Author Interviews
12:01 am
Thu December 29, 2011

True Grit: 'Into The Silence' Scales Everest

Originally published on Fri October 5, 2012 12:47 pm

No mountain captures the popular imagination like Everest. The world's highest peak, towering out of the Himalayas, has frequently proved deadly to those who have tried to reach its summit. The most famous of its victims was the first Englishman to attempt a climb: George Mallory. In the early 1920s Mallory took part in the first three expeditions up Everest, dying on his third attempt.

Wade Davis, explorer in residence at National Geographic, chronicles these expeditions in his new book, Into the Silence, which links the team's hardiness and appetite for risk and adventure to their experiences in the trenches of World War I.

"They took their experiences which were never spoken about but never forgotten to the flanks of the mountain," Davis says. "Death had no mystery for them, because they'd seen so much of it. What mattered was how one lived."

And while charismatic, good-looking Mallory was the public face of the expedition — and dying in the course of the climb just cemented his reputation — the real unsung hero was a Canadian surveyor, Oliver Wheeler.

It was Wheeler who found the route to the mountain — not George Mallory as the historians have claimed.

Wheeler's discovery of a route through the Rongbuk glacier (a route still used today by climbers coming from the Tibetan side) is especially remarkable given how unassuming the glacier is. Its mouth was so narrow that Mallory passed it three times, thinking it wasn't worthy of exploration. But Wheeler, the mapmaker, thought everything was worthy of exploration.

"His job was to map the inner core of Everest, and he did so with incredible courage," Davis says. "He spent more time along on the mountain, exposed to the wrath of the mountain, than anyone else in 1921."

This physical bravery was common to these survivors of the war. "War had changed the very gestalt of death," Davis writes in Into the Silence.

Many members of the team were grievously wounded physically and mentally in World War I, but embarked on the adventure anyway. They were a part of a generation of postwar stoics, including Charles Howard-Bury, a member of the expedition, famous for killing a tiger that had eaten 21 Hindu holy men; John Hazard, who climbed to the north coll of Everest in 1924 with open bleeding wounds from the Battle of the Somme; and Gen. Charles Bruce, whose legs were almost shot off at Gallipoli and would nevertheless run up and down the Khyber Pass for exercise.

"They were incredible men with grit and strength of character," Davis says. "They didn't know there were limits on what men could do."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

No mountain captures the popular imagination like Everest, the world's tallest peak, remote, towering out of the Himalayan range. It has frequently proven deadly to those who've tried to reach its summit. The most famous of its victims was the first Englishman, George Mallory. In the early '20s, Mallory took part in the first three expeditions up Everest, dying on his third attempt at the peak. Author Wade Davis' new book, "Into the Silence," chronicles those expeditions, but this is not just a book about a mountain. It's a book about a generation, about men who survived the horrors of the First World War. Wade Davis joins us. Welcome.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: While Everest is the highest in altitude, the tallest mountain on Earth is actually Hawaii's Mauna Kea.]

WADE DAVIS: Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Much has been written about Mallory. He was the leader of the expedition, but there were other people on this expedition that you sort of single out or you - at various points in the course of this book, and one of them was your fellow Canadian, Oliver Wheeler.

DAVIS: Oliver Wheeler. In pursuing the research on Wheeler, I found out that his son was still alive and living in Vancouver, and I went to see him. And in the course of a wonderful afternoon, he pulled off his shelf two volumes of journals that his father had kept in 1921 as he marched across Everest with Mallory. And no one had ever seen these journals.

WERTHEIMER: You said that he is the unsung hero of the expedition. Why? I mean, what was it that he did...

DAVIS: Because he was the one who found the route to the mountain. It was not George Mallory, as all the historians have claimed. The route to the mountain - you know, these were ridge walkers. They had to get high, and they had to find a way to the summit of the North Col. That was going to be their route to the mountain.

WERTHEIMER: Explain that word, col, the North Col.

DAVIS: Col means saddle. It just means saddle. These were ridge walkers. They couldn't go up the face of Everest. So they had spotted from the Rongbuk Glacier a col, a saddle. And if they could get to the top of that, they could then get up the northeast shoulder to the northeast ridge. And they thought that that was the route that could get them to the summit. The challenge was how could they get to the far side of that col, because from the Rongbuk side, it was unclimbable. And so the key in 1921 was finding the route to the col of their desires, and it was Oliver Wheeler who did that. And that, incidentally, is the route that all climbers take, to this day, who approach the mountain from the Tibet side.

WERTHEIMER: And he found it how?

