming that Knopf might be wondering the same thing, I offered to return the advance. Ash Green generously replied that he had not offered me a contract because he wanted another book on Mallory but, rather, because he wanted a book by me on Mallory.'

And that's the point: nobody else could possible write such a book. Davis, an anthropologist and explorer by his own rights, didn't want to tell the story of a famous tragedy. He wanted to understand what made Mallory and his companions push into the unknown and take unimaginable risks. To achieve this, the author began digging into the history of the Great War, an experience that created this whole Lost Generation of young men, traumatised and disillusioned forever after. And thanks to his effort we can almost relive these horrors, reading detailed reports straight from the trenches.

I have to admit that until reading this book I had not fully understood the scale and impact of the British losses during World War I. That may be a reason why, to my surprise, I've found these parts of the book most gripping. But no less fascinating was the deeply empathetic depiction of Tibet and its people, and their attitude towards strange white people risking everything to get on a cold, deadly mountain. And, of course, I devoured the account of the expedition itself, admiring bravery and resourcefulness of these long-gone first mountaineers.
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