Mallory expedition: death on Everest

In this exceptional account of a doomed expedition, Wade Davis leads readers to the summit of Mount Everest via a path that runs through the horrors of the First World War.

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"It has frequently been noticed that all mountains appear doomed to pass through the three stages," the 19th century alpinist Albert Mummery observed. "An inaccessible peak - the most difficult ascent in the Alps - an easy day for a lady." Put another way, all mountains are destined to be negotiated, and made traversable - even enjoyable - for most anyone.

Mummery was one of a clutch of British climbers who pioneered the sport of mountaineering in the Victorian era. He conquered the Alps, which, in Leslie Stephen's memorable formulation, became The Playground of Europe, at least for the leisured classes. But a certain kind of climber could never settle on just bagging a Matterhorn or Mont Blanc.

The real test lay east; that is, in the Himalayas, the vast range that crowns the Indian subcontinent's northern edge and home to the world's tallest mountains. The Himalayas, however, would never be an easy day for a lady - or anyone else, as Mummery himself found out in 1895 when he tried to scale the 7,950m Nanga Parbat. Swept away by an avalanche, Mummery was one of the first casualties of Himalayan mountaineering.

There would be many more. To a subsequent generation of Englishmen, the lure of the Himalayas would prove both irresistible and deadly, and no peak more so than Mount Everest. Climbers from other nations scrambled up and down other Himalayan heights, but Everest, until the 1950s, remained the special province of imperial Britain, whose surveyors had been first to pinpoint it as the highest mountain in the world. Looming over all, both in body count and in height, even today Everest remains an extremely hazardous pursuit. (For around US$65,000, you can attempt the climb - but there are no guarantees you will live.) Some 300 bodies remain scattered across its flanks, including the most renowned fatality in mountaineering history, George Mallory.

Mallory, the star player in the saga of the British Everest expeditions of the 1920s, is a figure of near myth. The finest climber of his day, Mallory and his partner Sandy Irvine disappeared not far from the summit in 1924. That they were agonisingly close to the top is not in doubt; but whether they made it all the way, 29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's historic summit, has had mountaineers arguing yay or nay ever since.

The discovery of Mallory's body in 1999 on Everest's North Face infused the debate with new vigour and quickly occasioned several books and articles. Wade Davis's enthralling new account comes over a decade after these new fin-dings, but under no circumstances is he late to the party. To the contrary - seat him at the head of the table, for he has written far and away the best account of this seminal chapter in the epic history of mountaineering.

A magnificent work of scholarship - Davis's annotated bibliography is a stunning work in its own right - and narrative drive, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest is a nearly perfect book, one of the two or three best titles to have ever come across this writer's desk. The story Davis tells is as thrilling as any yarn from the days of romantic travel. An anthropologist, prolific author and National Geographic Society's explorer-in-residence (who knew such a post still existed?), Davis ventures well beyond the old did-Mallory-or-didn't-he? debate, into ever richer considerations of what Everest meant to the legacy of imperial Britain and to the men who dared to scale it.

For Davis, the path to Everest runs through the battlefields of the First World War. As Davis argues, Everest offered war-scarred Britain, financially spent and spiritually broken, a totem, "a sentinel in the sky, place and destination of hope and redemption, a symbol of continuity in a world gone mad".

The war gives Into the Silence its unifying structure, and allows Davis to stitch together a formidable mass of detail. Francis Younghusband, mystical imperialist, veteran Himalayan hand and chairman of the Mount Everest Committee, called the mountain "the spotless pinnacle of the world". Indeed, its frigid, wind-swept heights radiated with a kind of holy, if terrifying, purity. Like the summit itself, Davis's larger points - about the redemptive powers of Everest for a traumatised nation - flicker in and out of view, sometimes obscured, sometimes brilliantly clear. But Davis has no real theoretical hobby horse to push; his strength is in showing, through loving and measured portraits of the 23 men who dared Everest, how the war altered their perceptions of the line between life and death.

These mostly upper-class English gents had seen the very worst - Arras, the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele; endured severe wounds and shell shock; lost brothers and other close relations. The war never disappears; we see it again and again through each of the characters as they are introduced one by one. The doomed Mallory, with his matinée idol looks and Bloomsbury connections, often gets the lion's share of attention. But Davis gives wonderfully expansive treatment to the other members of his crew, among them the Kiplingesque Charles Bruce, leader of the second and third expeditions. Bruce nearly lost both legs at Gallipoli; "His body was a canvas of bullet wounds," Davis writes. Bruce had a taste for fine champagne, and "for exercise carried his adjutant on his back up and down whatever mountain was at hand".

Howard Somervell, Mallory's closest friend on Everest and a surgeon during the war, walked through six acres of wounded soldiers on the first day of the Somme. But lest you get carried away by the grandeur of the Himalayan landscapes he so beautifully evokes, Davis, with an eye toward maximum gore, spares nothing in his descriptions of battle: "headless torsos, faces on fire, blood shooting out of helmets in three-foot streams, bodies cleft like the quartered carcasses in a butcher's shop, splinters of steel in brains, shattered backbones and spinal cords worming and flapping about in the mud."

For these men, "the war had changed the very gestalt of death".

Inured to death, they tempted death every step of the way to Everest. But their experiences gave them bottomless reservoirs of fortitude - and they would need it. A kind of moral equivalent of war played out on the slopes. Even getting to Everest was a feat, a five-week trek across high mountain passes and the frigid climes of the high Tibetan plateau. The expeditions were run on military lines, a procession of yaks, mules, ponies and porters loaded with equipment and supplies.

They were lavishly provisioned - Bruce saw to that - and the men indulged in gingered lemons and tinned quail in aspic. The climbers didn't quite go up Everest in tweed, but they wore a hodgepodge of woollen underwear, flannel, cashmere puttees, Shetland pullovers and mufflers. Against savage winds, blinding sun and frigid cold, their kit was put to the test. ("The whole climate is trying and the extremes are so great that your feet can be suffering from frostbite while you are getting sunstroke at the same time," wrote the redoubtable Charles Howard-Bury, who led the first mission.) Even if some considered the use of oxygen unsporting, Mallory ultimately chose to use oxygen on his fatal ascent. For all their eccentric touches, the expeditions were quite modern affairs, subsidised by "a combination of endorsements, discounts, and exclusive marketing arrangements for media, film, lecture and book rights that would later become the norm in the mountaineering world".

Needless to say, Tibet's lamas - Davis is superb on the Tibetan context and diplomatic manoeuvring needed to clear the way for the Everest missions - were bemused at the presence of the English and their strange desire to climb "Chomolungma". "I felt great compassion for them to suffer so much for such meaningless work," said one lama. One pushes to the end of Davis's story with a growing sense of dread; we know what is coming, yet Davis's account of Mallory's last hours is shattering in its pathos. For Mallory, climbing Everest - "a prodigious white fang excrescent from the jaw of the world" as he described it - was less a vocation than a compulsion, one that he accepted with serene resignation.

Whether Mallory reached the summit - Davis leans towards the "no" camp - is beside the point. There was triumph in the way he faced down mortality.

A fitting epitaph comes from one of the men on the last expedition. They were all fine writers, but his words are particularly eloquent. After Mallory and Irvine had been lost, the expedition was on the return leg home, still camped very high in the Tibetan plateau. That night, he looked out from his tent, and took in the moment. Everest soared in the distance, "the scene of protracted adventure, spread out like a map and bathed in soft full moonlight". He thought of the climbers, and their fate. "That night and with that scene in front of one, it was quite easy to realise that the price of life is death, and that, so long as the payment be made promptly, it matters little to the individual when the payment is made."

Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.