Wade Davis – “Into the Silence”

Big concept, big mountain, big danger and mountains—sorry—of detail.

You feel every step in the long, cold, brutal climb up the “white fang” of Mt. Everest.

In fact, you feel every step as a nation sets its sights on a goal laden with “mystic patriotism.”

“Into the Silence” is about the process of how Mt. Everest became a “distraction from the reality of the times” and how a nation embraced “a climbing expedition that would become the ultimate gesture of imperial redemption.”

This is a terrific—and terrifically detailed—book about the first three attempts to climb Everest and the indefatigable and odd assortment of people behind them. But be forewarned that the mountain doesn’t make an actual appearance in the telling of this conquest until page 236 of this 580-page epic.

Wade Davis spends many pages establishing the political and mental climate in the seven or eight years leading up to 1921. The first sections dive deep into the battlefield trenches in Europe as individuals emerge who will play a role in the Everest assaults. A nation’s ability to embrace a challenge and steel itself to loss is a key theme.

So is the ability of the mountain climbers to evaluate risk and pursue goals.  The “because it’s there” comment from George Mallory, years after the war, almost makes sense when viewed through the weight and gravity and massive loss suffered.

In some ways, Davis is saying, the desire to climb Everest was part of a PR battle to restore the nation’s confidence. It was spin from Propaganda Bureau. One information officer suggested that climbing Everest would help prevent the world from “slipping back into a dull materialism” and would serve as “vindication of the essential idealism of the human spirit.”

Davis doesn’t scrimp on detail anywhere on this journey.

The Great War. Thinking about Everest. Working through the politics and the culture clash of making the first treks into the Himalayas as the British quite literally brought their empire–and their champagne–with them.

It takes an army of porters and massive organizational effort to position the climbers and support them with provisions and, again, Davis treats these sections with as much care as he does the others. Every phase of the effort led to the next and every challenge came with risks.

You’ll either relish in the fine-grain view or find it tedious. For me, I can’t imagine the second half of “Into the Silence” without the first. The climbers come into view—like the mountain itself—with that much more relief.  Davis invests considerable time in their background and personalities and the reward is a tremendous payoff when we’re on the mountain making our way up.

Of course we know there is failure ahead but the early planners were supremely confident.

“In retrospect,” writes Davis, “these were wildly ambitious, quixotic goals, revealing how little the climbers actually knew about the mountain, the scale of the endeavor, the danger of the undertaking, the power of Everest’s wrath. They were like knights who had endured impossible hardships to reach the mouth of the dragon’s cave, still to discover what it really means to enter and confront the creature.”

The end is the most gripping as the climbers struggle with finding a route, learning what gear works or doesn’t, and confronting issues over oxygen, weather patterns, wind and punishing, brutal conditions. It’s in the last sections where George Mallory takes center stage and we follow him up and down the mountain through all three treks and, finally, his final climb followed by a thoughtful analysis of whether he reached the summit before perishing.

About the only thing that puzzled me was the odd title, “Into the Silence.” It seemed a strange choice, an attempt to echo Jonathan Krakauer’s masterpiece, “Into Thin Air.”  What silence? Certainly not the winds howling over the ridges of Everest.

Aside from those three words, there are several hundred thousand others here that are fascinating and bring a faint story from history (at least to me) to life.  I highly recommend the read and the ride.

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