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32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon 26 March 2012
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.
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84 of 85 people found the following review helpful
on 29 January 2012
A magnificent work which took the author over ten years to research and write. The sub-title is important. This is as much about the war experiences that shaped the men of the 1921-24 expeditions. Each one had been doctors, infantry or artillery officers in the worst of the Western Front battles. From that, they were determined, resourceful and infinitely brave. The war experiences were searing. Mallory wrote home from the front, "If hereafter, I say to a friend "Go to Hell", he will probably reply, "Well I don't mind much if I do. Haven't I perhaps been there"?

The central figure is Mallory, friend of Keynes, Graves and much of what was later the Bloomsbury set. An enigmatic figure, Davis captures the genius of the man. It is Mallory who reconnoitered and figured the route up the North Cole. Mallory who established the Camp systems. Mallory who confronted the Second Step. Any climber on Everest follows his footsteps.

Davis gives us a rich cast: Sikhdar, who calculated the exact height of Everest within 28' in 1854 from observations 120 miles away, using pen and paper; why we call it the Norton Couloir, why all parties when climbing from the North, use the East Rongbuk; Somervell, a doctor mentored by Treves, who coughed up his entire mucous membrane and worked as a hospital volunteer in India for 40 years; Finch, who pioneered Oxygen use, climbed higher that anyone at the time and was the reluctant step father of Peter; Odell who made the famous sighting and climbed to Camp VI twice in four days and slept at over 23,000' for twelve days.

The courage and determination of the men, using primitive equipment and improvising on camps and routes, is breathtaking. And contrasts with the Valley Boy insensitivity of the crew that found Mallory in 1999.

I found myself flipping to the contemporary photographs of the climbers, trying to reconcile their actions and feats with the faces looking at us from 90 years ago. This is an epic book.
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 5 November 2012
Wade Davis has set himself a challenge trying to write about the series of Expeditions to Everest by the British in the 1920s which eventually led to Mallory and Irvine's deaths during the 1924 summit attempt. Not only is the story long and complicated (those expecting just the story of the final expedition might be surprised by how much exploration and preparation went before - Mallory doesn't even feature until a good way through the book), but Davis is also keen to explain the motivations of those involved and the cultural importance of climbing Everest in broader terms, with a focus on the Great War and on British Imperialism.

At first, I didn't entirely buy into his focus on the War. It seemed a bit overstated, but I read on because the stories are well told and full of interesting detail - his research is really exhaustive, as the huge notes section demonstrates. Eventually, it really does knit together, and you begin to understand the thoughts and actions of the climbers very much in the light of their experience and era. I came away not only with a better understanding of the events he focuses on, but also with more knowledge about the politics and arts of the period. Davis seems comfortable writing about arts, literature, Tibetan Buddhism, and a range of other subjects which really help to add context to his story.

So in summary, a great tale, thoroughly engaging and well-paced, with interesting details and speculations throughout. One of the most enjoyable and informative books I've read in some time, and a book which kindles your interest in a variety of topics and sent me off with an interest in a string of other topics. You can't ask for much more than that...
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon 26 March 2012
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 17 April 2013
A marvellous long book which grows and grows on you as you read it. The mountain of research on which this wide-ranging work is based is lightly worn.

There is a large cast of about 26 truly astonishing men (virtually no women), whose biographies, and particularly their war experiences, are woven beautifully into the text. Chief amongst these is the driven, forgetful and willful Mallory. With hindsight, he was not the most attractive of personalities, though one can still sense his glamour through Davis's unobtrusive but perceptive writing. Other, more rounded figures include Howard-Bury, who revered Tibetan culture and was the leader of the 1921 reconnaissance mission (which comes across as the most interesting of the three expeditions covered in the book); Charles Bell, the deeply knowledgeable and committed British agent in Sikkhim; John Noel, a very gifted photographer; and Noel Odell, who quietly achieved huge feats of stamina and climbing in support of his colleagues.

Wade Davis starts with a panoramic overview of the First World war, which cataclysm is the essential backdrop to the story of these expeditions to climb Everest. As noted in the erudite Bibliography (worth reading in itself), following the historian Joanna Bourke, the Everest expeditions 'momentarily returned meaning and virility' to the maimed and broken generation which had been called to the trenches. The potential conquest of Everest also offered glimpses of a fast-fading Imperial patriotic dream.

