There is no need to be a mountaineer to appreciate this account of the early attempts to scale Mount Everest. Wearing a Tweed jacket, making reluctant use of heavy oxygen canisters because he had seen their benefit in action, but lacking the nylon ropes, hi-tech crampons and other paraphernalia now available to reach the summit, George Mallory and his companion Andrew Irvine disappeared in 1924, leaving the tantalising question as to whether they had managed to reach the top.
This is less a biography of Mallory, more a study of the exploration in the context of the 1920s, in particular the grim legacy of the First World War, its horror and folly described here with particular harsh clarity: the British Establishment saw the conquest of Everest as an antidote to what Churchill called "a dissolution..weakening of bonds...decay of faith" plus climbers like Mallory diced with death quite casually having seen it close at hand so often but somehow survived the trenches.
The British Empire seemed to dominate the world, although the cracks were starting to show, so it was still possible for Curzon, Viceroy of India, to assert an Englishman's natural right to be first to the top of Everest! A skilful climber was forced out of one team because he had been a conscientious objector.
Since what is now known to be the easier route through Nepal was barred, the expeditions of 1921-24 approach through Tibet, encountering all the wild beauty and mystery of this unfamiliar culture, from the fields of wild clematis to the barren valley trails marked with stone shrines and inhabited by hermits whose self-denial seemed a waste of time to the mountaineers, although they appreciated in turn that the local people thought the same of their activities. Respectful of mountain deities and demons, the Tibetans even lacked a word for "summit".
With blow-by-blow day-to-day accounts, Wade Davis supplies often fascinating detail of the planning of the expeditions, problems over porters and pack animals, difficulties of surveying the mountains accurately to find a suitable route to the top, the relationships between the climbers - great camaraderie versus frequent friction-, the hardship and often foolhardy bravery of the ascents, the unappetising sound of the meagre rations of fried sardines and cocoa, agonies of frostbite, thirst, and having to turn back close to the summit rather than risk getting benighted on an exposed precipice and above all, the astonishing first sight of the high peaks when the unpredictable clouds and mists disappeared.
The author conveys a strong sense of what it must have felt like to climb: the grind, the exhilaration, the sudden unexpected accidents, the shock after surviving a fall, the exhaustion, the awareness of self-imposed folly, the total physical and mental collapse of some, for others the compulsion to press on.
I found it quite hard to follow the precise details of the routes with the various camps set up on the way, which is a pity as it destroys one's enjoyment of some key sections. I overcame this difficulty by looking up maps and cross-sections on Google Images, but it is a pity Wade Davis and his publisher did not agree to include these in the text, with appropriate photographs, or they could have developed a website to provide this useful information.
This book really brings home how much the early ascents were based on trial and error, and how commercial and political pressures added to a tendency to be over-ambitious, as climbers persisted in aiming for the summit with inadequate resources and preparation.