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Hundreds of books have been written about British explorer George Mallory, who disappeared during an attempt to be the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1924. But behind this familiar tale are the riveting stories of the twenty-five other men on the expedition, and the bloody war that shaped their psyches. Through this group’s dramatic tale, Wade Davis examines our deep fascination with a mountain that has killed one climber for every ten to reach its summit.
- Wade Davis Anthropologist, biologist, ethno-botanist and author most recently of, "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest"
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from “Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest:”
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Most of us know the story of the tragic Mallory Expedition to Mt. Everest in 1924, which ended with the disappearance of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine and left the world with a mystery. Had the two men been the first to reach the summit of the world's highest peak, one might think that the small library of books written about that expedition would have exhausted the subject.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo, if asked why he chose to write about it, author Wade Davis might very well quote Mallory himself when I asked why he wanted to climb Everest, because it was there. In fact, like Everest in 1920s, it turns out there was quite a lot of unknown territory in the story of that expedition, including the profound influence of a brutal and bloody war on the mountaineers.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss it all is Wade Davis. He's an anthropologist, biologist, ethnobotanist and author most recently of, "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest." He's also National Geographic's explorer in residence. Wade Davis, good to see you again.
MR. WADE DAVISThanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you for joining us. The title of your book echoes Jon Krakauer and his Everest book, "Into Thin Air." And there's a reason for that. Tell us how this book came about.
DAVISWell, you know, I was traveling in the spring of '96 on an ecological survey across Tibet, 4,000 miles from western China, the last one onto Kathmandu. And that happened to be the season of the debacle that Jon Krakauer wrote about so powerfully in that book, "Into Thin Air." I was with a wonderful friend of mine, Daniel Taylor, who was the son and grandson of medical missionaries in the Himalaya and Daniel's father had been a close friend of Howard Somervell, who climbed with Mallory in '22 and '24.
DAVISAnd that mountain was a mountain of Daniel's imaginings. It's not the somewhat big noble scene of today with the commercialization of the mountain. And by chance, the very next fall, Daniel and I were back on the east face of Everest trying to photograph clouded leopards and snow leopards when he suddenly began to tell me about these, you know, Englishmen tweeds who flung themselves against the snow and read Shakespeare to each other 23,000 feet.
DAVISAnd I became completely enamored. And what intrigued me was not the question as to whether Mallory made it or not before the mist rolled in and enveloped his memory in myth. But who were these men and what propelled them on? And because I knew they'd all been through -- likely to have been through the Great War, it struck me that perhaps they were prepared to accept a level of risk that would have been unimaginable before the war because not that they were cavalier about death but death had no mystery for them.
DAVISThey had seen so much of it that it had nothing to teach them, save that of their own. And for all that generation, in a sense, life mattered less in the moments of being alive. And so, that's how I began this idea and which ended up taking over 10 years to find out where each of the 26 men who went on Everest -- to Everest in 1921, '22 and '24, where they were throughout the entire First World War.
NNAMDIAnd that's a part of the appeal of this book actually, because so much of the mythology, so much of the literature about that Everest expedition focuses on George Mallory, and much less so on the others on that expedition who turn out to be quite fascinating.
DAVISThat's a really interesting point, Kojo, because, you know, in a way, not only have the other books focus exclusively on Mallory, they've also presented the expeditions as if they sort of came out of a void when in fact from the very start the desire to climb Everest was completely kind of tied up in British imperial policy. So that you notice before the war the goal was to, in a sense, seek a gesture of redemption for an empire of explorers who had famously lost the race to the North and South Poles.
DAVISAnd, of course, Everest loomed as a third pole, if you will. But after the war, it became more of a mission of regeneration for an entire people and a nation bled white by war. And even permission, for example, to climb Everest, to go through Tibet in 1921 was secured as part of a very complex diplomatic initiative that was essentially an arms deal upon which a free Tibet could have been founded. And so, from the very start, those expeditions cannot be extracted from the context of their time. And a big part of that context, of course, was the war itself.
NNAMDII was wondering what led you to that, because World War I ended four years before 1922, six years before 1924. But it's at the heart of the Mallory Expedition. What is it that led you to focus on the Great War.
DAVISYou know, that war was really -- you know, Kojo, there's nothing that we experience today -- you know, every moment of existential angst, every kind of neurotic moment, every sort of sense of uncertainty in a way was born at the mud and blood of Flanders. I mean, that was really the birth of modernity. That single bullet into the breast of the prince in Sarajevo sparked the biggest cataclysm in the history of humanity and it meant the end of the era of progress, faith, you know, certainty of the 19th century.
