Just finished rereading Into the Silence by Wade Davis. It recounts the first attempts to climb Mount Everest. Davis wrote a formidable book. He provides exacting context. Most of the participants in the three British expeditions in the 20s were veterans—survivours—of World War I. That fact plus the machinations of British empire-building in Asia weighs heavily on the story of these assaults on the mountain. I knew, as I read the book the first time, that I couldn’t digest all the details in one reading.
I stumbled on the book in the new books shelf at the library. Anything re Everest will get my attention but as I read the first time, I realized I had to purchase the book. Its breadth demands study.
National Geographic sorts of accounts of Everest expeditions always interested me. Possibly the first book about Everest that I read would have been Four Against the Mountain.. That book had local interest. Woodrow Wilson Sayre, President Wilson's grandson, who wrote of his bumbling attempt to climb the mountain, lived near where I grew up.
The book tells how Wilson and three friends snuck into Nepal and tried to climb the hill. They lacked experience, skill, and an army of porters. Additionally, they eschewed bottled oxygen. They were lucky to return alive. It was an almost happy-go-lucky jaunt, except for the serious privations and danger that they faced. The book introduced the concept of anti-belaying, which can be translated as barely controlled falling. Their attempt was almost a satire on the military assaults that attempted and scaled the summit the previous 40 years. Their attempt also foretold the jaunty amateur ascensions that have crowded Everest in recent years.
Strictly arm chair mountaineer, I've read many mountaineering books. I harbour no inclination to get myself into that kind of trouble, I guess I like the second hand frisson of these adventures. When I read, long after it was 'news', Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, I became focused on Everest. Say, did you know the mountain's namesake pronounced his name EE-ver-est?
Including Krakauer's, I've read some six accounts of participants in the events of the disastrous 1996 season on Everest. I've reread most of them, tho no scholar do I be. Hard to explain the fascination but the tug is sure.
Anyway, Davis' book, perforce, begins with the horrors experienced by those who fought in World War I. This is the context, the mindset of the participants. I guess it is an existential gestalt, tho heaven knows I never expected to use such a phrase in my life. How can one embrace the notion of such slaughter? The war brought changes: horses faced tanks, infantry met machine guns and mustard gas. A generation slapped with ultra-force, producing a brand new deadening future. The War to End All Wars, Part 1.
Davis powerfully dilates on the wholesale human loss. Those who survived, who walked on thru, still had a world to see. A blackened, desperate world that one can no more comprehend anymore than the leveling peak of Everest. Almost all who participated in the three Everest attempts in the 20s were veterans of the trenches.
And that's not all. British interest, Chinese interest, empire interest:: the desolate place where lively tectonic plates still push mountains higher becomes an opulent pawn in the growing misgivings of civilization. One can hardly understand the necessity of such strident need, yet it seems so familiar.
About 80 pages in, iconic George Mallory appears. In other chronicles, he would be the sole star. His generation saw him as second only to Rupert Brooks in masculine perfection. That's a commodity, by the way. Physically beautiful, intellectually brilliant, gracefully athletic, and even upper crusty, despite not actually having the means, son of a vicar as he was.
Mallory was certainly of his time, as are we all. Tho progressive of thought, he still remained camped in the class warfare of British Empire. British Empire, however, had lost its shoes, its feet, and finally its heaven. World War I was an open spigot of loss, and by the way, World War II awaited.
The expeditions to conquer—a boding but correct word—Everest were emblems of relief for a pragmatically lost nation. Britain was lost by the nature of loss, as too the whole of Europe. The many maimed veterans who found their way to these attempts on Everest's summit seem to be trying to make sense. Function and purpose join forces: the mountain must be climbed.
In 1921, an expedition of discovery. This required a mapping of a vast, vast, vast unknown. A military sensibility built a logical and logistical tally of the problem and its solution. Sahib and coolies worked together in the task of finding a way to the mountain, then to its peak. Touching the crown hardly played into the exercise for this first expedition. Folks learned to bicker themselves into a (fairly) united purpose.
The reconnaissance recognized human strengths and weaknesses.Empirical steps to reach the driven conclusion. For instance, the air gets mighty thin as altitude climbs. For George Mallory and Sandy Irvine,finally, death, which don't have no mercy. But that's later on, let the story unfold.
The second expedition more firmly saw the summit as its goal. Supplemental oxygen? Not yet, wouldn't be sporting. No fixed ropes or permanent ladders across crevasses, either. Looking for a possible route. Outlanders from Canada and Aus-bloody-tralian looked down upon, let us sigh.
