Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book: "Into the Silence" by Wade Davis

I'm trying to remember when Mount Everest first cast its spell on me. Now, don't get me wrong -- I am someone who huffs & puffs when I go up the three flights of stairs to the walkway at our commuter train station every afternoon. :p  Climbing Everest is not in the cards, not even something I would wish to do in my wildest dreams.

Nevertheless, it's a subject I have found fascinating, even more so the more I learn about it.

It might have been back in the fall of 1982, when I was in university, and Laurie Skreslet became the first Canadian to reach the summit of the world's tallest mountain. The name Sir Edmund Hillary was familiar to me, I think, but climbing Everest was still a relatively rare accomplishment then, and of course, he was from my own country. The publicity, in Canada, at least, was huge. 

I think the first time I started thinking about Everest in any depth was in a Vanity Fair article about the 1996 Everest disaster, in which eight people died over two days (15 in all that season).  The article may have been an excerpt of Jon Krakaeur's amazing 1999 book "Into Thin Air," which I remember devouring over a few short days. 

"Into Thin Air" may have been where I was first introduced (in any detail, at any rate) to the story of George Mallory (who was once asked why he wanted to climb Everest and famously replied, "Because it's there") and Andrew Irvine, who vanished into the mists of Everest on a June day in 1924 and never returned from their attempt to be the first men to climb the world's highest mountain.

Then, in May 1999, came the news that Mallory's frozen corpse had been found on the slopes of Mount Everest. I remember watching at least one PBS NOVA episode about it, and there are plenty of YouTube clips from that time, if you are interested.  Subsequent expeditions have been mounted to try to locate Irvine's body, without success to date.

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So I was predisposed to pick up "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest," by Wade Davis (who also happens to be a Canadian).

"Into the Silence" has been called an Everest of a book, in terms of scope as well as its sheer size (almost 700 pages long). (I wound up getting the e-version on top of the hardcover -- much nicer to haul around in my briefcase & hold while reading in bed at night...!)  It's a daunting prospect to take it on (which is probably why it sat for more than a year in my "to read" pile) -- but hugely absorbing, incredibly well researched and well written. Even though I knew how the story ended, there were nights when I stayed up reading well past my bedtime, cramming in "just one more page."  I even enjoyed reading the notes & bibliography in the appendix at the back of the book -- which include not only information about the source material used, but small gems of stories thrown in along the way -- such as how Davis came to possess the previously unknown diaries of 1921 expedition member Oliver Wheeler (subject of one of his next books).

The story puts the Everest explorers and expeditions into the context of their times, and covers topics as diverse as colonialism and the British Raj, the history of Tibet, Buddhist beliefs, the role of Everest in Tibetan faith and culture, the homoerotic culture of British boys' boarding schools in the Edwardian era (!), and (especially) the lasting impact of the first World War (the Great War) on a generation.

I've read books about WWI before -- one of the most memorable being The Danger Tree by David MacFarlane, which deals (in part) with the slaughter of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.  July 1, Canada Day, is a a day of national celebration in Canada -- everywhere except Newfoundland, where it is still known as Memorial Day, commemorating the day in 1916 when the regiment of nearly 800 men was almost completely wiped out.

But I don't think I've ever read another book that brought home so clearly and vividly the absolute horrors that these boys -- and most of them were just that, boys -- endured.

Almost all of the members of the 1920s Everest expeditions had served in the war. Davis suggests that climbing Everest, which began as another quest to exert British domination over one of the last uncharted territories on the planet, morphed into a sort of post-war quest for redemption.  For many of the former soldiers who were feeling decidedly out of place back in post-war Britain, it was also, quite literally, a chance to get away from it all  You didn't get much more "away from it all" than Tibet in the 1920s.  As Davis points out, the first (1921) expedition had to basically walk 400 miles off the map into completely uncharted territory, just to get to the mountain, before they could start to figure out how they could climb the thing. Often, they were the first Europeans the locals had seen.

The war did little to dampen some Brits' sense of imperial arrogance.  Many chosen for the Everest expeditions of the 1920s had never climbed anything higher than a desk, and many were suffering from war wounds and not in the best of health -- but they knew the right people. George Finch and Oliver Wheeler, both fine climbers who ultimately made important contributions, were looked down on because they were "colonials." (Finch was Australian, and helped pioneer the use of oxygen in mountain climbing -- felt by some to be "unsporting."  Wheeler a talented Canadian surveyor, was actually the first to figure out the route to the mountain.) (So you can imagine how the Tibetans were regarded -- even though they hauled huge loads of the expedition's supplies (including cases of champagne and foie gras!!) across hundreds of miles and up the slopes of Everest alongside the white men.)

There is a lot in this book about the history of the British in Tibet, Tibetan culture and the Buddhist faith, and the role the mountains (and particularly Everest) played in that culture. There are some fascinating descriptions of the Buddhist monasteries and rituals the expeditions encountered that put in mind of my favourite Buddhist, Deathstar. ; ) It also left the strains of "Shambala" by Three Dog Night playing over & over in my brain for days on end... ; )

Did Mallory & Irvine make it to the top of the world? Unless and until Irvine's body is found with his camera intact (and a telltale photo inside of it), we may never know for sure.