DAVISSo, in a way, it was a birth of modernity. And I just was interested in -- I knew that if I wanted to understand these men, I had to see what had been there obviously a seminal experience. You know, we forget what that war really imply. I mean, one of the fascinating things about it is that the British zone of operations on the front was remarkably small. At no point was the British front longer than 125 miles. For much of the war it was 85 miles.
DAVISBehind that front, the British and their Canadian and Australian allies in the Indian Army would build 6,000 miles of trenches, 6,000 miles of railroad. I mean, the (word?) around which you could walk in a long day, four miles by twelve miles, saw the death or the wounding of 1.7 million boys. And because the zone of operations was so small and because so many millions went through it and because after the war there was such an outpouring of literature, poetry and prose, you know, from multiple voices, there was literally no corner of the battlefield that had not been chronicled every single day of the war.
DAVISAnd what's more, the -- you know, what's famously said at the Battle of the Psalm in Passchendaele that the British army lacked the clerk power to tabulate the dead. But if that was the case, they kept records of just about everything else. It was most thoroughly documented war. And because of that, you know, you almost wonder how the men found time to fight. But because of that, I was able to find out where each of the 26 men who went to Everest war, it was actually 20 of the 26 turned out to have fought on the front, where they were every single day of the war. And, you know, what they endured defies imaginings.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Wade Davis. He's an anthropologist, biologist, ethnobotanist. And his latest book is called, "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest." He's also a National Geographic's explorer in residence. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. What do you see as the relationship between World War I and the efforts to climb Mt. Everest? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIWould you ever attempt a feat of endurance that has killed 1 in 10 who have tried it? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Yet, Wade Davis, British explorers had tried to climb Everest before World War I. What was the...
DAVISNo, they hadn't. They have been thinking about doing it. And in 1921, they launched -- finally, they had permission. Nepal was closed and the 13th Dalai Lama finally granted permission. So, what made the 1921 efforts so fascinating is that they literally had to walk 400 miles off the map just to get to the base of the mountain that had, in fact, no European had encountered at close quarters.
DAVISAnd some of the -- one of the most extraordinary things that I found in the long 10 years of research -- and this may help people understand the kind of link between the shadow of the war and the mountain itself. You know, all historians claim that there was only one diary kept on that 1921 expedition by Guy Bullock who was Mallory's climbing partner, an old friend as a schoolboy from Winchester.
DAVISBut, you know, people speak about Mallory's journals but he actually just wrote letters to his beloved wife Ruth. But I found there was a member of that expedition by the name of Oliver Wheeler, surveyor, come to the expedition from the survey of India. And he turned out to be the sort of the unsung hero of that expedition.
NNAMDIFellow Canadian, was he not?
DAVISFellow Canadian. I mean, you know, Kojo, for some reason Mallory hated Canadians. I never figured that out. I didn't hold that against him much. But Wheeler turned out to be the man who had been given the task of mapping the inner (word?) of Everest. He was the one who spent more time high on the mountain, exposed to the wrath of the mountain, alone on the mountain than anyone else. And it was he, not George Mallory, who actually found the chink in the armor, the route to the North Col, which was a doorway to the mountain.
DAVISIn 1921. And I found -- amazingly, I found his son alive in Vancouver, living five doors in the house I was born in. It was amazing.
NNAMDIThis is a whole another story about cultures that we can get into at another time.
DAVISSo I went to see this wonderful man, John Wheeler, who himself was 77 at that time. And he pulled off his shelf a treasure, two volumes of journals that his father had kept in 1921 as he marched across Everest. Now, on that approach March, a famous high-altitude physiologist by the name of Arthur Kellis (sp?) 56 years old, too old for Everest, literally died of exhaustion and was buried in the shadow of a great fortress of (word?) on the Tibetan plateau. Now, on the day of that burial, this is what Oliver Wheeler had to write in his journal.
DAVIS"When they buried the old boy in the morning, probably the afternoon, terribly sorry to have missed it, but I do hate funerals."
DAVISWell, Kojo, how do you miss the internment of one of your fellow climbers as the six of you are walking across Tibet together? Obviously there had to be something going on. And I knew the answer would be found on the western front. Wheeler was a soldier's soldier. He sailed to France and the outbreak of the war, he was attached to the 7th division of the Indian Army. And by this point, of course, the British regular army had been annihilated.
DAVISAnd the entire British sector of the front in the fall of 1914 was held by the Canadians in the north, the Indians in the south. And by that point, the topography of Armageddon had come into play. The trenches reach the coast and both sides are beginning to zap each other, pinning trenches 90 degrees to the main trench line so you could get close to the enemy and raid the trenches, et cetera. And it came to the attention of Wheeler's command that the Germans have put two zaps within 30 feet of their front.
