In the decades immediately preceding the First World War, Wade Davis tells us, the British public-school system flourished. "The schools existed to create a cadre for the empire," he writes, "civil servants to man the distant outposts, officers to lead the armies, politicians to determine the fate of millions of dark-faced subjects of the crown."
The schools were fiercely anti-intellectual, he adds, and "their real purpose was to infuse students with a certain ethos, a blind obedience to those of higher rank, a reflexive inclination to dominate inferiors, and, above all, the cultivated air of superiority so essential to the stability of the empire."
If that sentiment is not too surprising in a book about the first three attempts to climb Mount Everest, all of them British-led, then consider this description of the typical Westerner as seen through the eyes of a Tibetan woman: "The average European is not good-looking according to our ideas. We consider your noses too big, often they stick out like kettle spouts; your ears are too large, like pig's ears; your eyes blue like children's marbles; your eye sockets too deep and eyebrows too prominent, too simian."
Into the Silence is a complex, subversive work, a postcolonial refashioning of an imperialist adventure. Davis, a Canadian anthropologist and explorer, is rightly celebrated for introducing indigenous perspectives into the mainstream. Here, he continues that work while telling a terrific adventure story and affirming as sublime the hubristic madness of assaulting the highest mountain in the world "because it's there."
The familiar mountaineering story, man against nature, is here vividly rendered: the difficult treks to Base Camp, the struggles to locate a feasible route, the debilitating effects of altitude sickness, the cold, the fog, the wind-whipping snow, the frostbite, the avalanches, the slips and the tumbles, and the life-and-death choices that confront climbers at altitudes above 23,000 feet.
Davis paints an engaging portrait of Englishman George Mallory, the greatest mountaineer of the age, who emerges as brave and athletic but profoundly flawed. Probably we did not need to learn so much about his early adventures in homoeroticism. But the most meaningful revisionism here is broader and more political, in that Davis responds to the attitudes outlined in the first paragraph of this review. Specifically, he sets the record straight about two remarkable "colonials" – one Canadian and one Australian – who, in the countless retellings of the initial assaults on Everest, have received nothing like the recognition they deserve.
The first is Edward Oliver Wheeler, the Ottawa-born surveyor who, on the reconnaissance expedition of 1921, discovered the way up the mountain after Mallory had missed it. "Mallory, for reasons difficult to ascertain," Davis writes, "had an abiding dislike of Canadians." The great climber himself, writing to his wife, showed this to be true even while denying it: "Wheeler can be a bore in the colonial fashion, but I don't dislike him."
Davis demonstrates that Mallory, humiliated at having missed the route he should have found, sought deliberately to obscure Wheeler's achievement. "One thing is certain," the author writes: "It was not Mallory or any of his English compatriots who first discovered the key to the mountain. It was the Canadian Oliver Wheeler, working alone in the solitude of the Roungbuk valley." Later, he adds that this first expedition "had been an extraordinary triumph, marred perhaps only by Mallory's stubborn, even unseemly, refusal to acknowledge Wheeler's contribution." The detailed map Wheeler produced, astonishing in its detail, "would be the basis for all future endeavours."
Mallory fares better in relation to the second unsung "colonial" contributor, Australian George Finch, while British society fares worse. Finch, who pioneered the use of oxygen at high altitude, managed on the second expedition to climb higher than Mallory, a record altitude of 27,300 feet. Davis writes: "Finch, pilloried from the start as an Australian, dismissed as a scientific eccentric, marginalized as a colonial irritant, had done the impossible, and in doing so had changed mountaineering history." Over Mallory's protestations, Finch would be excluded from the third expedition, in 1924 – the one that cost Mallory his life.
I admit to one uncertainty: Do we need scores of pages about the First World War to contextualize this magnificent tale? If, as a result, the book starts slowly and runs long, Davis handles the technical demands of the decision with artistry, and Into the Silence, which was this week short-listed for the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction, stands as a near masterpiece.
Ken McGoogan is the author of four books about Arctic exploration. His most recent work is How the Scots Invented Canada.