Saturday, March 10, 2012

Mallory, Everest, and WWI

Just finished reading Into the Silence by Wade Davis (Knopf 2011). It concerns the early efforts to climb Mount Everest. Its scope goes way beyond the three expeditions that George Mallory participated in. I guess you could say it gives a harrowing look at British culture in the years leading to and just following WWI.

George Mallory stands centerstage in the book, but he really doesn’t appear till more than 100 pages in. Davis first describes how Everest was discovered as the highest point on Earth, mid 19th century. Data had been taken in the Himalaya but not till some years later were they put together and triangulated to determine that that peak was the world’s top. I’d read some of that before but Davis supplies detail. It’s engrossing to read. Plenty of Empire stuff enters even then.

Davis then introduces the players in the expeditions. Most of the people involved in the expeditions were war veterans. In pounding fashion, Davis recounts horrors of the Great War, as experienced by these men. Somme, Paschedaele, haroo, haroo. You have to keep hearing the numbers to even believe, the carnage, the carnage. It amazes that anyone within the reach of the war retained sanity. It also amazes that any of the European countries involved survived.

Along with the war experience, most of these men were college educated, Britain’s highly structured and hierarchical school system. Mallory was regarded as an Adonis. Davis offers many florid testimonials by men who knew Mallory concerning Mallory’s physical beauty. Sounds like he’s on a par with Rupert Brooke, whom Mallory knew. Historian Lytton Strachey was crazy smitten, but Mallory was crazy smitten with Strachey’s brother James (who said the Treaty of Versailles: “The peace to end all peace.”). All the pictures of Mallory in the book show him under wide brim hats or in fuzzy group shots, and I can detect no nimbus surrounding him. But he must have had something going.

One sees it in his letters, he had character. Indeed, most of the players in the book had been thru hell. It’s a thoughtful, literate bunch making this effort up the mountain. Tibet was largely unknown then, a new political football, and so was mountaineering at such altitude. They were just learning about the effects of thin air, and how to deal with that, as well as dealing a theocracy.

The oxygen tanks that they ended up using were burdens, however necessary. The clothing they wore wasn’t bad, wool and such, and someone had made goose down clothing for himself, but all the pictures in the book look like the men are ready for a jaunt on the moors on some misty morn. I mean, scarves and puttees, and the lot.

Mallory was a hero in England after the first attempt (mostly a reconnaissance) but even after the second attempt on the mountain, a lecture tour in North America failed miserably. During this second attempt, an avalanche caught four climbers and nine Sherpas. Five of the Sherpas died, which left Mallory wondering, why did he survive? Which most survivours of those horrendous battles must have thought. those At least at the time, the taking of Everest was a sort of war effort in the name of British Empire. That sort of meaning had no resonance outside the Empire.

The matter of altitude’s effects still retain mysteries. Some people with experience and fitness excel on the mountain and others fail. Mallory excelled. Despite himself, even. During the fatal expedition he left his compass behind at one stop, and his flashlight at another. His body was found 75 years after his death. He had a broken rope tied to him, and he had fallen. No evidence of Sandy Irvine his partner has been discovered.

The three expeditions could be taken as similar to the Space Race. Getting to the moon was seen as a positive jolt for the US Much practical good came of the Space Race too, technological development. Same too with the Everest expeditions.

I like the breadth of Davis’ subject. He could have stuck with the adventure story—that’s juicy enough—but the context is too important to ignore. That’s the thing that interests me in history, and perhaps interests me in the novels I most cherish. Melville for instance doggedly pulled together the evolving contexts of his whale story into an illuminating intersection. Davis works similarly. Definitely a book worth reading, despite the doleful horror of the war accounts.