Mount Everest’s ongoing fatal attraction
As the 16 deaths on its slopes last week showed, the world’s highest mountain remains a killer. Wade Davis’s history, ‘Into The Silence’, reveals the birth of its fatal and seductive myth.
Reaching the summit of Mount Everest has long been a very British obsession.
In 1923 when asked by a New York journalist why he wanted to climb it, George Mallory replied, ‘Because it’s there’. It became the most famous phrase in mountaineering. At the time Mallory was acknowledged as the finest climber of his generation; he had already made two attempts on Everest’s summit on two British expeditions in 1921 and 1922.
The following year, aged 37, he tried again. On the morning of June 8 Mallory, he and his 22-year-old companion Sandy Irvine set off from their camp at 27,000 feet for the final push. Around lunchtime the clouds parted and one of their companions below spotted two dark figures on a great expanse of rock and snow 800 feet below the summit. They were swallowed by mist and never seen again.
Back home, the news of their deaths was greeted as a national tragedy. King George V and the royal family attended a packed memorial service for them in St Paul’s Cathedral. What happened to them became one of the great mysteries of mountaineering. The pair certainly died on the mountain, but were they still on their way up or had they reached the top and started their descent?
Wade Davis’s gripping account of the expeditions in the early 1920s shows how much that generation of climbers was formed by their experience of battle.
All but six of the 28 members of those expeditions had served during the first world war and they shared a military mindset – they spoke of ‘conquering’ the mountain, and making an ‘assault’ on the summit. Many of them had also suffered through their wartime experiences of death and horror. They saw climbing Everest as a way of purifying the tarnished military ideals of courage and selflessness through a great imperial adventure.
And one of their motives was purely patriotic, even nationalistic. They thought of Mount Everest as belonging to Britain, as it stood on the fringe of British India, the jewel in the crown of the empire, and they considered it only proper that Britons should be first to reach its top.
Mountains of the mind
Everest remained unfinished business after Mallory’s death. Success for the British expedition came in 1953, when the New Zealander Edmund Hillary and the Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay stood on the roof of the world. The news was announced on the day of Queen Elizabeth ll’s coronation and was supposed to herald a new Elizabethan Age, with adventurers to match Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake.
But the British Empire had dwindled by then, India was independent, and very different ambitions would drive those who followed Mallory and Irvine in their quest to conquer Everest in the following decades.
- Why do people climb mountains or go the North Pole?
- Do people now face these challenges for different reasons from those of the past?
- In groups, make a list of all the firsts of human exploration that you can find. How many challenges for humankind can you think of that have not yet been achieved?
- Research the fateful 1924 expedition on Everest by George Mallory and Sandy Irvine. Write up an imagined diary entry for one of them, detailing the preparations that they made and their hopes and fears for the expedition.
Some People Say...
“Mountains are not fair or unfair — they are just dangerous.’Reinhold Messner”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why is it important to know about an attempt to climb a mountain years ago?
- Sometimes the reasons why people do things are more complicated than they at first appear. Wade Evans’s book is trying to find out why Mallory and Irvine were willing to continue climbing Everest when there was a very good chance they would not survive. There are deeper reasons for their actions than simply the enjoyment of the physical challenge and understanding these can help us to understand human nature.
- Why do we remember those who have failed in their attempts, like Mallory and Irvine, as much, if not more, than those who succeeded?
- Many admire the characters, behaviour and commitment of those who have acted heroically and selflessly in the most dangerous of situations, and find their actions inspirational.
- India was called the ‘jewel in the crown’ by the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. He meant to emphasise its importance within the British Empire and he persuaded Queen Victoria to take the title, Empress of India.
- Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618) was one of the leading figures at the court of Queen Elizabeth l, a poet, writer, soldier and explorer. He is credited with popularising tobacco from the New World in England.
- Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596) was one of the leading sea captains of the Elizabethan age. He was a hero to the English, but the Spanish considered him a pirate for all the bullion he stole from their treasure ships. He made the second circumnavigation of the globe in 1777-80.