Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest - Using Geoff Dyer's review as it says everything I would wish to say far more eloquently than I could do ever. I can't express what an magnificent work this book is. It is astonishing accomplishment of research, organisation and narrative drive that make this the definitive masterpiece of mountaineering literature.

Into the Silence is a powerful, haunting, heartbreaking read - "An exceptional book on an extraordinary generation."

The death in 1912 of Captain Scott and his companions in the Antarctic set a precedent of sacrifice for the generation of young British men who, a few years later, would hurl themselves into the maelstrom of the Great War. That Scott's expedition was, according to later accounts, doomed by incompetent leadership only makes its failure seem more prophetic. Now, in Wade Davis's magnificent new book, the remaining goal of imperial exploration is seen as an outcome of – and response to – the first world war. While Scott's expedition was, in some ways, an exercise in heroic futility, the conquest of Mount Everest could help to exorcise the massed ghosts of the dead.

Three British expeditions set out for Everest between 1921 and 1924, involving a total of 23 climbers, all but six of whom had seen action in the war, either as combatants or medics. Charles Bruce, for example, survived Gallipoli in spite of being "cut down with machine-gun fire that nearly severed both of his legs". Advised by the medical board "to retire to a quiet life and to be especially careful never to walk strenuously uphill", he went on to lead the second and third Everest expeditions. George Mallory, who would die on Everest in the third of three successive trips to the Himalayas, served as an artillery officer but had the good fortune of being sent home from the Somme (due to the recurrence of an old climbing injury) and missing Passchendaele thanks to a motorbike accident on a training course.

It seems likely that, having given a vivid account of the war, Davis will move rapidly on to the planning and execution of the Everest assaults. He does, but whenever new characters are introduced – there is a constant change of personnel over the course of the three expeditions – Davis details their individual experiences in battle so that the war exists not as backdrop but as a recurring series of flashbacks. Its legacy dogs the climbers along every step of their "mimic campaign", through overlapping vocabulary (in the laconic idiom of the age, expeditions and battles are both "shows"), equipment used (altitude necessitates the use of oxygen to prevent the climbers – some of whom had survived gas attacks on the western front – being "suffocated as if by some subtle, invisible, odourless gas") and, of course, by the constant threat of death.

With these expeditions Davis is on tried and tested narrative routes, guaranteed to keep the reader roped closely to the page. Extreme weather and altitude throw up phenomena that are doubly intolerable ("your feet can be suffering from frostbite," Charles Howard-Bury observed uncomplainingly, "while you are getting sunstroke at the same time") and supernaturally weird: at 23,000 feet on the first expedition, Mallory and climbing partner Edward Wheeler "began to glow with a frigid halo, an 'aureole of spindrift' and whirling snow"). Looking, in George Bernard Shaw's words, as if they were part of a "Connemara picnic surprised by a snowstorm", the team members met these and other challenges phlegmatically. (How else to react when the cold causes one to cough up the mucus membrane of one's larynx?)

Into the Silence offers a meticulous recreation of how the idea of climbing the mountain grows out of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India (which leads to the naming of Everest and establishes that it is indeed the highest point on earth); the full diplomatic and political wranglings necessary even to make a start; and the immense logistical demands of such attempts once they are under way: third time around, the supplies include "60 tins of quail in foie gras and 48 bottles of champagne, Montebello 1915".

Still more impressive is the way Davis depicts the meeting of incompatible belief systems. While the British see the mountain as an obstacle to be overcome (by sheer force of Britishness if necessary), the opinion of their Tibetan hosts – that the spirits of the mountain, if not sufficiently appeased, will hurl them from its side – comes to seem just as plausible. It would be a mistake, however, to see one outlook as "spiritual" and the other as pragmatic. The Tibetans, quite reasonably, can't see any point in climbing the mountain; the British, in turn, are animated by a "mystic patriotism" that is itself a kind of delirium.

And while expedition members are delighted to see exotic wild birds that are utterly tame (due to the Lama's decree that they are sacred and not to be harmed), Tibet makes a less favourable impression on them than it will, later, on Richard Gere. Mallory calls it "a hateful country inhabited by hateful people" while some of his team-mates endure the mumbo-jumbo to which they're subjected with undisguised contempt. Though the climbing teams admire the Tibetans' capacity to endure hardship, an avalanche that sweeps seven porters to their deaths on the second expedition is announced with the relieved words: "All whites are safe!" But here too there is complexity; a member of the expedition later writes: "Why, oh why could not one of us, Britishers, share their fate?"

The differences, moreover, do not simply divide west from east. Within the British camp some view the use of oxygen – and its great advocate, George Finch – with a mixture of suspicion and contempt. "I always knew he was a shit," snorts a team-mate on seeing the Australian-born Finch repairing his own boots. Mallory, the tragic figure at the centre of the drama, contains many of these conflicts and contradictions within himself. After a Stranger's Child-style homosexual infatuation at Cambridge, he marries, has kids, and sets up home as a schoolteacher, only to be lured back repeatedly to the mountain that will claim him. Forward-thinking enough to see that the socially inept Finch is his best possible climbing partner, he is sufficiently impressed by the porters to consider shipping one back home – where he "might inhabit part of the cellar or the outside coal shed" – as a servant. Blessed with incredible natural athleticism and stamina, he is cursed by "congenital incompetence with anything technical" and prone to forget or drop items of life-saving importance.

If Mallory and his cohorts are representatives of a bygone age, their expeditions established a template that has remained unchanged. The contemporary practice of wealthy individuals purchasing a place on Everest, familiar to readers of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, "began from the inception of the dream". The combination of "exclusive marketing arrangements" and sponsorship – "Avoid worry, use Sunlight Soap and for Ever-rest" – to underwrite the enormous undertaking was also in place from the outset.

To keep this mass of material from bulging out of the narrative is an impressive feat of literary organisation and management. To that extent the book is like the expeditions themselves: every inch of progress is dependent on an enormous supply train of information. There is nothing burdensome about this for the reader; the technical data is fascinating, and Davis's prose, in spite of the weight it is obliged to bear over such an extended and difficult terrain, shows only occasional signs of buckling under the strain: "For him the war was over"; "FM Bailey was himself no slouch".

What is surprising is that in narrative terms Mallory's prediction – "I have every reason to expect the climax to be no less interesting" – proves somewhat misleading. By the time we get to the final assault on the summit, excitement has given way to grim resignation. Unprecedented though they are, the challenges of the Death Zone manifest themselves as a kind of vertiginous drudgery.

Whether Mallory and his companion Sandy Irvine died on their way to the summit or on the way down remains a matter of conjecture. Either way, their deaths embody the book's larger purpose in a way that Davis might have emphasised more strongly. The Great War resulted not only in vast numbers of men dying but in their being blown to unidentifiable bits by artillery so that they were commemorated as "The Missing". For almost 75 years, until the discovery of his body in 1999, Mallory shared this fate and became their exalted representative: a name preserved high above the nameless dead.

Geoff Dyer is the author of The Missing of the Somme