Damnable Heresy

David Simpson

  • Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis
    Vintage, 655 pp, £12.99, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 09 956383 9

In February 1924, four months before George Mallory and Sandy Irvine died on Everest, Conrad published a short essay called ‘Geography and Some Explorers’. He distinguished between the provision of scientific facts, which could be of only limited interest, and the ‘drama of human endeavour’ embodied in the pursuit of a ‘militant geography’ larger and grander than the mere search for knowledge. Wade Davis’s book on the British Everest expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924 shows how each demonstrated its own form of militant geography, its own blend of poetry and politics, error and achievement. Mallory occupies the centre of this story, but the book reaches far beyond the life and thoughts of a single mountaineer and his place in a history of great British lost causes.

What is it, or was it, about mountains? Near the end of his long life as a passionate if cautious mountaineer, I.A. Richards told an audience at the Alpine Club that only the ‘moderately sophisticated’ could see the point of what to others looked like a ‘dangerous and wasteful species of dementia’. Only a mind which was in full possession of itself could hold off the ‘horror’ that threatens to overtake us in dangerous and exposed high places. Some of those same minds, Davis tells us, had lived through the killing fields of Flanders, where death came casually and continually, and where the quality of someone’s mind was of no concern to the machine-gun bullet or artillery shell.

On the slopes of Everest the enemy was equally indifferent and the risk almost as great. One faction within the Alpine Club wanted to preserve that risk by refusing to use oxygen, a fact juxtaposed here with Haig’s attempt (as late as March 1916) to limit the number of machine guns per battalion, for fear of dampening the men’s martial spirit. The 1921 expedition did not use oxygen, and when it was taken along in 1922 Mallory called it a ‘damnable heresy’ and Arthur Hinks thought that ‘only rotters’ would use it. Among the rotters was George Finch, who was supposed to lead one climbing party with the apparatus while Mallory and Howard Somervell went without it. Events conspired to prevent this happening, and the final party not only went without oxygen but made it impossible for Finch to assemble a qualified group to follow with it. Nonetheless, even with skeletal support Finch and Geoffrey Bruce went faster and got higher than anyone else, higher indeed than anyone had ever climbed before. Thanks to oxygen they did so relatively comfortably. In 1924, Mallory came back with oxygen and a climbing partner, Sandy Irvine, who knew how it worked and how to fix the apparatus when it went wrong.

The oxygen debate epitomises the tension between gentlemen amateurs and professionals. In choosing men for the 1921 expedition, Davis tells us that the committee consistently favoured the right sort over the best sort. No matter that the right sort were too old or not fit enough. Arthur (anti-oxygen) Hinks was among those who kept Finch off the 1921 roster, based on a dubious medical report that seems to have been a cover for their disapproval of his wife’s affairs and perhaps of his colonial origins. The same problems persisted in 1922 and 1924. Finch, who had had the temerity to earn money from his Everest lectures, was blackballed from the 1924 expedition, while one member of the committee vetoed Richard Graham because he had been a conscientious objector. Mallory, to his credit, condoned neither decision, but once again the party was deprived of three of the finest climbers available, with Frank Smythe also being left off the list. Finch had not only pioneered the use of oxygen but also designed a down coat as an alternative to the tweed Norfolk jackets that made the Everest party look, to Bernard Shaw, like a ‘Connemara picnic surprised by a snowstorm’. He was Australian and thus fit to die in the trenches but not to carry the flag of ‘imperial redemption’.

The hero of Davis’s account of the first expedition is a Canadian, Oliver Wheeler, who revolutionised survey photography and discovered and mapped the East Rongbuk glacier, the ‘key to the mountain’ that Mallory failed to notice. Wheeler would help to provide the maps that defeated the Japanese invasion of India in the Second World War. Mallory described Wheeler as ‘a bore in the colonial fashion’, though not one he disliked. Coming off the North Col of Everest in 1921 in dire conditions, he saved Wheeler’s feet from frostbite; Wheeler claimed that this saved his life.

