Six Blankets in the shape of a cross – an Everest epic

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis (Vintage Books 2012)

‘We went out into the keen air; it was a night of early moons. Mounting a little rise of stones and faintly crunching under our feet the granular atoms of fresh fallen snow we were already aware of some unusual loveliness in the moment and the scenes. We were not kept waiting for the supreme effects; the curtain was withdrawn. 

Rising from the bright mists Mount Everest above us was imminent, vast, incalculable- no fleeting apparition of elusive dream-form: nothing could have been more set and permanent, steadfast like Keats’s star, ‘in lone splendour hung aloft the night’, a watcher of all the nights, diffusing, it seemed universally, an exalted radiance.’

Everest-wallpaper-cb1267712137
Chomolungma/Sagamatha/Everest. From the North side.

So wrote George Mallory of his first attempt at climbing Mt Everest, three years before he was to make his more famous, and fatal, climb.

By a neat coincidence, I’ve just finished reading Wade Davis’s mighty book on the expeditions undertaken by Mallory, and others, in the wake of World War One just as the fillum ‘Everest’ appeared in the cinemas.

This latest fillum is, of course, about a later and much more famous, at least to contemporary generations, attempt on Everest, even if at least one of the participants in the actual climb has damned it as being less-than-accurate.

The Wade Davis book, though, is one of the most absorbing things I’ve immersed myself in for a long time.

It is only partly about the climb itself: it is very much about the culture and circumstances of the mostly young men who were involved in the first serious bids on the mountain in the years after the First World War.

And, as a semi-aside, they also made the first ever film of the mountain, recently restored and online here. It, too, is compelling, for all its primitive technology and for the fact the film makers couldn’t get beyond a certain point.

The theme of the book is how the climbers – some not so young – were driven by the trauma of World War One, and also by the uneasy feeling the sun which shone on the British Empire was moving past the meridian.

The leader of the first expedition, Charles Bruce, had received  bullets through both legs at Gallipoli and lost one of those legs.

He had been told to retire home on his disability pension and advised to take things easy.

Above all else, doctors told him not to attempt any strenuous uphill walking.

You have to shake your head in admiration at anyone who can so comprehensively ignore medical advice.

But the book is peopled with such dotty, obsessive but often quite gentle eccentrics. The contrast with the more consumer-ist approach of  today’s Everest industry could not be more profound.

These were men who had no need of a ‘bucket list’. They had seen too much of life, and death, for such a thing.

The man who made the first film of Everest,  John Noel, had witnessed the first gas attack on the Western Front in 1915 – one where a fellow officer described men running back with bulging eyes and tearing at their throats as the gas caused a chemical reaction in their lungs which meant they drowned in the poison. ‘I have never seen men so terrified’ he wrote.

Noel himself was wounded in a shell burst the same day and as well as having severe head and other injuries was suffering from neurasthenia by the time he was invalided out.

Another member of the expedition, Howard Somervell, had been a medical officer in the trenches. Working as a surgeon, Davis writes, Somervell,

‘appears to have dealt with the war by maintaining a process and highly disciplined focus on the abstract possibilities of the academic moment. In his free moments he would go sketching, to the most humble objects of nature with his heart yearning to treat every animate being as worthy of respect.’.

There is a nice piece on him here – including the nugget, not mentioned in Davis’s book, that in 1924 mountaineering was an Olympic sport and those on the team which attempted Everest were given medals that year.

Many of the men had been in the Himalayas and wider central Asian region well before they tried to climb the mountain.

Howard-Bury travelled to the region before the war, going through the Karakorams and Kashmir, learning, in the end, 27 languages and closely studying the culture and in particularly the religions of the region. In 1911, aged 31, he inherited his family estate and was able to “retire” – and immediately used his wealth and leisure to trek through the Silk Road and Mongolia, into Russia.

He bought lilies in Omsk and planted them at Belvedere; he bought a baby bear as well who he brought home. The bear grew to seven feet tall: Howard-Bury kept fit by wrestling with it.

‘He spent his time collecting plants, taking notes, and living a life of freedom and whimsy…..He was not a man ready for war, and yet when it came he returned immediately to his regiment.’

