As It Happens

As it Happened: The Archive Edition - Wade Davis on early quests to summit Everest

In the early 1920s, George Herbert Leigh Mallory led a small army of 25 men on three attempts to scale Everest. At the time, England was desperately seeking solace from the abysmal carnage of the First World War. Reaching the roof of the world presented the perfect remedy. Wade Davis tells the story in his 2011 book Into the Silence.

Acclaimed anthropologist Wade Davis spent years retracing Sir George Mallory's doomed Everest expeditions

Wade Davis is an award-winning Canadian explorer. (Adam Dillon)
Listen27:29

In the early 1920s, George Herbert Leigh Mallory led a small army of 25 men on three attempts to scale Mount Everest.

England was seeking to lift its disheartened and weary citizens from the devastation of the First World War. Reaching the roof of the world seemed a perfect remedy.

Anthropologist Wade Davis spent 12 years meticulously researching the Mallory expeditions, culminating in his 2011 book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and The Conquest of Everest.

In November that year, he joined As it Happens host Carol Off in studio for a feature interview. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

Why he wrote the book

"I was traveling across Tibet in 1996 as part of an ecological survey. We happened to pass Everest the same May when the disaster happened on the mountain that Jon Krakauer wrote about in Into Thin Air.

"And with me was Daniel Taylor. And his father had actually been a close friend of Howard Somerville who climbed famously with George Mallory in '22 and '24."-

Undated file photo of British mountain climber George Mallory, who died while scaling Mount Everest in 1924. (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

"And the next fall, [we] were back on the east face of Everest. And he suddenly began to speak to me of these sort of proverbial Englishmen in tweed, who flung themselves against the ice — dressed improperly as they read Shakespeare to each other in the snow. And as a great Anglophile I became instantly enamoured of the story.

"At that point the story hadn't been told, because Mallory's body hadn't been found."

'Death had no mystery for them'

"I was never interested in whether Mallory got to the top. I wanted to know who these men were. Because, of course, I knew that they had all gone through Oxbridge [Oxford and Cambridge universities], and I knew the age they were; it was highly likely that the majority of them had gone through the fire of the war.

"And my thought from the beginning was: not that they were cavalier about death — but death had no mystery for them. There's nothing more that death could teach them, save their own. And perhaps they were prepared to accept a level of risk that would have been unimaginable before the war. And for this whole generation my thought was: life mattered less than the moment to be alive.

"And that was the spirit that carried them up the mountain."

Climbing and the language of war

"The reason climbing uses the language of war was in part because the first efforts to climb the Himalaya were efforts of those who literally followed in the wake of military pacification campaigns.

"And so the soldiers allowed the climbers access to climb. And the climbers, in a sense, elevated the soldiers into the rarefied world of climbing. And climbing was very much the ethos of Cambridge and Oxford.

"And while the men back in London would use the words of war to describe the expeditions to Everest, the actual men who were on the mountain were those who had lived through a war — where they had come so close to the shadow of death that they recognized that if you were going to come to close quarters with Everest, you had to be prepared to accept a level of risk that those men could not even imagine."

"The first thing what we forget about the war was how noisy it was at the Somme.

"The British had 1,600 artillery devices that could fire 1,000 shells a day. The cacophony was constant. The other thing we forget is how much it stank. These men lived every day in the presence of rotten flesh.

"And so then you get up on the mountain, and then it's war again."

George Mallory was part of the first three British expedition that attempted to climb to the top of Mt. Everest. Mallory was unsuccessful and died during his climb in 1924. Here, George Mallory takes in a view in 1909. (AFP/Getty)

The 'unsung Canadian hero' of the 1921 expedition

"Famously, Mallory is credited with finding the route up to the North Col, that he called "the col of our desires".

"But it was not Mallory — it was an unsung Canadian hero, Oliver Wheeler, seconded to the expedition from the survey of India.

"Mallory — who for some reason disliked Canadians — nevertheless, who is it he chooses to go up the North Col — along with Guy Bullock? Oliver Wheeler."

"And when they get up on the ridge, they are beaten back by a wind that creates auras of spin drift around them.

"And they think they're going to die, just from the wind and the cold. And literally Wheeler says that he feared he was going to die, and the only thing that allowed him to breathe — such was the wind and the noise, which he compared to machine gun fire — was that he remembered what had happened on the western front: how he'd learn to slow down his breathing, slow down his mind, enter another zone of consciousness even as the artillery flashed all around him.

"And so the war just continues at every level."

"Mallory — who finally acknowledges the worth of this extraordinary Canadian — what does Mallory do that final night? Bless him. He stays up all night rubbing Wheeler's feet and legs with whale oil to keep the man alive.

"I found Oliver Wheeler's son, John, in Vancouver — living four doors from the house I was born. Four or five doors. He was such a gentleman. I went to see him, and after this wonderful afternoon, he suddenly pulled off the shelf two thick volumes of journals never seen by a historian, that his dad kept as he walked crossovers with Mallory in '21."

'Mallory was the mountain, and the mountain was Mallory'

"In 1924, even though that by this point, the mountain was Mallory, and Mallory was the mountain — particularly in the public imagination — you know, Mallory famously complained to the filmmaker [Captain] John Noel that he didn't go to Tibet to become a movie star.

"But Noel was going to make him one whether you liked it or not. And those films elevated Mallory from obscurity into the realm of the Titans.

"And in 1924, Mallory really didn't want to go. In fact, one of the last things he did is he went with Jeffrey Winthrop Young and his wife, Ruth, to visit the widow of [Robert Falcon] Scott, of Antarctic fame.

"But in the end, he just couldn't resist the lure of his own destiny. And then that is actually what, in a way, carried him to his death."

George Mallory (1886 - 1924) and Brigadier Edward Felix Norton (1884 - 1954) reach 27,000 feet on the north-east ridge of Mount Everest, 1922. Mallory returned for another attempt in 1924, but never returned. His body was found 75 years later. (Photo by Captain Noel/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (Captain Noel/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Does he believe Mallory and Irvine made it to the top?

"No. I don't.

"We know they got as far as the first of the two impediments — the first step — because an oxygen bottle was found.

"We know they were roped up when they died. We know that they were coming down when they fell. The question is could they have gotten to the top of the second step? Highly unlikely."

"First of all, they had lost their stove. They were severely dehydrated. They couldn't melt ice for water. Irvine was suffering from terrible sunburn. They left their torches behind in the tent, suggesting they started their fateful last climb at daylight. When Conrad Anker — who famously found Mallory's body — replicated that climb, he started at 2 a.m., and still didn't get back till 9 p.m.

As it Happens guest host Helen Mann interviews Julie Summers, grand-niece and biographer of Sandy Irvine, about why she and her family disapproved of attempts to locate his body on Mount Everest. (Originally aired August 19, 2011) 7:22

"The second step was a formidable hazard. All likelihood, they got to the base of the second step, turned around. Mallory would never have abandoned Irvine. They came back down together — either Mallory was being belayed down and the rope broke, or they both fell.

"But there remains one possibility, which is so wonderful.

"Had the snows that so battered that expedition in '24 ... accumulated on the northeast ridge, as they certainly did down below, it's possible the cone of snow could have formed that would have literally created a ramp up the impediment of the second step — over which Mallory and Irvine could have marched.

"If they'd been able to surmount the second step, nothing would have kept Mallory from getting to the top — because life for him mattered less than the moments of being alive."

As it Happened: The Archive Edition. Peak radio.