I completed Wade Davis’s most recent work Into the Silence during a few weeks of fieldwork in Iqaluit, Nunavut this past August. After days spent on the computer and in meetings, I would return exhausted to my room and be transported to the wind scoured ridges and peaks of the Himalaya. Now that I’ve finished the book, I feel I should add some comments on the second portion.
As I recall I wrote the first portion of the review before the first expedition had really gotten underway (the book details the first three expeditions to Everest). This first portion of the book is taken up with analysis of the British mountaineering and climbing culture of the time as well as a thorough consideration of the many and varied impacts of the Great War on a whole generation of Britons. The second portion sees Davis lead us through the first two British expeditions, and finally into the third expedition of 1924 which culminates in the disappearance on the mountain of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine.
This lead up is crucial as we follow Mallory and his fellow climbers through the arduous journey to basecamp, and the complexities of climbing with the rudimentary oxygen apparatus being used (or not) at the time. Davis considers in particular the military background of so many of the expedition members and delves into their rigid training and British upbringing as well as the harrowing experiences of their time in the trenches during the War.
The mountains, the high Himalaya, emerge in Into the Silence as both a canvas on which are painted Britain’s colonial ambitions, and also as a place where young men, scarred in the War, search for solace. I spoke to Conrad Anker about these themes last week at a workshop here at McGill for the National Geographic Young Explorer Grant Program. We agreed on the deep and emotional connection that many of those early climbers on Everest felt both for their companions and for the mountain. We got to talking about his work on the Shark’s Fin on Meru, a remarkable climb where I think the partnership between Anker, Chin and Ozturk was a central component of the expedition. Our conversation solidified my belief in mountains as a source of creativity, and mirror for introspection. Anatoli Boukreev famously said that on “each journey I am reborn”, an idea that Davis captures vividly in Into the Silence. Perhaps that’s what we all hope for, to see ourselves emerge changed when we descend from the high places out of the wind, the snow and the cold.