DAVISAnd so, he was given the order in November of 1914 with 125 men to go over the top, bury those zaps. He was a royal engineer. And to do so in a way that would dissuade the Germans trying to attack it again. Goes over the top, all hell breaks loose -- artillery, machine gun fire. They get to the zaps and they find them filled with Germans by chance about to attack them. So the result is this horrible hand-to-hand combat. In the end, the Indians pushed the Germans back, but not before the trench line is lined three bodies deep, chest to chest, boys at both sides dying.
DAVISAnd like Wheeler said, like trout in my (word?) . He tried to get his wounded out, but in the chaos of the battle, he never lost the haunted feeling that he had buried boys alive. And so, when he says on Everest, you know, five years, I do hate funerals, you see what he's talking about.
NNAMDIThe direct connection between World War I and the men who attempted the climb of Mt. Everest in 1924. We're talking with Wade Davis about his book, "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest." If you have questions or comments about the conquest of Everest, call us at 800-433-8850. You can also send us email to email@example.com or you can simply go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Was that, I guess, applicable to most of the men who participated in that climb, the kinds of horrors they had seen, horrors in a way beyond words? They'd lost many friends. What did that do to their perceptions of fear and of death?
DAVISI think that they were prepared to accept a level of risk that would've been unimaginable before the war. And it wasn't that they were casual about death but as I said, it had no mystery to them. And you know I think it's hard to know, I mean, they, you know, the war hovered in their experience, never spoken about, never forgotten. I mean, you know, T. E. Lawrence and Robert Graves famously made a deal never to talk about the war. But, you know, the war was literally scarred -- had scarred their bodies. I mean, they were 26 men on those expeditions.
DAVISOf the 26, six avoided the war, one was too young, two were too old, one was a school master, one sat out the war in India. But 20 did see the fighting. And in fact six were severely wounded, four as doctors dealt everyday with the agonies of the dying. One suffered so severe shell shock that he spent much of the war in suicidal depression in an asylum. And all had endured the coughing of the guns, the barbed wire, white faces of the dead. Jack Hazard, for example, who climbed the North -- to the top of the North Pole in 1924, did so with open wounds from the Battle of the Somme that never healed.
DAVISThey were bleeding beneath his climbing tunic. Howard Somervell, the morning of the Somme, July 1, 1916, was a Surgeon in the casualty clearing station, the first sort of medical facility behind the front. He was told to expect 1,000 casualties in the first week of the battle. He walked up with one other doctor and was surrounded by six acres of dying boys. He never came back from Everest. He became a medical missionary and devoted the rest of his life to saving the living as he -- so he might sweep away the memories of the dead.
DAVISHoward-Bury who lead the expedition in 1921, extraordinary man who had, you know, always drawn to the sacred. He had traveled throughout Asia. He had, sort of, anointed his body with scented oils and gone down on pilgrimage down on the Ganges. I mean, just extraordinary adventurer and explorer, served throughout the war, statistically should not of survived and yet his moment of almost complete collapse at Devil's Wood, the evening after 4,000 boys had been killed and he was given an order to dig a communication trench.
DAVISAnd he found himself in the darkness with his men, not digging through the chalk soils of Picardy but digging through corpse fields of the dead and he almost went mad. So everyone of them had some element of the war that hovered in their imagination and really had made them who they were, after all these men had almost, all of them, spent four years and four months at the front.
DAVISAnd this, at a time you know where every month the British Army needed 10,000 young boys to replace just the ranks of the junior officers who died and those junior officers invariably came from the private schools or the public schools. And so these were the -- these entire classes would graduate not to Oxford or Cambridge but directly to the trenches. And this, of course, was a class in the generation that these men came from.
NNAMDIPutting into context the attempt by George Mallory and others to climb Mount Everest in 1924, that's what Wade Davis does in the book "Into the Silence." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. We are getting reports about shots fired at Virginia Tech University.
NNAMDIVirginia Tech says that one of their campus police officers has been shot. A potential second victim is reported as at a parking lot as WAMU 88.5 News gets updates, we'll present them to you on that issue. Right now we'll be taking a short break and then we'll be returning to our conversation with Wade Davis. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Wade Davis. He is the "National Geographic's" explorer in residence. He's an anthropologist, biologist, ethno-botanist. His most recent book is called "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. If you have called already, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call as soon as possible. And there's another part of this story that we don't get told a lot, the Tibetan side of this story. There were 200 porters, Sherpa's, who accompanied that expedition, many falling ill, a few of them even dying in the attempt.
