Indiana Jones doesn’t have time for coffee.
Wearing corduroy and khaki, Wade Davis, Canada’s famous anthropologist and ethnobotanist, sweeps into a Toronto café and launches into a conversation about his latest book, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, as though it’s a great adventure from which he has only recently returned. The only thing missing is a rakish hat atop his dark blond hair and handsome, weather-beaten face.
This adventurer is a photographer, award-winning filmmaker, author and scientist who has left few of the world’s cultural corners unexplored. And all because he grew up in Pointe Claire, an Anglo suburb of Montreal, where “the bourgeois blanket of banality” fuelled his desire to escape. His father was an investment adviser with Royal Trust. “He talked about it being the grind. He got smaller every day,” Mr. Davis says. As a teen, “I desperately needed to know what I was going to do with myself.”
It is not surprising that an anthropologist – whose curiosity about human cultural diversity earned him an explorer-in-residence position at the National Geographic Society – should take an interest in the practices of his own tribe, even though he rejected them. Understanding the difficulty in surmounting the influences of one's culture, he is quick to offer insight to young people who seek him out. The only right career choice is to “follow your heart,” he avers. “A career is not something that you put on like a coat. It is something that grows organically around you, step by step, choice by choice, experience by experience,” he wrote as part of a commencement address at Colorado College in 2010.
At Harvard University, he trusted the whim of his intuition. He had planned to study history and law. But then, on the day before he had to declare his major, he ran into a friend who was studying anthropology. He was intrigued, so he chose that. For a postgraduate degree, he followed an interest in ethnobotany.
“I have never had a job,” says the 58-year-old father of two girls, now in their 20s. “… Creativity is not the motivation for action. It’s the consequence of action … You have to put yourself in the way of opportunities and what happens is that you find yourself. Suddenly you’re doing things that were not imaginable a couple of years before.”
At 20, he walked across the Darien Gap, a swampland in Central America, in the company of celebrated English author Sebastian Snow. In 1996, his book One River documented his expedition with his mentor, Richard Schultes, into the shamanistic culture of the Amazon rain forest. He investigated Haitian folk preparations in the creation of zombies in his 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow.
Into the Silence explores the culture of British men at the turn of the 20th century, as much as it delves into the challenging environment of Mount Everest for early climbers, many of whom felt oxygen supplements were “unsporting.” Between 1921 and 1924, there were three epic attempts to scale Everest. Mystery had always surrounded the 1924 disappearance of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, last sighted a few hundred metres from the summit. Did they reach the top before they died? It was not until 1953 that New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary made history for conquering Everest.
“I was truly and sincerely not interested in whether Mallory got to the top or not [a continuing debate] I wanted to know who these men were,” says the author, seated sideways in a chair, as though he’s ready to leap from it. “They were not cavalier about death. But their attitude about death had changed because of the First World War. That was my intuition from the start.
“How could there not be a war angle?” he asks. “Twenty of the 26 men had endured the worst of the war. You just had to look at their age, their class, their education. They personified the Lost Generation.”
Inspiration had come while doing what anthropological adventurers do – he was photographing snow leopards in Tibet in the fall of 1996 with his friend and fellow adventurer Dan Taylor, who was lamenting the commercialization of Mount Everest in the wake of a disaster that saw eight climbers die, later chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Caught in a snow squall, Mr. Taylor regaled Mr. Davis with tales of British explorers from yesteryear who wore tweeds and read Shakespeare aloud in their tents at 20,000 feet.
Just a few months before the discovery of Mr. Mallory’s body electrified the world in 1999, Mr. Davis had signed his book contract. Within months, several books had been published. “The discovery of Mallory’s body forced me to take the story to a whole other level,” Mr. Davis says.
Into the Silence is a compelling read of remarkable scope that took 12 years to complete. He keeps his readers roped to the page with fascinating depictions of some of the characters and a detailed geopolitical context of the Raj and Tibet. The idea of climbing Everest had come out of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, which confirmed it as the highest peak and led to its naming.
Mr. Davis is a rumpled heap of enthusiasm, pulling out facts from his brain like trinkets from his pocket. On that third expedition, the men brought 60 tins of quail and foie gras and 48 bottles of Champagne, Montebello 1915. The men were the product of a bohemian period. “There was this promise of a new century. It wasn’t just the old Victorian guard … These were men who believed in patriotism, who had faith in the future of the world.”
The attempts to reach the summit were an expression of British imperialism and a need to recover a sense of mastery after the disillusionment of what was promised to be the war to end all wars. The Tibetans, meanwhile, “thought it was the most ridiculous thing you would ever do … the idea of cavalierly risking this incarnation comes about as close to sacrilege as you can in Buddhism.”
In this, Mr. Davis’s particular Indiana Jones incarnation, there is little that doesn’t excite him about the adventure of living. He easily slides into tales about his family – his wife, Gail, a former fashion model, who is also an anthropologist, and his two daughters. His eldest is following in his footsteps, having recently set off on adventures in Central America.
“I think of myself as an entrepreneur of knowledge,” Mr. Davis says. “I haven't taken a week off for 15 years … People are often saying to me, ‘Oh, you know so much.’ Well, it's not that I know so much or that I'm smart. It's that I have had a life where the accumulation of my knowledge has been an essential part of how I make a living.”
He looks up, runs a hand, once again, through his floppy blond hair. Smiles charmingly. Signs his book. And then he’s off again to the next book tour adventure, somewhere in the deep, dark valleys of Toronto’s downtown.