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Author Wade Davis: on writing and mountaineering

Wade Davis, anthropologist, author and photographer, in Clarence Square in Toronto on Friday, November 18, 2011.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

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.

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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?

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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.

Q: Is there a connection between that and residential schools in Canada?

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I think the similarities are that the goal was to break down the individual and create a new person. In residential schools, the purpose was to create a properly assimilated Canadian. But in schools in the U.K., it was for students to develop an inherent sense of superiority over those beneath them and inferiority about those above them. The schools were created as cadre for an empire, and the Raj in India. There were never more than 20,000 British people in India.

Q: What kept it together?

Mercantile zeal, severe military repression, co-optation of local elites. But most of all the sheer gall and audacity of the British. You had political officers on horseback, who were judges, executioners, tax collectors and they were boys out of Oxford in their 20s administering areas where two million people live. Part of the essence of colonialism is to persuade people of their inferiority. That's why they maintained great palaces and public displays of power. It was all show.

The institutions of residential schools were -- whether consciously designed to do this or not -- designed to break the spirit of individuals and socialize them into something new. That's what British public schools were all about -- though the outcomes were so different.

Q: Was Mallory a creature of this background?

Mallory exemplifies it. You insulate yourself by developing a veneer of wit and repartee and that -- together with men coming from generation not prepared to yield feelings to analysts -- creates a quality of true grit. That's what is interesting. That's how they could go on these expeditions. It is difficult to look back and apply our notions of what physical expenditure would have been for a task., they just don't apply for those times. Mallory is a man with whom few could walk uphill. He was ferociously athletic and dexterous. He was a gymnast.

Q: What about the geo-politics?

One of fascinating things about Everest story is you can't separate it from geo-politics of the Raj. Geographers knew earth wasn't a perfect sphere but the degree of distortion was uncertain. To solve it they marched 1000-pound brass theodolites in India measuring an arc of longitude. When they got to the Himalayas, they could look into the mountains and with great accuracy measure height of the mountains. Everest continued to rise. The mathematician was only off by 60 feet using math from theodolites. The British transformed the face of India. India is a British invention brought about by the Survey of India. The maps created a rationale for occupation. Knowledge was essential. The frontiers were the razor's edge upon which the fate of empires rise and fall. The British couldn't reach beyond the Himalayans and couldn't communicate with Lhasa, though it was only 250 miles from Darjeeling. The great concern of the British were the Russians, who were expanding every day in 19th century by 55 miles till it reached the gates of the Raj. Everest emerges as a new great beacon of destination. That night as they leave, where one of them looks out, he says I came to realize the price of life is death, and as long as payment is made cleanly, it doesn't matter when you die. Without ever knowing the prospect of decay, could anyone wish a better fate. Cremation was unknown before WWI as way to deal with the dead. After war, became preferred form of dealing with dead who had seen all the rot on the western front.

Q: You are known for the Serpent and the Rainbow , about voodoo practise and Massey lectures and you're interested in tribal culture and ethno-biology, how do you go from there to writing this book.

My philosophy has always been, If it works, it is obsolete. Just when I get good at something, I take on something else. My whole life has been like this. People would say "You're Canadian, why Harvard?" Then "You're at Harvard training to be lawyer, how can you study anthropology?" "You're an anthropologist, how can you study botany", and I got a PhD in it. In January, I'm getting biggest award in science for botanical exploration, but it's for what I did back in 1970s. Then I became interested in voodoo. I went to Borneo and wrote two books. This is a return to my roots. The prizes I got in high school were in history. The best part of Serpent and rainbow are historical sections. I love research. I love doing archeology in a file cabinet.

Q: Do you miss Haiti?

No. In the middle of the media frenzy about zombies and accusations of fraud, which were completely ridiculous, my mentor said, do you want to be a zombie-ologist, running around Haiti defending the graveyards. I said no. I had said what I had to say. I had written two books, spent four years there. It was very hazardous. I had malaria and hepatitis. My main information was head of Tonton Macoutes.. for one fifth of the country.

Q: What pointed you as a young person to this life?

I grew up in Quebec in the late 1960s in Pointe Claire, a suburban Anglo community plunked in an old traditional French village, divided into two worlds. I remember as a little boy thinking that if I crossed the street, there was another language, religion, way of life, haunted by prohibition from my culture against crossing that divide. I went to Lower Canada College school and they wouldn't let a Quebecker teach you French because it wasn't real French. It was ridiculous.

Q: What about your home life?

I grew up in a simple home. My father hated his work, he called it the grind. He would get up tin the morning, commute to work in grey, flannel suit, come back , drink a couple of drinks, get up next day and do it all over again. He was a kind, ethical man. He worked for Royal Trust Company and he advised individuals with their pensions and investments. I loved my father. He spent half his savings to send me to college. And I get an undergrad degree and I take the lowest job in logging camp on Haida G'wai. He died with review of my book in his pocket from Victoria Times Colonist. His example he had lived the classic life of quiet desperation. And I learned early on if I were to not have that life I would have to jump off cliffs. I am not being indulgent but he didn't teach me to fish or hike. He knew he wasn't the man to teach me what I needed to know and he was never envious of all these mentors. My life was made by men that became my mentors.

Q: What about your siblings?

My sister became a lawyer, inheriting my father's ethics. She became British Columbia's ombudsperson. My sister is the most ethical, honest, strong person. My mother was fiercely ambitious and her father died during Spanish influenza and her family myth was he would be PM of Canada, but he was a hot-shot lawyer in the [Peter]Lougheed family firm and would have had good road ahead of him. My father's father was a surgeon and a doctor and town doctor of the mining town of Kimberley. My father never did what he wanted to do. He was part of the broken generation. He spent all that money to send me to Harvard knowing that every day it would widen the social chasm between us. He never lived to see all those books come out.

It's not hard to feel emotional about what happened to all those young men during the war, 10,000 a month died. This is the birth of modernity. All the work I have done with cultures is about, what is modernity, is it absolute wave of history, or expression of a certain way of thinking.

Q: What is your next project?

My next project is The Sacred Headwaters, about fighting to save Northwest British Columbia. A beautiful photo book. Not my pictures. Internationally-known photographers. I am hoping to get formal permission to publisher Oliver Wheeler's journals and letters to his wife and add his photos taken on Everest. I have a contract to do book on my photography. I have a little book on the Grand Canyon in Colorado.

Q: Did Mallory make the summit?

A: No. I know he would never have abandoned Sandy Irvine. It was against everything he believed in as a mountaineer. I don't see how Sandy could have made it up or could have climbed down from the second step. It is always more dangerous going down than up. It is beyond imagining. But we will never know.

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