Davis truly brings alive the spirit of the times and of the particular men involved, with a strong sense of the contingency of life and the difficult decisions required up there on Everest at 20,000 feet and above.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 3 February 2013
This book easily sits at or near the very top of my list of favourite books that I have read in over 55 years. If you have an insatiable appetite for books on the First World War and the conquest of Everest then this book is for you. Wade Davis takes all the main characters and organizations through from the 1890s to the death of Mallory and Irvine. Yet it is so much more. (Try page 41, line 21 of the paperback for a sad reminder that little changes.) It is a social record of the roles played by British public schools, Oxbridge, colonial administrations and of course the effects the First War had on them all. If you ever felt like visiting Darjeeling and travelling to Everest through Tibet this will have you heading for your travel agent. The detail is simply mind blowing, all those questions you ever had are answered. Enough, enough, STOP EVERYTHING and READ THIS BOOK! Give it to your son or daughter.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 14 December 2013
Very good on late imperial culture, with lots of gauche remarks by the protagonists about Tibetans, Sherpas and each other. Into The Silence reveals an imperious arrogance, particularly on the part of Mallory, but also an affectated impracticality, where there's always room for a poetry reading at altitude, even though lives and limbs are at risk, being an impracticality which touched every aspect of the three expeditions, including routinely leaving behind the best men for the job. It is of course easy to be wise after the event, but the fact that Everest is climbed routinely today suggests very strongly that most of the problems the expeditions met were ones they brought with them. For example, we knew about the effects of cold, if only from the previous two expeditions, not to mention the Scott episode, yet they still lacked high altitude clothing, putting Sherpas and themselves at risk, some fatally, including Mallory and Irving. That three expeditions ended in failure is no surprise, a fourth if we include the Scott expedition, and one wonders how they found their way even to the bottom of the mountain, although we know that this work was done by the solitary Wheeler, who earned scant regard. Into The Silence is the imperial British narrative writ large and unravelling, where failure is redeemed as sacrifice. Recommended to anyone with an interest in history or climbing or both. The book would benefit from potted biographies, in a quick reference section. Also in the two most important maps in the book, one has north at the top of the page, and the other has north at the bottom, rendering orientation impossible, a chaotic but perhaps authentic footnote to the entire Everest debacle, and its noticeable that when Everest was finally climbed it was by a New Zealander, and one immune to the amateur heroics of his predecessors. Recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 10 February 2013
Whilst the subject matter has always been compelling, this wonderful book breathes new life into the stories that surround the attempt to conquer Everest. Heroism is a given with these men; Davis' triumph is to flesh them out as real and complex people, phenomenally fit, driven, flawed, generous, resolute, and tough. They climbed into the savage purity of Chomolungma, in the shadow of a monstrous war, that blighted a generation, each with his own emotional and physical scars. We learn much about the almost ethereal Mallory but Davis gives generous space to, among others, Somervell, Wheeler, Howard Bury, Odell, and Norton, equal players in the drama. It is at times unbearably moving and Davis' writing is luminous, incredibly detailed, and always gripping.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 4 November 2013
'Davis asks not whether George Mallory was the first to reach the summit of Everest, but rather why he kept climbing on that fateful day'

Well, I'm afraid that having read this monster book I still don't have more of an answer than I did before. I'm perhaps a little more enlightened on the issues that may have hampered the final assaults, such as the incorrect monsoon forecast and the Sherpa rescue, but not why Mallory kept going and at what point that was the fatal decision.

Having read the lower ratings on here I'm inclined to agree with some of the main points. I don't know enough about WWI to be able to be definitive myself but did get the feeling that some of the grander statements were repeated cliches and possibly as others have said, myths - or at least, over-simplifications.

By the time I was 'Wading' through the first parts of the initial Everest expedition I was starting to wilt. The pace of the book had slowed to a crawl - too much detail, especially in some of the earlier back stories had worn me down. It's not so much one book,or even two, but several bolted together. Many times the story seemed to be moving forward only to take another step backwards. The pace only quickened once we got on to the nitty-gritty of the 1922 expedition. Perhaps by then Mr Davis was feeling exhausted himself and needed to get a move on.

On the positive side there is a great deal of research and background, if that's what you're looking for. But one of the jacket's quotes, from Time Out, says it has the 'pace of a thriller' - er, they must have skipped the first 400 pages!!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 24 December 2012
One of the best accounts of these expeditions I have read - and I have read a lot. No wonder it took him 10 years to write - it is incredibly well researched. At first (although fascinated by World War 1 Literature), I could not see how it fitted into the story of Mallory, Irvine et al, and was a little irritated by this, but actually the descriptions of the battlefield are also some of the profound I have read. (I did my thesis on WW1 Lit ). In the end they very much added to the book and gave useful insights into what drove these amazing early climbers. As to the whole rumour mill about Mallory and irvine, he presents a very balanced take on this too. Don't be afraid - it's also incredibly readable!
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