Wade Davis, author of Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest , came to the editorial board to talk about his latest book, British boarding school, the Raj, and mountaineering.
Q: How did you get interested in the story?
I was travelling in the spring of 1996 with the ecological survey across Tibet from Xandu to Lhasa during the same spring that the debacle happened on Mount Everest, the debacle that Jon Krakauer wrote about. The next fall, I went back to Everest with Daniel Taylor and he was disturbed by the commercialization of the Mountain, the ignoble scene of today. It had challenged the vision he had of Everest. Daniel and I were trying to photograph snow leopards and we got caught in unusual snow conditions and Daniel began talking about Englishmen in tweeds who flung themselves against the mountains and read Shakespeare at 20,000 feet. I became enamoured of the story.
A: What about the story was interesting?
From the start, I wasn’t interested in whether George Mallory would reach the top. What intrigued me was who he was and what were the forces that spurred him on. Being an Anglophile and a Canadian, you know they were exposed to the fire of the Great War.
Q: Was the book a hard sell?
I wrote a letter to my agent not thinking he would take it to the marketplace, but he got me a big advance in 1999. Then three months later Mallory’s body was found and there were eight books out by fall. I offered to give the advance back. They said no. It took me 12 years to do the book in the end.
Q: What is the historical back drop to the expeditions?
The key to the story lay on the western front. There was an outpouring of diaries, poetry and prose and official accounts that meant you could find out where each man was during the war and what had happened to them, in multiple voices. I could find out where each of 26 men from the Everest expedition went during the war. Twenty did see fighting. Six were severely wounded. One man climbed mountain with open wounds. Four were surgeons. Two lost brothers. No-one spoke about the war. But that the war was the backdrop of their time. The War is not something spoken about but something never forgotten.
Q: What about Oliver Wheeler?
The unsung hero and the great Canadian angle in the book is Oliver Wheeler. Every English historian will tell you Mallory found the key to the Mountain, the northern approach. But he didn’t find that route, he overlooked it. The man who found it was Oliver Wheeler. He was seconded to the expedition from the Survey of India. In 1921, it was a reconnaissance. They had to find the mountain because no European had been to the base of Everest. I found Oliver Wheeler’s son, living in Vancouver, five houses from the house where I was born. He pulled two thick volumes of journals his father kept walking across Everest with Mallory.
Q: What other parts of the book are unique?
The other part of the book that is original is that no-one had ever told the story from the point of view of the Tibetans. The hippy ethnology associated with the Tibetans is that Everest was a sacred mountain. But that wasn’t true. The monasteries that climbers say have been there since time immemorial were built much later. All the monasteries grew because of new mercantile wealth, and that was the process that brought all the sherpas to Darjeeling. When you go into hidden valley, you are entering into a Buddha field of charged energy. As the British are in Everest, they are moving through Mystic space.
Q: What did you learn about British boarding schools, which was the background of Mallory and Sandy Irvine, his climbing companion?
It was almost as difficult to understand the culture of pre-war England as to understand the culture of pre-war Tibet. Interestingly, Mallory had a homosexual affair, but to call him a homosexual is ridiculous. There was a decade at the time that encouraged personal exploration, a new philosophy of living lives of beauty and transparency and all that mattered was honesty. Experimental sexuality. It was mostly men with men because they lived cloistered lives. British boys of that class went to boarding schools, where they were dominated by mercenary prefects. They were celebrating the Greek classics which were all about relationships between men and boys. John Maynard Keynes was known as the iron copulating machine. Some were homosexual but a lot of them went off and married after dalliances with men, it was just a phase of their life.