Canadian author and explorer Wade Davis has won Britain's top non-fiction literary honour for his account of a doomed ascent of Mount Everest.

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Wade Davis spent 12 years researching Into the Silence. (National Geographic)

Davis won the £20,000 ($32,000 Cdn) Samuel Johnson Prize at a ceremony in London on Monday for his book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest.

Noted writer Davis is a mountaineer, ethnobotanist and explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society.

In Into the Silence, Davis revisits the tale of British mountaineer George Mallory, who famously declared he wanted to climb Everest — the world's highest peak — "because it is there." The attempt resulted in his death in 1924, with people still debating nearly a century later whether he ever reached the summit.

A product of more than a decade of research and writing, Davis' book explores Mallory's expedition deeper by delving into its wider context: those early days of mountaineering and the backdrop of the attempt following the First World War and against the backdrop of British imperialism.

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Into the Silence won the 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in London on Monday. (Samuel Johnson Prize)

Into the Silence is "an exciting story of human endeavour imbued with deep historical significance," said British MP David Willetts, who chaired the judging panel.

"This fascinating historical narrative of a great adventure manages to shed new light on events and stories we thought we already knew," he said.

"Wade's scrupulous use of sources and attention to detail, combined with his storytelling skills and ability to enter into the minds of the people he is writing about, make this a thoroughly enlightening and enjoyable book."

Davis, whose oeuvre includes books such as The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Wayfinders and the documentary series Light at the Edge of the World, is also a 2012 nominee for the Governor General's Literary Prize and was a contender for this year's Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.