He was also at Loos and Ypres. And the Somme. Davis sketches the outline of these battles, and what utter carnage they were.

Ordered at one point to take a group of men and dig a communication trench, he found they were digging not through the earth, but through layers and layers of decaying bodies of men who had fallen in previous battles. “heads, arms and legs crawling with maggots”.

Throughout the war he kept a regular diary – he was, says Davis, a brilliant and observant writer.

Howard-Bury was captured in the final German offensive of the war: his regiment was right in the forefront of the attack and few survived.

The social and cultural aspect of all this has been much written about: Davis also has an eye for the economic scale, with the arresting fact that between 1918 and 1921 the effect of  death duties and other taxes meant a quarter of all English land would change hands – a change in property ownership of a scale only seen once before, when William the Conqueror marched in. Not even Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, or the English Civil War saw anything like it.

After the war, notes Davis, many who had served in the trenches wanted to go “anywhere but home”.

‘The long hallucination of the war induced a universal torpor and melancholy, a sense of isolation, a loss of centre….In the months and years after the war the essence of death became redefined, even as survivors sought new ways to deal with the inexorable separation it implied.’

Davis quotes Vera Brittain, who had lost her fiancé, her brother and two male friends and who wrote she had “no one left to dance with. The War was over; a new age was beginning; but the dead were the dead, and would never return.”

The book is peopled with dotty, strong-minded eccentrics, not all who saw war service. There is Charles – later Sir Charles – Bell, the envoy in Tibet, who loved the locals and who, after one of the early expeditions, forbade any removal of rocks for geological purposes because it was upsetting local religious sensibilities.

In fact, the climbers were not removing rocks – Tibetan lamas had got the wrong impression of what was going on – but Bell was appalled by the climbers’ dismissive reaction when he passed on local concerns.

There is, needless to say, a strong undercurrent of colonialism here – in fact ‘undercurrent’ is an understatement. Bell was another odd mix: he insisted on always wearing uniform when meeting Tibetan leaders, as befitting the dignity of a British official, but he would also avoid going outdoors in summer during daytime, like the lamas, because moving around would kill insects and Buddhists believe taking any life is wrong.

And Mallory?  He seems to have been a star even before Everest: a mix of brilliance, good looks and athleticism left him trailing clouds of still mostly anticipated glory, if such a thing can be imagined. He was singled out early as a vital part of any expedition – in fact, the best hope of getting to the top of Everest – due to his climbing ability.

There is a vignette of his first glimpse of Everest – noted in Howard-Bury’s diary: unable to sleep, he had risen to watch the sunrise and was pottering around on the pass where they had camped, ‘still clad in pyjamas and bedroom slippers, gazing at the mountain’.

The final, disastrous attempt, is covered in depth: Mallory and his climbing partner, Irving, disappeared into the mist on the mountain and fellow climber Noel Odell, thought he had seen them close enough to the summit to have actually made it there, even though they did not make it back.

Mallory was to complain to Noel he had not come to Tibet to be a film star: one of Davis’s points is despite this it is precisely what Mallory became, in life and – especially – in death. The film made by Noel became a hit at the still-silent cinemas.

Noel could only – especially with the heavy film equipment of the time – climb so far up the mountain. He was to wait: geologist Odell climbed further and watched his friends disappear. As relayed in Noel’s film, they waited longer than they knew they should have had to if the climb had been a success: eventually, the signal came.

Six blankets, in the shape of a cross, in the snow.

By the time this happens, on page 549, the reader is so wrapped up in the tale it is difficult not to feel the dismay.

The book goes on to cover future, abortive bids to get an expedition going, which ran afoul of politics. Hilary’s 1953 bid is, of course, mentioned in an epilogue, and there is the more recent discovery of Mallory’s body, where it is, and what it means for claims he and Irvine got to the top but never made it back.

I’ll leave that to you to find out about that. Read it. This is one of the best books, on any subject, I’ve read for a long time. Occasionally I’ve felt the writing could have been given a bit more pep and pace, but that is a minor quibble.

I love this book, and I haven’t said that about any book for a very long time.

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