To call Wade Davis's excellent (*****) book on the British Everest Expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924 a work on mountaineering is to do it a disservice. It is an intelligently written and painstakingly researched story that weaves much more into the narrative than how three successive expeditions tackled Everest and failed.
Wade places these post World War 1 climbs into a very broad context: the world of the Edwardian gentleman Alpinist and their studied denial of professionalism (to the extent of resisting the use of oxygen on Everest as it was not quite "good form"); the emergence of the Bloomsbury milieu in which many of the mountaineers moved - its decadence as well as intellectualism; the religious beliefs and customs of Tibet as well as its 19th and 20th century troubled history with China and Britain's imperial meddling in the region; the need for a specific British success in a feat of exploration to redeem the country after 1918 and the failure to achieve that other great international trophy: the first to the South Pole. Each of these is covered in detail allowing for the mindset of the mountaineers and their hosts to be better understood - as well as their final failure.
However the central piece of context is that of the Great War. With one exception (Irvine) all the climbers were frontline officers who survived the war. As the narrative unfolds Wade looks at each in turn outlining their war and how its horrors impacted on each one. Their stories are told in stark and brutal detail. It is clear that at war's end they carried the burden of what they had seen and who they had lost. Their response to life, danger and death was clearly conditioned by the temporary and fragile nature of their wartime experience. All of this background takes time to present (in the 600 pages or so we don't start on the first expedition until the late 200's) but is not only essential to the unfolding drama but presented in a skilful way that is easy to read.
The second part of the book looks at each of the three expeditions in turn showing how gradually the climbers reached higher up Everest until the summit was less than 1000 feet away and ends with the death of Mallory and Irvine on their final attempt (by now using oxygen) to reach the summit. The emotions provided by the book are complex. At times it is difficult to empathise with the main characters. The imperial attitude towards bearers and sherpas (despite a few occasions of considerable bravery to protect then) will leave an unpleasant taste to modern readers. The carriage by bearers across much Tibet of items clearly not crucial to an expedition - bottles of vintage champagne from private personal cellars and tins of foix gras - again is symptomatic of a bygone age of privilege. One word used frequently by Wade in describing team members at different times is "lassitude".
Yet this remains a story of determination as well as personal strength and bravery. The final, 1924 expedition shows this most of all. Probably one of the key factors in reducing the strength of the climbers for the one last attempt was the energy devoted to climbing up to a top camp to bring back, and so save their lives, four sherpas who had broken away from the main descent team and returned to the higher camp where they would otherwise die of exposure. Faced by the worst weather for many years repeated attempts are made to conquer Everest. Each in turn fails leaving the bearers exhausted (many walked out, two died) and the sahibs close to physical collapse (frost-bite, snow blindness, altitude sickness and physically weakened). Yet, despite apparently having his own misgivings, Mallory decides on one final attempt at the summit with Irvine and both head up alone from the top camp but do not return.
The irony that dawns on the reader during this final expedition is that the climbers are in fact reliving that Great War experience. It is a "campaign", repeated offensives are launched to push just a few yards further up the mountain, often followed by retreat and retrenchment. The sherpas are formed into "assault groups" to set up forward posts. Hardship, injury and danger from the unknown is a constant. Even the arguments over whether to use oxygen or not echoed the British wartime debate over whether to use modern technology to help break out of the stalemate. It is this that in the final analysis makes this such a sad work. Here were the survivors of a generation that suffered terribly during the Great War. Their attempts on Everest can perhaps be seen in part as a response to this. Having lived so closely with death and disfigurement for so long they took greater risks than otherwise might have been the case and were more dogged in the face of possible failure.
Although unlikely, Mallory may have made the summit, dying on the way back. The discovery of his body in 1999 does little to prove or disprove this. It is perhaps fitting though, that like so many of his wartime comrades his precise fate will never be known.
linked casahistoria site: British Empire