DAVISAbsolutely and not just the Sherpa's but there were, you know, the British were the first Europeans to move through this part of Tibet and I wanted to tell the story of how the expeditions were perceived from the Tibetan point of view and so to do I spent months, for example, in a monastery in Nepal, which was a monastery that had been founded by the spiritual heir of the Rinpoche or the Lama, who greeted the British in 1922 and '24 at the famous Rombuk monastery. It sort of is nestled in the Rombuk Valley of the base of the north face of Everest, one of the highest monasteries in the world. And I also got a hold of the autobiography, the spiritual namtars they're called in Tibet, of that Lama and had it translated by monks by in Kathmandu for the first time.
DAVISSo I was able to really, you know, see how the expeditions were perceived by the Tibetans and at the same time I did a lot of work with a wonderful anthropologist, Hilda Gardenberger (sp?), at Cambridge University, who's kind of the world's authority on Tibetan oceans of sacred space. So people often think that Everest, Chomolungma, goddess mother of the world, well, that's actually not an accurate translation of the name of the mountain. But the mountain itself is not itself sacred, as much as the landscape around it. And so the whole time the British were moving across that landscape, they were moving through mystic space.
NNAMDIAnd how did the Tibetan people view this and other later expeditions?
DAVISWell, the (word?) Rinpoche in the namtar, it's very interesting. I mean, he basically has great compassion for the British, because for -- from the point of view of Tibetans there can be few things more foolish than flinging yourself into a zone of death, where oxygen deprivation alone limits consciousness. Because, of course, the entire purpose of this incarnation from the Tibetan point of view is to do everything possible to use this moment in life to achieve a transformation of the human heart to achieve enlightenment. And so to deliberately court death and the annihilation of that possibility is about as stupid a thing as you could possibly do.
DAVISAnd at the same time they had a kind of a respect for what -- and compassion for the men endured and the British were completely kind of astonished because the Rombuk Valley had been, since the time of Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, who brought the Tibetan dharma, the Buddhist dharma to Tibet, it had been the home of Hasidics and all up and down the flanks of the valleys the British were traversing, were caves where these life-long retreatants had gone into solitary, isolated retreat, you know, with very austere religious practices and some of the Tibetans -- some of the British rather understood it and sympathized, some like Mallory kind of were dismissive of it.
DAVISBut there's a marvelous scene, for example, Howard Brewery, who had always been drawn to the sacred, he read the works of Christian Mersey, he hung out with monks in Tibet, he hung out with templed guardians in China. And he had that horrific experience on the Western Front that nearly drove himself mad and as he was actually riding in 1921 to their destination, a place called Tingery (sp?) , he noticed a figure on the horizon, sort of getting up and getting down, like they -- with the regularity of a metronome and he suddenly discovered it was a Mongolian pilgrim, moving from Lhasa to Kathmandu, one body length at a time in ritual prostration.
DAVISThere's a marvelous moment was his pony clip-clops past this pilgrim and he can hear the sound of the hands on the road, you know, as he drops in prayer and then he suddenly looks over his shoulder and for the first ever he sees the skyline, you know, of Everest against a lapse blue sky and it's a stunning moment of religious affirmation and possibility for a man who had nearly lost his faith on the Western Front.
NNAMDITime to get to the phones. Here is Steve, in Rockville, Md. Steve, you're on the air, go ahead please.
STEVEYes, hi Kojo, thanks for taking my call. I have a question about Graves, the writer who wrote goodbye to all that, Robert Graves. As I recall, Mallory taught him how to climb as a, you know, sort of and adolescent and, you know, he was obviously later involved with, you know, deeply involved with World War I, in the trenches.
DAVISWell, yes, I mean, Robert Graves was a student of Mallory's at Charter House and he famously said that Mallory's talents as a teacher were wasted in such a setting. And then Mallory was the best man at Robert Graves' wedding. And curiously, I was able to discover that Wilfred Owen was also at that wedding and on the very day of that wedding was the day that Wilfred Owen learned that his first poem ever was about to be published. So I love this idea that, you know, Mallory himself was an aspiring writer, so you know that Owen and Mallory would've talked with Graves at the wedding about that and here were these sort of three seminal figures of that war coming together.
NNAMDIAny more specific...
STEVEWas there any...
NNAMDIGo ahead, go ahead Steve.
STEVE...was there any chance that, excuse me, was there any chance that Graves could've been on the -- or entertained going on the expeditions?
