Magazine article The Spectator

The Best and Bravest

Magazine article The Spectator

The Best and Bravest

Article excerpt

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

by Wade Davis

Bodley Head, £25, pp. 655,

ISBN 9781847921840

'The candle is burning out and I must stop.

Darling I wish you the best I can - that your anxiety will be at an end before you get this - with the best news, which will also be the quickest. It is 50-to-1 against us but we'll have a whack yet and do ourselves proud. Great love to you. Ever your loving, George. ' Thus wrote the magnificent (and in many ways muddle-headed) mountaineer George Mallory on 27 May 1924. It was his last ever letter to his wife Ruth before he disappeared into the blizzard that swirled around the summit of Mt Everest, never to return. Did he reach the top? That is a question that cannot conclusively be answered and Wade Davis doesn't try to. Instead, in his quite brilliant new book, he applies himself to the question of why. Why did Mallory want to climb the world's highest mountain? Why did his desire grow into an obsession, which apparently persuaded him to push on, even as his chances of survival dwindled to zero?

Asked this question be forehand by an interviewer, he is said to have replied, 'Because it's there.' Davis gives this vignette short shrift. Mallory probably didn't say it, or if he did, he meant it not as a distillation of some preSartrean existential philosophy; more likely, he was bored by the conversation and needed a drink.

In any event, Davis has another explanation, to which he devotes the first 144 pages of his book. The British assaults on Everest in 1921, 1922 and 1924 (in all of which Mallory took part) cannot be understood, the author argues, except in the context of the first world war. Nor is it enough for him to state this, or briefly make his case. He takes us through it. He presents us, in sickening detail, with the wartime experiences of the Everest climbers - the murders and mutilations - so that by the time we leave the foothills of Into the Silence, we have some idea of how they must have felt.

Soaked in slaughter, these tweed-clad veterans weren't afraid of dying, or not as you or I might be today. As Davis puts it, 'They had seen so much of death that life mattered less than the moments of being alive.' The Everest campaign became an echo of the Great War, but one intended to restore the idealism so many had lost.

The best and bravest would again risk their lives, but lose them only through sacrifice brought on by their own deliberate actions, not randomly, courtesy of a sniper's bullet, or by being blown to smithereens. …

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