Empire is a clock, which is to say, it runs down. A generation of best and brightest entered the European soil in a display of ridiculous proportions. Davis states that none of the British high command visited the front. Thus could be ordered measured marches into strafing machine gun fire, the idea being that order must be maintained.
When Mallory was asked why climb the mountain, he replied famously, Because it is there. That could have been a flip remark but it follows such egregious whimsy as the bloody battles over and into bloody turf. Why march into machine gun fire? Because the ocular command, with no firsthand understanding of the front, says so. At least the mountain offers a sense of accomplishment.
The big mountain was not next door to anything, so science and survey needed to secure its place and size on the map. This is where glamour gets lost, but it impresses one, the effort to get the picture straight.
As mentioned, Mallory himself doesn't really appear till page 80. He's the hero because we need heroes. Seemingly, anyway. A breathless span of pages offers reviews, let us say, of Mallory's physical beauty. Everyone in the Bloomsbury crowd as well as others wax poetic about his beauty. From a young age he scurried up myriad mountains of Europe, enough to become famous. Otherwise he is a teacher at some stifling school. He survives the war largely unmaimed, tho the vision of slaughter cannot go away, can it?
The second expedition, one year later, seeks possible routes to the top. So much remains unknown about the mountain. Also of the people living within its shadow. With largely colonial zest, the expedition marches in again. Someone is mapping the land, a few others are cataloguing the local flora and flora of the land, even getting to know the native people themselves. Mostly, tho, the British trundle in and over. Glory is the goal.
Several climbers reach the so-called death zone some 2000 feet from the summit. The thin air barely supplies enough oxygen for the climbers. A one last attempt on the summit ended when an avalanche sweeps seven porters to their death. A serious pall and the now familiar why not me?
It boggles the mind what these climbers wore on the mountain. Wool waistcoats and scarves seem better suited for jaunts on the moors than the sub-zero blizzards common to Everest. Nails in shoes sufficed for crampons. Lacking the fixed ropes and ladders that have since been installed, climbers had to cut steps in ice and snow with their ice axes.
With the pall of death from this second expedition, and not wanting to part from his beloved wife and family, Mallory hardly wants to go again. Yet 1924, he relents to join the third expedition. By now, he is convinced on the necessity of supplemental oxygen.
Mallory has become a national hero by now due to his exploits and his personal glamour.. The third expedition brings young Sandy Irvine. Irvine is somewhat a younger version of Mallory. At 21, he's a star athlete and mechanical genius. He brings no mountaineering experience, however.
Finally the day that Irvine and Mallory leave the highest camp for the summit. Typical of Mallory, he forgets his flashlight and his compass. An observer at base camp sees them on a ridge. They are seen alive no more.
Seventy five years later, Mallory, as corpse, is rediscovered. You can join the speculation whether the duo made it to the top or not. As Edmund Hillary—namesake of a Ms Clinton—said, getting down alive is part of the challenge. But that's not to discredit the effort, of Mallory and Irvine, or the entire expedition. They charted new territory, no matter their intentions and concerns. And Mallory was a sort of pillar or prop for a fading empire.
What war isn't ugly, but World War I brought empire to a standstill, stalling in the bloody mud horror of battlefields. All glamour and glory disappeared, which seems to be what made Mallory so appealing a hero: he seemed a knight from a more flowering age.
I would put these early attempts on Everest alongside, say, the space program. The grand goals of reaching the moon, or Everest's summit, only to leave soon after, do not themselves bring the reward. But the galvanizing effect on the respective nations, and most especially the knowledge gained, prove the true value. National glory simply chastens the human value of curiosity and development. Think of the disputed land of Alsace-Lorraine, where iron for the pounding guns of WWI could be gouged in fantastic proportion from our only earth.
British command ordered infantry not just to walk toward machine gun emplacements, during one assault, but by god to maintain ranks. The nutbank sees everyone but themselves as pawns. Sound familiar? Like maybe hedge fund managers and corporate maximizing? The war remains at our heels.
Everest is a playground now, tho fresh corpses still make it real. The summit presents a muted glory to attain now, not to say an easy climb. It's just there, no longer a program, just a badge. Had I the courage and stamina, and the dough-re-mi, I'd take a stride up. But it is hard to get past the exponential bloodbath of the Somme and all those other insensate abbreviations of human life. Empires still consume the people, tho now done with money in hand. To renege on promise is to own the world.