DAVISI think Robert Graves was so severely wounded at the front that he actually was left for dead and his mother was notified that he, in fact, passed away. He was hit by shrapnel that completely blew his chest apart, or blew out one lung. Another piece of shrapnel went through his groin. He was literally left for dead and when the burial party came around the next day, he was found to be breathing but even then such was the carnage of that battle of the Somme, that he was left for five days in the hot sun until he could be taken back to Britain. So he was a climber in his youth, but I don't think he physically could've made it to Everest and he certainly was never a name that came up when the Everest committee was looking for climbers.
DAVISOne of the famous climbers of Britain, Tom Longstaff, rather vocalically said, as they tried to put together a team, "that the supply of young climbers is not what it once was before the war." And, in fact, Jeffery Winthrop Young, who was Mallory's mentor used to gather all the poets and climbers and historians and artists at a wonderful place called Penny Pass in Wales for these sort of great sort of celebrations, where by day they would climb the crags of Wales and by night they would sing and recite poetry and envision all the new possibilities of a new century. And he kept a photo album of the people who went to Penny Pass and of the beautiful honed faces of the men, 25 of the climbers would be killed in the war and 11 maimed for life.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Steve. You too can call us, 800-433-8850. How do you think the wars of today are affecting this generation of men and women? 800-433-8850. here is Katherine, in Lincoln, Va. Katherine, you're on the air, go ahead please.
KATHERINEMr. Davis, this is so wonderful, your program. And not just talking about Everest as an isolated thing, but bringing in the history, the past of the men and how it shaped them, gives it much more richness and this -- we tend so often to ignore our past and how it shaped one another. And another thing I wanted to say is I've heard many times that the cream of the young men that died, were the cream, has affected the progress of England for a century because they lost all these well-educated young men that would've been leaders and inventors and all that.
DAVISAnd they were aware of that, you know, and it's funny, you know, women often spoke about the war with the metaphor of dance. Nancy Cooper famously said, by the end 1916, every boy I'd ever danced with was dead. There Britain simply said, there was no one left to dance with. Steven Spender said that in the wake of the war the English middle-class continued to dance, quite unaware that the dance floor had fallen from beneath them. And in the first two years of peace, after the armistice, in the fall of 1918, such were the agonies of death duties and the consequences of the war economically that more land changed hands in England in those two years than at any time since the Norman conquest.
DAVISSo the impact of this war, you know, not only birthed the kind of nihilism of the 20th century but it also just completely and finally depleted the British Empire. Even though that empire would, in fact, geographically continue to grow until 1935, what was left it died on the battlefields of Flanders.
NNAMDIGot to tell you, one of the seminal experiences in my life, Steven Spender spoke to my high school class in Guyana, South America in 1961. Thank you very much for your call, Katherine. Onto Tom, Chevy Chase, Md. Tom, you're on the air, go ahead please.
TOMThanks very much Kojo. I really enjoy listening to the author and I'd very much to have him compare the psychology of the young men climbing in the '20s, who had just come from the Great War, with the young German climbers in the '30s, who were maybe not looking forward to the war but there was a national psychology that was leading them to war.
DAVISI think that's a really interesting question. I mean, I am no authority on the German climbs of the '30s but there was no question that in the ideology of the Nazism, this sort of Aryan superman. I mean, that's why Heinrich Harrer became such a hero for climbing the Eiger and that whole German mountaineering experience in the '30s was very much about the ascendance of Germany at that time. Conversely, in Britain, the three or four expeditions that went to Everest in the 1930s, not one of which reached in the mountain than Mallory and his cadre did in the '20s.
DAVISThat interestingly enough became, if anything, a symbol of impotence in a nation that had lost its empire and now faced the specter of another war, which would be Hitler's war. It's difficult to look back on the men of the '20s and isolate their achievements on Everest from what they've done in the rest of their lives. And these were men of extraordinary grit. Sandy Wilston (sp?) , you see these photographs of him, he looks almost mouse-like. He was a naturalist in 1921. Well, let me tell how mouse-like he was. He was responded an advertisement in 24 hours, The London Sunday Times, set off for three months just to catch up with an expedition in Central Mountains of Uganda.
DAVISSpent nine months in the forest there and then decided when it was time to go home, that why go back the same way. So he walked from the source of the Congo to the mouth. You know, a year later, he'd be walking to the very heart of New Guinea, trying to climb the highest peak there with men dying all around him. He was left with one companion and there's a great scene in his journals, where he's having a proper British dinner service on a crate of wood with proper cutlery and everything, while the river is literally rising 'neath their stools. And he says, "Well, at least it didn't make it too difficult to wash up that night." You know, I mean, these men just came from an era, difficult for us to imagine.