Davis himself is Canadian, and the book is dedicated to his grandfather, who served in the Great War. Some of its best passages concern the near total extinction of the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel on the first day of the Somme, as witnessed by Arthur Wakefield, the Canadian medical officer on the 1922 expedition. Despite its coverage of the treatment of Finch and Wheeler (and of the seven Sherpas who died in 1922) the book isn’t an anti-British polemic; for the most part it avoids both prejudice and hero-worship, and does not invite simple moral judgments. The events Davis relates don’t make for comfortable reading, however. He is remarkably vivid in his account of the blunders marking the war in Flanders. And he doesn’t much admire the conduct of Britain’s South Asian policy. The India survey project that started in 1806 and halted on the edge of the Himalayas by the 1830s is described as a form of ecocide: ‘Nothing stood in their way.’ (The first Everest expedition was a late extension of this enterprise, mapping twelve thousand square miles of territory and revising for accuracy another four thousand.) Indifference to the lives of the local population led to the death of 88 porters during the invasion of Tibet in 1904, the climax of which was the killing of more than six hundred and the wounding of many more lightly armed Tibetans by British machine guns. The British suffered nine wounded, seven of whom were sepoys. By the end of the campaign there were more than three thousand Tibetan dead, against five British. As Davis tells the story, the destruction of the Tibetan army made possible the Chinese invasion of 1908, one episode in a history of betrayals that began in 1876 when Britain recognised Tibet (without asking the Tibetans) as being within the Chinese sphere in exchange for British rights to Burma. Despite Curzon’s opposition, the Liberal government after 1905 reasserted China’s claims and cleared the way for an even more brutal invasion by the Manchu army. Only Sun Yat-sen’s revolution of 1911 against the Manchu empire made possible the re-establishment of Tibetan sovereignty.

From the early 1900s, Curzon believed an Everest expedition would demonstrate British influence and British pluck. By the 1920s there were huge differences of opinion over the costs and benefits of such an enterprise. Because the kingdom of Nepal was closed, all possible routes went through Tibet, approaching the mountain from the north. Every newly filled-in sector of the map risked a diplomatic incident, while seeming to many of the area’s inhabitants an invasion of sacred space. And yet Davis finds in this all too familiar episode of imperial history some of the more positive elements of Conrad’s militant geography. Francis Younghusband, who led the 1904 invasion of Tibet and would help finance and organise the Everest attempts, may have been ‘imperialist to the core’, but he was also one of the first to cultivate a mystical appreciation of Tibetan culture, inspiring him to found the World Congress of Faiths. Charles Howard-Bury, the leader of the 1921 expedition, lived a life normally found only in boys’ adventure stories, that of a war hero, explorer and spy fluent in 27 languages. Charles Bell became a friend of the Dalai Lama and compiled the first Tibetan grammar and dictionary. He put the Tibetan case against British Everest expeditions, motivated by loyalty to Tibetan customs and doubts that British motives would be seen as anything other than purely political. These men were tools of empire, but in Davis’s account they are not merely creatures of an ideology.

And so to Mallory. It all began when he went up to Cambridge and charmed everyone he met. He was painted by Duncan Grant and gushingly admired by Lytton Strachey, while Virginia Woolf thought he had ‘a head like a Greek god’. He performed in plays alongside Rupert Brooke and was the model for George Emerson in Forster’s A Room with a View. And he was a great rock climber, perhaps the best. He missed the first year of the war because he was a schoolmaster at Charterhouse, and was allowed to enlist only in late 1915. He didn’t serve on the front for 16 of the last 18 months of the fighting, though he did go through the Somme offensive. Before the 1924 expedition he was earning a far from lavish living teaching for the Board of Extra-Mural Studies at Cambridge and lecturing about Everest.

Mallory seems to have been devoted to his wife and children, but prepared to be away from them for long periods. He was progressive without being deeply political. He published a book on Boswell and took to the Himalayas a copy of Robert Bridges’s wartime poetry anthology, The Spirit of Man. He was a brilliant but arguably reckless climber, personally responsible for seven Sherpa deaths in 1922, while making a run at the summit against all prudent advice. His failure to provision Camp III adequately may have brought about the death of an Indian expedition member in 1924. He left his compass behind at Camp V and at Camp VI forgot his torch. He ruined an important photographic record by inserting the plates into the camera back to front. No one knows exactly how he died, though speculation persists: Jeffrey Archer’s Paths of Glory (2009) is only the latest expression of the belief that he reached the summit before falling to his death. When his body was at last discovered in 1999, a scandal erupted over the treatment of the corpse and the commercial distribution of photographs (not reproduced in this book) of a broken figure whose buttocks had been eaten away by ravens. Irvine’s body has never been found, or if found never identified.

