The Unglamorous History of Trying to Climb Everest [Book Review]


From the 1921 Reconnaissance Expedition. Mallory front left, photographer Maj. Edward O. Wheeler to his left. Photo courtesy of Yale – Environment 360.

Climbing and history nerds: I have found your book.

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, written by Wade Davis, combines the storytelling of climbing tales with sharp attention to how politics and culture shape our choices as it tells the story of the many failed first expeditions to the world’s tallest mountain.

This is not a glamorous story.

You’re going to read about the devastation and mud of World War I; the complexities of contemporary politics of the Himalaya; and the grueling, colorless journey the expeditions will endure just to get to the base of the mountain.

You’re also going to read about the climbers’ incredible inventiveness and triumphs as they explore an area that, to people of the time, seemed as remote as the moon. The first expeditions had to find routes up a mountain without maps or photos and learn that tweed is inappropriate climbing attire.

Its commitment to honesty and its liveliness are some of the book’s best features. Davis makes stuffy English schools and complex Indian politics as intriguing as the problem-solving of photographing Everest with 100+ pounds of equipment in an 80-mile-per-hour wind. He praises expedition members’ political acumen and endurance while holding them accountable for their classism and paternalistic attitudes towards East Asian cultures.

As readers, we enjoy a full picture of the expedition members, from the taciturn but brilliant George Finch, to the crisis and leadership of General Charles Bruce, to the volatility and grit of George Mallory.


Compilation photo with Mallory’s 1921 photo in the foreground and the Main Rongbuk Glacier and the north face of Mount Everest in the background. Photo by David Breashears, courtesy of Yale Environment 360.

This book will pull you in and have you tinkering with newfangled oxygen apparatus, trying to grasp the scope of the losses of what was once called the “Great War,” and seeing the climbers through the pragmatic eyes of the local lama in the town near the expedition’s base camp.

You’ll find an exploration of leadership and decision making under harsh circumstances; a lively chronicle of climbing history and invention; and a way to see what the climb meant in the political context of its time. It reminds us that we don’t go to the mountain without all our grief and personal history—and, sometimes, the expectations of a nation.

Watch a talk by Wade Davis about the book here.

Share what you’re reading right now in the comments below!


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