NNAMDITom, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us...
NNAMDI...at 800-433-8850, if you have questions or comments. 800-433-8850. What do you think? What do you find fascinating about these men versus nature stories, especially when their put in the kind of context that they are put in, in this new book, "Into The Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest." As we mentioned earlier there are hundreds of books on the Mallory expedition but you felt that very little of the context for the expedition had been explored, even after you had gone through all those books.
DAVISWell, the funny thing that happened actually, Kojo, was that I signed this contract three months before Mallory's body was found.
NNAMDIYes, in 1998.
DAVISAnd of course, as soon as his body it was one of the greatest stories of mountaineering history.
NNAMDIHere comes a flood of books.
DAVISThe flood of books. And I actually went to my editor at Knopf said, well, look maybe I'll give you all this money back. You know, and he wonderfully asked (word?) he said, we didn't give you that money for a book on Mallory. We want a book by you on Mallory. Now get on with it. And then I flippantly said, well, it could take a decade. Because it was kind of a gift, although it didn't feel that way at the time because it forced me to take the story to a level of breath and depth that simply had never been done.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Wade Davis. You can also get in touch with us at our website, kojoshow.org, or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Wade Davis about his latest book. It's called "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest." Wade Davis is the National Geographic's explorer-in-residence. He's an anthropologist, a biologist, and ethno-botanist, and we'll go directly back to the phones where Nate in Fairfax, Va. awaits us. Nate, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NATEThanks for taking my call, Kojo. And I realize that the whole thesis of Mr. (word?) book is that the question I'm about to ask doesn't matter, but just like there has to be an idiot at every concert yelling Freebird...
NATE...I'll be that idiot to ask this question. Does he think that Mallory did make it to the top?
DAVISYou know, Nate, that's not -- obviously that's not a dumb question, and it's a central question that everybody wants to know, and it's an important one, because, you know, the -- my thought would be no, and I'll tell you why. When Conrad Anker, who is a good friend of mine, found Mallory's body, he then replicated the approach and climbed the mountain along the route to see whether he thought Mallory could have made it. They were really -- on that northeast ridge, there are just two impediments, they're call the first and the second step.
DAVISWe know for sure that Mallory got to the base of the first step, because an oxygen bottle from the expedition was later found there. He would have turned that step readily and made his way toward the second step. Now, the challenge of the second step is a very steep pitch of rock about a 100, 120 feet high, and with massive 10,000 exposures on both sides to, on the one hand the Rongbuk Glacier, and on the other side, the Kangshung Glacier. Now, when Conrad climbed the mountain, he found that he really needed to use crampons.
DAVISMallory couldn't use crampons at that elevation because the straps would create frost, you know, damage to the feet from the cold. We know that Mallory had ropes that were too weak and too short to down climb that terrible pitch of rock, which would have made it very difficult for them to safely come down that pitch. We also know that Mallory left his torch behind, which suggests that he started the fateful climb at sunrise or shortly before, whereas Conrad started at two o'clock in the morning and did not get back until 9:00 p.m. that night.
DAVISWe also know that Mallory and Irvin were severely dehydrated because they had lost their stoves, so they would have started the climb debilitated. So any number of lines of evidence make it quite unlikely that Mallory got the top, save one. Had the snows that battered the base of Everest that season battered it so badly that Colonel Norton, head of the expedition in '24, had to order a complete retreat, not just from the top of the North Col, but from the base of the North Col all the way down the East Rongbuk Glacier to base camp, not once but three times.
DAVISHad those snows accumulated on the northeast ridge, it's possible that a cone of snow could have formed like an incline plane as indeed it did in the fall of 1985, That would have allowed Mallory and Irvin to simply walk up the slope surmounting the second step. If that had been the case, nothing would have kept Mallory from the summit, because for that entire generation, as I say, life mattered less than the moments of being alive, and of course, when Mallory was known to be gone, it was amazing how the men just swept that from their memory.
DAVISYou know, death was something they knew so well from the war, that when a man died that was just the end of it. It was kind of a way of dealing with it. And so even as they walked down the mountain a day after they know that Mallory and Irvin are gone, their journals don't reflect a single comment about the disaster. They simply talk about the weather, the good food, whatever, and yet the night before they left Everest for the final time in '24, one of them looks out his tent at a specter of light of a full moon, the whole face of the drama, and he says a really powerful thing.