These days, climbers on Everest are well equipped with layers of protective clothing and oxygen,  a well-known route to the summit, and fixed ropes and ladders along the way to ease their journey.  In the 1920s, there was no known route to the top. Nobody had ever climbed so high before, and nobody knew quite what to expect. Their clothing and equipment were primitive by modern standards, and their food and drink supplies were woefully inadequate to fuel their bodies. It's really quite amazing to think of what they were able to accomplish with what they had.

Just search YouTube for "George Mallory" or even just "Everest" and you'll find some amazing videos that give you a real sense of what it's like on Everest -- how steep (vertical) the rock walls can be and how strong the winds are. (This video of climber Jake Norton at the site of the 1938 expedition high camp, practically gave me vertigo.)

At any rate, Davis is less interested in the outcome than in the motivation and spirit that drove these men. Having seen so much of death in the war, it had little power over them. They believed that life was meant to be lived, and they accomplished some amazing things.

Also in my to-read pile at the moment: the novel "Above All Things" by Tanis Rideout (also a Canadian), which juxtaposes the story of George Mallory with that of his wife, Ruth.  I will let you know if/when I read it, and how it compares to this book!

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And now for the ALI angle (you knew there had to be one, right?).

Pamela at Silent Sorority: A Fresh Start recently posted about successful corporate women currently in the news, such as Sheryl Sandberg and Erin Callan, and the price we pay when we put all our eggs in one basket (be it career success, IVF attempts or parenthood) and focus on the pursuit one goal to the exclusion of others.

I commented that "I like how you pointed out the parallels between climbing the corporate ladder & climbing Infertility Mountain. ;) "

And then it was like that cartoon moment where the lightbulb went off ovr my head. It suddenly occurred to me that there were parallels I could draw to this book (which I was then still reading), too. As I said to Pamela:
"Reaching the summit became a kind of obsession for him -- sound familiar? -- and he paid for it with his life (fortunately, fertility treatments are, for the most part, less risky than climbing Mount Everest -- particularly back then, when nobody else had done it and the conditions were so primitive). As you said, sometimes the cost is too high -- but it’s hard to realize until you take a step back & gain some perspective." 
Of course, without risktakers and sacrifice, there would never be any progress, would there?  It took another 29 years after Mallory & Irvine before Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay finally reached the summit.  IVF is a given for infertile couples today, and while success rates are not 100%, they have certainly improved, and protocols have come a long way, since Lesley Brown gave birth to her daughter, Louise, in 1978. Her drive to have a child, and her willingness to serve as a science experiment of sorts, have made so much possible for so many.

There's another aspect of the book that rang a bell for me personally. In this interview with George Stromboulopoulos of CBC TV, author Wade Davis speaks about the chasm the Great War created between those who lived through it at the front and those who had stayed at home.

That made me think of the chasm that exists between those of us whose lives have been touched by infertility and loss, and those for whom having children is something taken for granted. It's not something we would wish on anyone... but there is a comfort level that exists whenever we encounter someone else who has been "in the trenches," isn't there?


  1. We fell in love with Everest a number of years back. Maybe it was the books...or the tv shows/movies... We hiked our first 14,000' mountain last year and had no problems with the altitude! I would LOVE to go to the Everest area for some hiking, but don't think I'll ever make it to the top.

    Thanks for the book tip - I'll put it on the list!

  2. You had me at "homoerotic culture of British boys' boarding schools." ; ) LOL!!! Seriously, though, it does sound like a fascinating book. I was thinking about reading a book about a climbing expedition. I am terrified of precipices (not heights). I'm not very sure footed, and I don't like mountain roads -- a late-afternoon drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway once left me in Ruby Gillis-like hysterics. So very Midwestern (although it probably has more to do with having been in a rollover car accident on an S curve at age 16, because I was fine on childhood vacations in the Rockies).

    But the extreme mountain climbing does fascinate me, precisely because it is the last thing I would ever, EVER wish to do. And after season 2 of Downton, I'm more interested in the Great War's psychological damage. So thanks in advance for another book recommendation!

  3. @Ellen: So very Midwestern indeed, lol. I love the mountains -- spent my honeymoon in Banff & Jasper, & Lake Louise is probably my favourite spot on earth -- but I find them claustrophobic after awhile. I find I need a mountain "fix" every few years, but I am always happy to return to the wide open spaces of the Prairies!

    I should have mentioned, if you search YouTube for "Into the Silence Wade Davis" you'll find all sorts of clips of him being interviewed or lecturing on the book. I watched a riveting half-hour video last night of him, from National Geographic (he is their "Explorer in Residence"). He is a great speaker as well as writer.

  4. Ooooh. I am obsessed with Everest too, and "Into Thin Air" is one of my favorite books of all time. Thanks for reviewing this book: I am very intrigued!

    I never stopped to think about why I am so interested in Everest, but I really like your conclusions about how your interest ties into the ALI world.

    Really interesting post. Thanks!