Into The Silence, by Wade Davis, chronicles and examines the British expeditions to Mount Everest in the period 1921-1924, paying special attention to George Mallory, and to the experiences of various expedition participants in the First World War, and the degree to which these experiences affected how the endeavours in the mountains were approached.
What could have been another book about mountaineering is given a different, and absorbing, dimension. The portraits of the various members of the expeditions are fascinating, and I gained the impression of a Britain in a state of flux, modernity encroaching on traditional values and methods, and people confused and disorientated in the wake of the 1914-1918 conflict. The author does not flinch in his descriptions of the horrors of the trenches, and in his observations about the folly of the war.
Another strand which I discerned from the early chapters was the ambiguity in the outlook of many of these men, even those with a seemingly enlightened and liberal view of the world. It is a candid window on some prevailing attitudes, often expressed in diaries and letters. Paternalism, at the very least, was still very much alive, if this is any guide. The frank and honest nature of the portrayals is one of the things which I found so engrossing about the book. It is safe to say that the human race has progressed in many ways since the early 20th century.
Another part of the appeal of Into The Silence is the diversity of the characters, and the way that attempts were made (or not as the case may be) to mould these people into effective and harmonious teams. It is probably true to say that an environment as extreme and arduous as Mount Everest lays bare individuals' foibles, frailties and idiosyncrasies. Some flourish and rise to the occasion, whilst others are defeated and ground down by the ordeal. Davis manages to evoke these phenomena very capably.
I was gripped by the detailing of George Mallory's early life, before the outbreak of the First World War. I had not realized the extent to which he had associated with some of the leading artistic and intellectual figures of his day.
Clearly, wartime travails had affected people in subtly different ways. All had their own tale to tell, or not to tell. Part of the charm is in sensing how the personnel, and the wider public, interpreted their efforts in the Himalayas, and whether to them it represented redemption, escape, idealism or else something different.
There is always a danger that the constant referring back to, and parallels with, the Great War, could become trite after a while. However, Davis handles matters with some sensitivity and finesse, making the assertions and allusions seem plausible and credible. The meanings, where they exist, occasionally emerge as quite nuanced, sometimes even nebulous.
I did rather feel that the chapters dealing with the 1921 expedition, given over primarily to reconnaissance and surveying, were padded and excessively long. It could perhaps have been condensed. The casual observer might also consider that, by comparison, the legendary 1924 trip is documented with relative brevity. Then again, this is no ordinary book.
The quotes from letters and diaries lend a real intimacy and authenticity to the story. As so often, these snippets reveal some innermost sentiments, and occasionally some unpalatable truths. The personality clashes, behind-the-scenes intrigues and animosities, and the vagaries of the selection processes, are in their ways just as interesting as the tales of heroism and stoicism at altitude.
Above everything looms the enigmatic figure of Mallory. Some of his outpourings during the three trips do not square with his supposed inclinations and sympathies. "Mercurial" might be a good way to describe him. A complex individual, and one has to admire his single-mindedness and drive, tinged as they appear to have been with insecurity.
I think that the author builds the tension excellently, as the stakes rise during the 1922 and 1924 expeditions, and the moments of truth approach. The descriptions of the courage and resourcefulness of the climbers, and the sufferings which they endured, are very well executed. One almost felt like one was there in a tent with Mallory, Irvine or Norton, haunted by gale-force winds and plagued by exhaustion and pain.
A riveting read, then, and one marvels at what these people achieved, with such primitive equipment and communications.