DAVISHe said, you know, it's not hard to come to understand that the price of life is death, and as long as the payment be made promptly, it really doesn't matter when you die. Up there are two still forms, yesterday full of life, now they will never know the presence of decay. And that's a direct reference to the rot of the western front, corpse fields, you know, of no-man's land. And again, as they walked away from the mountain, you know, Colonel Norton said, you know, we accepted the death as we had the death of all our close friends in the war.
DAVISThere was never a reason for morbid carping, still it was very close, you know. So they just -- once it was there, it was over and they just moved on with their lives.
NNAMDINate, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIYou know, Wade Davis, we alluded to this earlier, and it struck me again when you said life mattered less than the moment of being alive. When asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, Mallory famously replied, because it's there. While this might have been a flip remark at the time, he was ready for his evening cocktail when he said it.
NNAMDIIt actually very eloquently expresses a lot of what you have explored in this book.
DAVISNo, absolutely true. You know, that comment, you know, he was asked probably for the umpteenth time at a public lecture on a lecture tour of American in 1923. It was actually in New York, you know, why do you climb the mountain, he flippantly said because it's there. And it probably was as you suggest, Kojo, because he wanted to get to a speak easy and get rid of a boring, you know. But the truth is, that slogan, or that saying, or that phrase, took on kind of almost mystical residence and would become carved on the doors of public schools throughout Britain, because in a way, it did distill at some level the essence of pure purpose, you know.
DAVISYou do something like that because it can be done and it must be done, and that was a strong sense that the British, I think, had that, you know, they had lost the race for the North Poles. This mountain was in their domain, no one had really attempted to assault it, and, you know, it was a very, you know, the other important thing to remember about Everest is that to try to climb Mt. Everest in 1921 was like going to the moon. And the incredible thing is that the men who flung their lives against it, some of them had so little climbing experience, you know. They'd simply -- it was a challenge that had no reference points, and they simply went and tried.
NNAMDIOnto the telephone again. Here is Jeanelle in Sykesville, Md. Jeanelle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEANELLEYes, hi. Thank you for taking my call. Mr. Davis, I was wondering with the -- today, you can pretty much buy your way onto an expedition to climb Mt. Everest, and I just wonder what Mallory would have thought of that, and what you think about that.
DAVISWell, that's a good question. I mean, you know, one of the -- people have often asked me, did you ever think of trying to climb Everest yourself, and I deliberately did not do that, because I didn't want any temptation to either insert myself into the narrative, or have the contemporary Everest situation in any way featured in this book. I think, you know, Everest is -- remains a serious achievement to get to the top, but the challenge is not technical, it's just really a matter of endurance, fitness, one's ability to acclimatize, and the serendipitous nature of climate and wind and conditions.
DAVISAnd it's become a kind of another kind of an experience that we've made into a commodity, you know, and so we, you know, every year thousands of people attempting to climb it, in part because you can buy your way, not up the mountain, but at least to the base of the mountain with support staff in place so that if you've got that fitness, and you've got that good fortune, you may in fact find your way to the Summit.
DAVISBut I think it's become somewhat of an ignoble scene, you know, a mountain littered with corpses, still one in 10 people who attempt for, you know, one person dies for every 10 that summit, and it's just a world that is so far removed from this era of Mallory and an era that we look back on with such sort of nostalgia, intrigue, fondness, admiration. So I keep my imagination there.
NNAMDIJeanelle, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIYou, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Would you attempt such a feat of endurance that's killed one in 10 who have tried it? 800-433-8850. I want to go back to our previous caller who speculated about whether or not Mallory had reached the summit. They disappeared of course in 1924, and the rest of the climbing party and the world were left to speculate as to whether they reached the summit. How did that speculation fit in to the mood of that era?
DAVISI think that, you know, the record that Mallory set lasted for -- until….
DAVIS...1953. And, you know, I think his -- with the shift in geopolitics, as you know the north side of the mountain, which had been the only route available to the British was suddenly in 1949 cut off by the Chinese invasion, and as Nepal opened up, in a sense, the story of Mallory both had slipped into myth, and literally the side of the mountain had become inaccessible. So I think the story kind of floated around the climbing community, but as the subsequent efforts prove to be incapable of climbing the mountain, and when Hillary's stunning achievement occurred in 1953, it was just another era all together.
DAVISBut famously, when Sir Edmund Hillary came down off his successful climb, he turned at the South Col to one of his companions on the expedition and just said, I wonder what old Mallory would think of this. And in fact, incidentally, when word of that successful climb reached England, they held that news for 24 hours so it wouldn't compete with the coronation of Elizabeth, II, but only two people were told the news, the Queen Mother, and Colonel Charles Howard Bury who had the expedition in 1921 that first cracked open the doorway to the mountain.
