Charles Taylor Prize: Wade Davis on climbing a literary Everest


With past recipients including Richard Gwyn, Carol Shields, Ian Brown and Charles Foran, the annual Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction is one of the country's most prestigious awards. The winner of the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize will be announced on March 5. 

From February 27 to March 2, each of the five 2012 nominees are sharing part of their writing experience with CBC Books. We are publishing one essay each day. Today, we hear from Wade Davis, author of Into the Silence.


Wade Davis is the author of 15 books, a photographer, an anthropologist, an ethnobotanist, a speaker and an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. In 2009 he received the Gold Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for his contributions to anthropology and conservation, and he is the 2011 recipient of the Explorers Medal, the highest award of the Explorers' Club, and the 2012 Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration, the most prestigious award for botanical exploration. Into the Silence was published by Knopf Canada in September 2011.

On June 8, 1924, George Mallory and his young companion Sandy Irvine were seen cresting the northeast ridge of Everest, going strong for the top when the mist rolled in, enveloping their memory in myth. Whether they reached the summit before meeting their end is a question that has long haunted the climbing world.

But from the start of this project more than a decade ago, I was less interested in this mystery than in the spirit that had carried Mallory aloft, and the character of the men who walked 400 miles off the map through unknown Tibet just to come to the flanks of a mountain that no European had approached at close quarters. I knew that Mallory and the others had endured the agony of the Great War, the mud and blood of Flanders. They were not cavalier about death, but they had seen so much of it in the trenches that it had no hold on them. Perhaps this explained their willingness to climb on, accepting a degree of risk that might have been unimaginable before the war. Life mattered less than the moments of being alive.


Sandy Irvine (right), and George Mallory prepare for their final ascent to Everest's summit (John Noel Photo Collection/Associated Press)

The challenge, then, was to go beyond the iconic figure of George Mallory and learn as much as possible about the lives of all 26 men who went to Everest in 1921-24. Several escaped the war, but 20 men most assuredly did see the fighting, and I was able to determine, with some notable gaps, where each was posted on virtually every day of the entire war.

With the knowledge of the military unit and the location both in time and space of each protagonist throughout the war, the next research challenge was to ascertain to the extent possible what each man might have endured. It was famously said of both Passchendaele and the Somme that the army lacked the clerk power to tabulate the dead. If so, it recorded just about everything else. The Great War was so thoroughly documented that one wonders how the men found time to fight. Every unit maintained a war diary, with the task of reporting on operations, intelligence, casualties and any other pertinent information rotating among the junior officers. These diaries, together with letters, personal journals and trench maps, made it possible to track each of our men through the war with a level of specificity I would not have imagined possible at the outset. All had endured the bones and barbed wire, the coughing of the guns, the white faces of the dead.

John Morris, the transport officer in 1922, has been largely overlooked, but he was in fact one of the most fascinating characters. Openly homosexual, he was a great friend of E. M. Forster, and later a successful ethnographer and authority on the hill tribes of Nepal. He lived and taught in Japan through the early years of the Second World War. I was fascinated by his friendship with General Bruce, as brash and macho a figure as was to be found in the Indian Army. And I was drawn to Morris's trajectory from an innocent lad, an uncertain virgin enchanted with classical music, to a detached killer in the trenches. He personified the ordinary subaltern of the war, alienated from home and parents, bludgeoned in spirit and body by the blind orders of senior officers who would never see the trenches, and in the end quite incapable of returning to anything approximating a normal life. I found it especially poignant to learn that having survived three years on the Western Front, he found himself on the Northwest Frontier, cradling in his arms one of his young soldiers who had been flayed alive. That this happened within weeks of joining the 1922 Everest expedition in Darjeeling spoke powerfully of the psychic baggage, if you will, that all these men brought with them to the mountain.

On the morning of the Somme, Howard Somervell, with one other doctor, had found himself surrounded by six acres of dying boys lying like cordwood in the meadows surrounding his base. At Devil's Wood, where 4,000 British lads perished in an afternoon, Charles Howard-Bury, ordered to dig a communication trench in the night, found his command digging through six feet not of Picardy chalk but of rotting human cadavers, the detritus of previous battles. Oliver Wheeler failed to attend the burial of Arthur Kellas, who died on the approach march to Everest in 1921, because he remained haunted by the night in November 1914 when he had been forced to bury alive dozens of dying boys of both sides, piled three bodies deep, chest to chest along the bottom of a sap [a trench dug directly toward the enemy lines], flailing about, as he recalled, like trout in his creel. Jack Hazard in 1924 reached the North Col with his clothes saturated with blood from open wounds from the Somme that would never heal. The war, never spoken about and never forgotten, was the backdrop of their lives. Somervell, who was Mallory's closest friend on the mountain, never returned from Everest. He became a medical missionary in the south of India, dedicating the rest of his life to saving the living, that he might sweep away all thoughts of the dead.

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