Into the Silence: George Mallory and the Story Behind the Story
“Because it is there.” With these words, George Mallory, the lead climber of the early British expeditions attempting to scale Mt. Everest, explained why he had to climb the world’s tallest mountain. And he kept at it through three expeditions (in 1921, 1923, and 1924)–until he disappeared with his climbing partner, Sandy Irvine, somewhere on the mountain above 28,000 feet. He was a week shy of his 38th birthday, happily married, and the father of young children; Irvine was 22 and a student at Oxford.
Heroic? Certainly. Reckless? Possibly. But how do we, nearly 90 years after Mallory’s death, begin to understand why Mallory chose this quest?
Enter Wade Davis‘ book, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. In these pages, Mallory emerges from nearly a century’s worth of glamour and neglect to take his place as an outstanding climber, a battle-hardened soldier, and a graduate of Oxford and member of his generation’s social elite. But what makes this book exceptional is its portrayal of Mallory’s entire generation (or at least the European fraction thereof), focusing on the experience and aftermath of World War I.
And as if that were not enough, along the way we learn about the British Raj, Anglo-Indian-Tibetan relations, and the history of Tibet and its adherence to Buddhism. Until finally, at the end of the large (but not overlong) book, we learn the fate of the three British expeditions to Everest.
Of this complex web of topics and events, what will probably remain longest in RT’s mind is Into the Silence’s portrayal of WWI. The war is famous for its violence, stupidity, and psyche- and culture-shattering effects on the combatant nations. But RT had no idea of the degree to which fighters in the trenches suffered. Casualty rates were not only unprecedented, but even uncontemplated until the war: on the Allied side alone, 5.5 million soldiers were killed and 12.8 million wounded, with an additional 4.1 million missing. This amounts to 22.4 million casualties out of a total Allied fighting force of 42.9 million. And casualty rates were far higher during certain battles, for instance, and perhaps most notoriously, in the Battle of the Somme. During the battle’s first day, the British sustained 57,470 casualties–20% of its entire fighting force–and the Newfoundland Regiment was essential destroyed. For many soldiers, the carnage could scarcely be imagined, let alone endured.
But if RT had to single out one memory that is particularly heart-breaking, it is a young lady recalling that all the boys she had ever danced with were dead by the end of 1916.
After enduring such hell as young men, from RT’s perspective, climbing even the tallest mountain in the world might seem entirely possible to WWI veterans–and even a moral duty.
Enough about the Great War. What stands as testament to Into The Silence‘s power is the fact that all the other threads of its epic–the lives of Mallory and the other expedition members, the history of the Raj and its relations with Tibet, and the story of the heroic attempts to climb Everest–do not get lost in the telling. The book is beautifully written and pulls the reader forward.
And, for the record, RT thinks that while Mallory and Irvine probably did not reach the summit of Everest in 1924, there is still a significant chance that they did. Only more evidence from the mountain will settle the matter. RT
Related RT Posts: 1) The Golden Spruce–A Book Review.
Photo: George Mallory; WikiCmns; Public Domain.