NNAMDII remember that coronation, June 2, 1953. They pounded it into our colonial heads when we were kids. The first encounters of the British were the Himalayas, but during the Victoria era, the geography of their vast empire at that point often seemed to frustrate the British.
DAVISWell, I think, you know, you're kind of -- you quip about the coronation being drilled into your head is so apropos to your question, because you know, when I -- one of things that amazed me, Kojo, is, you know, the sheer audacity of the British effort in India. 1300 white Englishmen dominating a fifth of the world's population, an entire subcontinent. Lord Curzon famously said there wasn't a single Indian in the British -- in the Indian Civil Service because there wasn't a single man in India up for the job, you know.
DAVISAnd, you know, the essence of colonization is to persuade the colonized of their own inherent inferiority, and that was essentially what the whole British exercise in India was about. So if mercantile zeal, the cooptation of local elites, severe military reprisals played a role in the maintenance of (word?) , what really held it together was the sheer audacity, the effort, the sheer goal of an island nation that really never set out to rule the world, but did so with such flair.
DAVISAnd so from the very start, Everest was wrapped up in that. So even the way that Everest was discovered, you know, the geographers knew that the world was not a perfect sphere, but the degree of distortion was uncertain, and it was of importance to cartography in particular. And so to solve that puzzle in the 19th century, the British embarked on the greatest scientific experiment of that century which was a literal measurement of a line of longitude the entire length of the subcontinent of India.
DAVISIt was known as the great trigonomical survey, and implied caring -- or the Coolies caring, if you will, these massively precise thousand-pound theodolites across the entire geography of India. And when they got to the Himalaya, the survey was so precise, the wizardry of the mathematics and the differential calculus was such that they could appear the Himalaya and take measure of the height of the mountains that scored the skyline, and the estimates that they did for the height of Everest are only about 60 feet off what we know today from GPS and latest technology is in fact the height of the mountain, and it was that that led to the discovery of the highest mountain on earth.
NNAMDIGiven the available instruments and technology, it's amazing that surveyors of the time were able to measure Everest from that distance, as you said, to within a few feet of its actual height. There was a lot that was unknown about the Himalayas and what lay beyond. Tell us a little bit about the land surveyors that the British sent to the outer reaches of their Indian empire.
DAVISWell, you know, Lord Curzon famously said that frontiers are the razor's edge upon which the fate of empires rises and falls, and it drove the British crazy that 200 miles from Darjeeling, an agricultural center that sent tea to every Hamlet in the empire, that lay a capital of a country, Tibet, that they had no diplomatic engagement with, and of course their great fear was that the Russians did. Because as the British empire expanded on water through the 19th century, the Russian empire did on land, to the tune of 55 square miles a day, every day, for 100 years.
DAVISAnd so it was this fear of Russian presence in Lassa that led the Raj to dispatch this mystic visionary, poet, and spy. Francis Younghusband on this expedition that broke open the virginity, as they put it, of Lassa, destroyed the Tibetan Army and awakened the wrath of China. It had huge geopolitical consequences, and having broken the virginity as they saw it of Lassa, as he's retreating toward Sikkim and the Raj, there flaring on the horizon is Everest, and they transferred all that kind of geographical zeal to open Lassa to climbing Everest, and that really is what began this incredible saga that I, you know, recount in this book.
NNAMDIGeorge Mallory ran in some of the most storied, artistic, and intellectual circles of his time, including what's known as the Bloomsbury set, the Literal Cabal in London, as well as a group known as the Apostles. In about 30 seconds can you tell us about the Apostles?
DAVISWell, I think, you know, an important point you make there, I mean, always these are great questions, Kojo. You know, we forget -- we think that the staid Victorians gave ways to the jazz chaos of the '20s, but there was a 10-year period of really beautiful dreamlike idealism, you know, where all accounted for that generation was authenticity, transparency, truth, and ascetic beauty, and a new century of impossible dreams. And so the boys that died in the mud of Flanders, weren't just ordinary lads.
DAVISThese were also poets and man who had new visionary hopes of -- idealistic hopes for what the century could bring, and of course those hopes all died, and you know, Mallory's whole scene at Cambridge and the, you know, the ability of these men who were so virile in so many ways, but to speak of love without shame, speaks to who these men really were.
NNAMDIWade Davis whose telling of the story is surpassed only by his writing of it. The book is called "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest." Wade Davis is the National Geographic explorer-in-residence. He's also an anthropologist, biologist, and ethno-botanist. Thank you so much for joining us.
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