“After the war there was an incredible impulse to go anywhere but home,” says National Geographic explorer, author, and anthropologist Wade Davis, discussing the impacts of World War I on its veterans. Hemingway and other “Lost Generation” writers embarked on artistic and emotional odysseys in the cafes and clubs of Europe. Mallory and other climbers did things much more concretely.
Death With No Mystery
From 1921-24, British mountaineer George Mallory lead multiple attempts to scale the world’s highest mountain. Whether he ever made it to the top remains a mystery, as he and his climbing partner Andrew “Sandy” Irvine disappeared near the summit in 1924. His body was found 75 years later (watch video of the discovery). In researching the story of these men as explorers, Wade Davis realized he could not ignore their story as survivors of the Great War.
“It wasn’t they were cavalier or that they courted death, as much as that death had no mystery for them,” explains Davis. “They’d seen so much of it that death had no hold on them … life mattered less than the moments of being alive.”
Anything But Silence
Wade Davis’s ten years of research culminated in the book, “Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest.” In it he helps bring to life the full sensory experience of both the war and the climb, surfacing details that are often overlooked. “When people think of World War I,” says Davis, “the two things they forget are how noisy it was and how it stunk.” He refers to the stench of bodies abandoned in the trenches, and of course, the ear-splitting artillery fire. “You’re talking about two million shells fired in a day. The sound hovered in the air like something tangible, men say.”
Given that background it could seem like the “silence” in the title refers to what the men were approaching by climbing Everest. But at the summit, silence is one of the last things they would have found. “Obviously if you’re high up on the North Col and the wind’s blowing, it’s hardly silent. In fact, in those expeditions they often compared the wind to machine gun fire,” Davis recounts. “But when you’re in the spacious silence at the base of the camp there is an extraordinary sense of quietude.” The silence, even at such an extreme distance from the war, was still something that one could catch only in passing.
Birth of the Modern Sherpas
In fleshing out the full story of these early attempts at climbing Everest, Davis also tells the story from the side of the Sherpas, the people living in the high mountain region of the eastern Himalaya. While well adapted to life at high altitude, the Sherpas of the 1920s were not the mountain-climbing experts they are known as today (read about the struggles and triumphs of Sherpas today). Their beliefs about the physical and spiritual landscape put a premium on humans thriving in more temperate areas. The extreme conditions, remoteness, and danger of mountains kept them for heavenly beings. ” Surprisingly,” says Davis, “[the nearby people of Tibet] saw Everest as a place you’d be a fool to go.” It was Mallory and his team who “taught the Sherpas how to walk on ice and scale icy mountain sides,” he adds, “a practice the Sherpas have maintained even to this day.”
Legacy of the Expedition
People still speculate on whether Mallory made it to the top of Everest. Whether or not he was the first to summit, he was nowhere near the last to try. After Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful climb in 1953, thousands more have followed, and hundreds have died in the attempt (read about how recent tragedies are shaping plans for the future). The wave of extreme adventuring that Mallory and his companions set in motion has grown in recent decades, involving more people going to more places, attempting more feats than anyone in the 1920s is likely to have imagined. As Wade Davis and “Into the Silence” make clear though, for all the similarities that may exist in the activities pursued, Mallory and the others of his generation remain in a class of their own, going where none had gone before, and shaped by experiences in the Great War for which there still seems no better response than silence.
In 2012, NG Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for “Into the Silence.”