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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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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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TOP 500 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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TOP 500 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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on 13 October 2011
Wade Davis has written a terrific book about the social-political context of the early Everest expeditions of George Mallory, which is a worthy addition to the vast canon of books already available about the subject. Since its beginnings in the 1920s, mountaineering on the highest summits of the world served as a projection screen or mirror for socio-political trends - and Wade Davis has so far provided the most detailed analysis of one such process (another example might be how the alpine-style climbing in the 1970s and 1980s can be seen as mountaineering's equivalent to the freedom movement of the 1960s).
But let's face it: The main reason why people are attracted to the Mallory story is the unresolved question whether he an Andrew Irvine had made the first ascent of Everest in 1924. Admittedly, this is not the main focus of the book, but the epilogue fails so miserably in covering this aspect and is so different in style from the rest of the book that it prompts commentary.
While the main part shows Wade Davis to be a meticulous and dedicated researcher/historian, in the epilogue he comes across as star-struck, superficial, and uninformed, essentially ignoring 10 years of ongoing research and debate about Mallory and Irvine's fate. There are errors in fact (for example, the few lines referring to the 1999 team historian Jochen Hemmleb alone contain two mistakes) and vital information is missing - namely the reports of the successful free-climbs of the Second Step (the crux of the route, which Mallory and Irvine may or may not have been able to climb), and most important of all, the changed opinion of Conrad Anker, whom Davis so uncritically adores (major lack of objectivity here!). All this information surfaced in the last four years and could so easily have been included in the book.
All in all, with a little more research and less bias, "Into the Silence" could have become the definitive book about the broader context of Mallory, his times and his climbs. Sadly, this chance was carelessly wasted.
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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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on 1 January 2013
Much of Wade Davis' book is a careful and detailed account of the British Everest expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924. This can hardly be faulted, and will probably form the standard account of these three expeditions. There is however rather too much detail for anyone not very interested in the subject, and it can get monotonous. Davis also explores the minds of the expedition members as far as it can be determined from what they wrote. Where he is talking about their immediate feelings when on the expedition, this is helpful, his the more general character analyses are more dubious. However, Davis' book promises more than this, but doesn't deliver.

Its full title, "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest", is misleading in several ways. Firstly, Everest was not conquered by any of the British expeditions of 1921, 1922 or 1924, as it could not be proved then whether the summit had been reached in the last of these. Secondly, apart from the last chapter and Epilogue, it is not just or even mainly about Mallory (although the name sells books). At several points, Davis doesn't seem to like Mallory much, or have much regard for his leadership or non-climbing abilities. In particular, he rarely misses an opportunity to inflate the reputation of his fellow-Canadian Wheeler by belittling Mallory.

However, more than either of these two issues, Davis doesn't really make the case that these men's experiences in the Great War, although clearly traumatic, determined why they went on these expeditions or how they acted on them. For example, Davis makes it clear that Mallory, although a naturally skillful climber, took unwarranted risks as a young man before the war so the argument that it was the war that drove him to risk his life is unproven. He pushes the myths of Haig and other British generals as bundling butchers, and that of a British "lost generation", when proportionately British casualties were half those of France and much less than those of the Central Powers. Although not central to his theme, his comments on what in the 1920s was contemporary or recent history are littered with basic errors. If he spent ten years on writing this book, he could have usefully spent more time producing a more accurate and nuanced view of the war.

For an anthropologist, Davis can be rather blinkered. He brings out the tired and conventional stereotypes of (and shows his contempt for) the British Raj, upper-middle class attitudes and public schools and without bringing much understanding to bear. Davis seeks to deprecate the snobbish members of the expeditions, sneering at Tibetan beliefs, at Canadian and Australian "colonials" or Britons of a lower social class by being sneeringly superior to them. These passages say more about the chips on Davis' shoulders than what he criticises. If cultural relativism is one of the foundations of anthropology, it should apply as much to Mallory and his group as to Tibetans.

This is a prime example of more means less: Davis could have written a shorter. more focused and more relevant book.
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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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on 23 October 2012
"Into the Silence" is a brilliant book. It relates the story of mountaineer George Mallory and his contemporaries, from the horrors of World War One to the assault on Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain, in 1923. It goes some way to explaining how their experience in the trenches moulded their characters, and led them, after the War, to seek out the unspoilt mountains of Europe and Asia and to take on the challenge of climbing them.

This book will not tell you whether George Mallory was successful in conquering Everest in 1923, but it will certainly make you know "what made Mallory tick". It is highly recommended.
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on 2 February 2014
This book is special because it does not start with the march to base camp. It starts years before that in the middle of the 19th century when it was still not certain that Everest was the highest mountain. The history of the survey of India and the early expeditions to Tibet, the various characters that played their part is fascinating. The history of the first world war is well known but perhaps not the part played by the men who went onto discover and survey the route to the foot of the mountain. The description of Tibet at the end of the 19th century and especially the Rongbuk valley is fascinating. When it comes to how the climbers were chosen, and who was not chosen reveals the extraordinary Victorian values and snobbery of those in charge, which in a large part determined the outcome. The description of the 1924 attempt to climb Everest is a fitting climax to the book and very well written.
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