DAVIS: Because he was a surveyor, and his job was to map the inner core of Everest, and he did so with incredible courage. He spent more time alone on the mountain, exposed to the wrath of the mountain than anyone else in 1921. And in doing so, he explored all chinks in its armor, as he put it, and he found the route up the East Rongbuk Glacier. And the challenge was the mouth of the East Rongbuk Glacier was so narrow that Mallory slipped by it three times, thinking it was not worthy of exploration. Wheeler thought everything was worthy of exploration.

WERTHEIMER: Because he was a surveyor, I guess.

DAVIS: He was a mapmaker.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Howard-Bury, who was also a member of the expedition, he has written that Wheeler deserves the greatest credit of all of us. So, if his contemporaries felt that way about him, why has he been so overshadowed by George Mallory?

DAVIS: Well, George Mallory was on all three expeditions. He was extraordinarily charismatic. He was good-looking, and, of course, he died.

WERTHEIMER: So, that was enough.

DAVIS: I mean, that was the legendary moment in mountaineering history, was when George Mallory, famously seen going strong for the summit, when the mists rolled in and enveloped his memory in myth.

WERTHEIMER: The other character in this book that is very striking as you read is the First World War. And most of the men who were on this expedition were in that war, and somehow they turned from all that horror to the mountain.

DAVIS: They took their experiences that were never spoken about, yet never forgotten, to the flanks of the mountain. And that's why I was so interested in what was the spirit of the men as they climbed the mountain. My thought always was that death had no mystery for them, because they'd seen so much of it, and what mattered was how one lived.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you write about that on page 233. It's - there's a section kind of in the middle of the page that I'd like you to read for us.

DAVIS: (Reading) But for these men, the war had changed the very gestalt of death. In the trenches, they lived it every moment, some, like Wheeler, for years. By the time he was 28, he had witnessed the death of hundreds, encountered the shattered bodies of many thousands. Death's power lies in fear, which flourishes in the imagination and the unknown. For Wheeler, there was nothing more that death could show him, short of his own.

WERTHEIMER: And do you think that was it? You think they just lost all connection to fear at that point?

DAVIS: I think they were prepared to accept a level of risk that would have been unimaginable before the war.

WERTHEIMER: The other thing that I thought was remarkable about your book was that you describe people who were on this expedition who were grievously wounded in the First World War and were not well when they went up the mountain, and they went, anyway.

DAVIS: Oh, absolutely. Jack Hazard climbed to the top of the North Col in 1924 with open, bleeding wounds from the Somme beneath his tunic of his climbing gear.

WERTHEIMER: And he just bled all the way up the mountain.

DAVIS: Mm-hmm.

WERTHEIMER: But he got down the mountain, also.

DAVIS: The wounds opened up as he was going up the mountain.

WERTHEIMER: And you also describe a man whose legs were virtually shot off at Gallipoli, and they glued him back together and he...

DAVIS: Oh, nothing could hurt General Bruce. I mean, this is a man whose favorite party trick was to rip a pack of cards in half. He used to put his adjutant on his back, and for casual exercise, run up and down the Khyber Pass. And his legs were virtually severed from his body, and he was 18 months in convalescing with strict orders never to ever attempt to climb stairs or to climb uphill. So, instead, he just decided to go to Everest.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Extraordinary. I mean, what kind of men are they, that they would do such a thing?

DAVIS: One of my favorite is Sandy Williston, who, on 24-hour notice in the London Times, responded to an advertisement for a naturalist. He goes off to Uganda. Three months to catch up to the expedition, nine months in the jungle, and when he decides to go home, why go back the same way? He walks from the source of the Congo to the mouth. I mean, Howard-Bury once anointed his body with scented oils and just naked walked down the Ganges, and was famous for having killed a man-eating tiger that had run off and eaten 21 holy men. You know, these are just incredible men, you know, the grit, the strength of character. You know, and these were men who just didn't know that there were limits to what a man could do.

WERTHEIMER: Wade Davis is a National Geographic explorer-in-residence. He's the author of many books, but this latest one is "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest." Thank you very much for coming in.

DAVIS: Thank you for having me.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And let's talk next about the largest freestanding mountain on the planet. Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano, not part of a mountain range like Everest, and it soars more than 19,000 feet. A pitcher from the New York Mets is planning to climb it. R.A. Dickey is leading a trip to the top to raise money and awareness for a group that assists victims of sex trafficking in India. Now, Kilimanjaro in Africa is not considered the hardest climb in the world, but Mets management is not too excited that Mr. Dickey is going. The team can't prevent him from climbing, but they've sent the pitcher a letter reminding him that if he gets injured, the Mets could void the rest of his multimillion-dollar contract. Dickey tells the Wall Street Journal he's not concerned. Quote: "It's not like it's Everest."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related program: