Into The Silence

April 30, 2023 [books] #reviews #everest

Book: Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest
Author: Wade Davis

A very absorbing and ambitious piece of work that combines such disparate narratives such as the opening of Tibet in early 20th century, the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, and the impact of World War I on British psyche. The more I learnt about George Mallory the less I cared for him. The only way to explain the fanboyism around him is the convergence of the media's need for heroes, the allure of Everest as their siren and the time it took to discover his body. Luckily in this tale there are far more interesting characters than Mallory, many who I hadn't heard of before. There are Moreshead and Bailey, who made an unauthorized expedition to Tibet in 1913 and determined that the Brahmaputra and Tsangpo are indeed the same rivers. Then there is the Canadian Oliver Wheeler, also part of the Survey of India, who documented the six hundred square miles of the immediate vicinity of Everest, on a one-inch scale, a significant technical breakthrough in 1921. There is Howard Somerville, who chose to give up a medical practice in London to serve the Indian poor in Neyoor, while also at the same time being a film music composer, painter and mountaineer. All had served in the Great War. All were lucky to survive both the War and Everest.

There are also the pandits who serve the Raj, spies of the Great Game immortalized by Kipling in Kim, often unrewarded for their exertions. Kinthup, a Lepcha from Sikkim, who first determined that Brahmaputra is connected to Tsangpo in the 19th century, ended up being enslaved in Tibet before escaping. By the time he got back from his assignment, either his British masters were dead or did not care. Nain Singh, the first surveyor to fix the location of the Tibetan capital, traveled on foot from Sikkim to Lhasa and then all over central Tibet, walking 1,580 miles, or 3,160,000 paces, each counted. Pundit Hari Ram, who in 1871 completed a secret traverse from Shigatse to Nyelam, might have been the first British agent to have glimpsed Everest from the Tingri Plain in Tibet.

Wade Davis is very generous in his interpretations of people and events, whether it's Tibetans, Indians or the Everest expedition party. His harshest words are reserved for Douglas Haig, who commanded the British Army on the Western Front on the war and never set foot on the field. Davis doesn't offer an apologia of the empire, nor does he dismiss these people as mere cultural supremacists as is the current fashion. His style is a little bit odd, having us visit the Somme or other sites of the War each time he introduces a new character. It can get weary, but the people he documents are so interesting I can forgive him for that. The reference books listed in the appendix are a treasure, as also his notes on how he came across each.


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