Wade Davis and the 'twilight shadow of hell'

First aired on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight (14/12/11)

Wade Davis is like a real-life Indiana Jones, having spent the past 35 years trekking to the far corners of the Earth and turning his experiences and research into gripping natural adventure stories (no less than three episodes of the X-Files have been based on things he's written).

Davis's latest book is about another adventurous figure: the legendary British mountaineer George Mallory and the team of men who died trying to scale Mount Everest. He recently dropped by to speak with George Stroumboulopoulos about Into the Silence and his other new book, The Sacred Headwaters, a call to action to stop the mineral- and fuel-mining in British Columbia's beautiful Stikine River basin.

"Because it's there," is what Mallory famously quipped upon being asked why he intended to climb Mount Everest. "It kind of distilled the essence of pure desire that led these men to Everest," Davis said. Mallory led expeditions to Everest in 1921, '22 and '24. "In '21, just to find the mountain they had to walk 400 miles off the map," said Davis. "In 1924, when [Mallory] made his final attempt, he was seen going strong when the mists rolled in and enveloped his memory in myth. A big question for mountaineers has always been 'Did he get to the top of the mountain before he died?'"

Davis thinks it's quite unlikely that Mallory made it to the top in the end, but that isn't the important part of the story to him. "I'm interested in the spirit that carried them on," he explained. "I had this feeling that all that generation had gone through the agony of the First World War, and not that they were cavalier about death, but in a way death had no hold on them."

For Davis, the research to complete this book was harrowing. "[It] was like a journey through the twilight shadow of hell," he said. "The war had such an impact on every single phase...so my thought was that life mattered less than the moments of being alive. Because of their experiences in the war, Mallory and his colleagues were willing to accept a level of risk that might have been unimaginable before the war. And it was that kind of risk and that kind of courage that Everest demanded."

The quest to conquer Everest was also, in a sense, an attempt to escape from humanity. "In the wake of the war there was a chasm that existed between the men that lived at the front, and those that stayed home and profited from the war," said Davis. "So after the war, there was this feeling of wanting to get away...In a way, that's what Everest became: a sentinel in the sky."

The sheer toughness of these men continues to amaze Davis. "These guys were from another reality," he said. But his work has taken him on some epic adventures of his own. So what is it that drives him?

"In a way, I'm trying to find something," he said. "People often ask why I ended up studying voodoo or Buddhism or traditional religions of the Amazon." Davis grew up a devout Christian in Quebec, but as he got older and learned about the darker side of the church's history, he became disillusioned. "So my spiritual quest is a way of trying to find that faith," he explained. "Similarly, I always wanted to know a life of adventure, so I've always been drawn to these epic journeys of the past, and in my own small way tried to replicate them in the present."

into the silence.jpg

Into the Silence

by Wade Davis

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From the publisher:

"A magnificent work of history, biography and adventure.

If the quest for Mount Everest began as a grand imperial gesture, as redemption for an empire of explorers that had lost the race to the Poles, it ended as a mission of regeneration for a country and a people bled white by war. Of the twenty-six British climbers who, on three expeditions (1921-24), walked 400 miles off the map to find and assault the highest mountain on Earth, twenty had seen the worst of the fighting. Six had been severely wounded, two others nearly died of disease at the Front, one was hospitalized twice with shell shock. Three as army surgeons dealt for the duration with the agonies of the dying. Two lost brothers, killed in action. All had endured the slaughter, the coughing of the guns, the bones and barbed wire, the white faces of the dead.

In a monumental work of history and adventure, ten years in the writing, Wade Davis asks not whether George Mallory was the first to reach the summit of Everest, but rather why he kept on climbing on that fateful day..."

Read more at Knopf Canada.