In 1917, Mallory wrote to a friend that he expected to die in Flanders: ‘I don’t intend, for whatever little that might be worth, to be alive at the end.’ On the 1921 expedition he wrote: ‘I’ve hardly the dimmest hope of reaching the top, but of course we shall proceed as though we meant to get there.’ A little later he wondered in another letter whether the whole expedition was ‘a fraud from beginning to end’, designed only to ‘persuade mankind that some noble heroism has failed once again’. The third and fatal expedition was, according to Davis, undertaken with deep reservations. The ‘once again’ of Mallory’s letter conjures up a long tradition of heroic gestures and wasted lives in frozen places (Franklin, Shackleton, Scott), but also the millions of less celebrated deaths in the Great War. The war hardly needed to be mentioned because it was always there. Mallory looked on the second expedition as ‘more like war than sport’, and time and again the natural desolation of earth’s highest places is made to echo the man-made desolation of Flanders. Mallory’s prose is not the most extravagant example, but even he could write of the 1924 summit attempt that ‘we will gather up our resources and advance to the last assault.’ The same language appears in his final bulletin to the Times, which describes counting the wounded and preparing to face a merciless enemy once again. When the news of his death came out, the Daily Graphic headline was ‘Mallory and Irvine Killed in the Final Assault’. They didn’t die, they were killed, as if by a man with a machine gun. Howard Somervell called Everest ‘the finest cenotaph in the world’. There was, it seems, no other way to imagine this desire to carry on against all odds.

John Buchan stage-managed Howard-Bury’s 15 reports for the Times from the 1921 expedition and made them as popular ‘as a serial novel by Dickens’. Mallory and others returned to undertake a gruelling series of public lectures, all of which were supposed to be sanctioned by the Everest Committee, as Finch found to his cost. John Noel lugged along state of the art camera equipment that by the time of the third expedition was able to provide high-quality footage to Pathé News, and made two films (in 1922 and 1924) celebrating the heroism of the climbers and the dignity of their cause. Noel’s company, Explorer Films, bankrolled the third expedition in exchange for the photographic and film rights. Mallory and Irvine died, in an unintended way, for the movie industry. When The Epic of Everest was released in 1924, it was a media success but a political disaster. It was seen by more than a million people in Canada and the US alone, but the extravaganza put on by Noel in London, with chanting monks imported from Tibet without the permission of their abbot, was deemed offensive in Lhasa and put an end to all Everest expeditions until 1933. Davis thinks that the defeat of the modernising and pro-Western Dalai Lama that followed this scandal might have contributed directly to the defeat of Tibet in the Chinese invasion of 1949. He might be overstating the case, but he makes us wonder whether the spectacle of the ‘dancing lamas’ undid the political independence of the very culture it was supposedly celebrating.

The Epic of Everest is not to be found on Netflix or LoveFilm, nor is it catalogued in the BFI Mediatheques, and I wonder if it has gone the way of far too many old films. Without it, how do we remember these men and the strange mixture of motives that sent them to the unexplored margins of the empire? By 1925 there were thirty Scott memorials in Britain. Mallory and Irvine are less compulsively commemorated, it seems. But a few hours’ drive from where I am writing this are two neighbouring peaks in the California Sierras; Mount Mallory is, at 13,850 feet, taller than Mount Irvine by a nose. And at Magdalene College, Cambridge, students can find themselves lodging in Mallory Court, where they may notice a memorial tablet, the ‘gift of A.C.B.’. Arthur Benson was torturously taken with the undergraduate Mallory in 1905, and as it happens is himself commemorated in the adjacent Benson Court. I lived for a year in each court and never gave a thought to the lives behind the names. No one who reads Davis’s book will be capable of the same oversight. A remark of Mallory’s has also entered the vernacular, even if not everyone would associate it with him. He is the person who, when asked why he had tried to reach the top of Everest, said: ‘Because it’s there.’ Davis is reluctant to decide how he said it, whether as a metaphysical assertion or a brushing-off of a boring interlocutor. The same uncertainty governs repetitions of the phrase to this day.

There is another kind of memorial, and that is Davis’s book itself. Historians always have to make things up, and there were times in reading Into the Silence when I found myself wondering how Davis knew which way the wind was blowing on a certain morning on the Western Front, and how deep the snow was on the slopes of Everest at four o’clock on a particular afternoon. Historical licence, I assumed: how else to tell the story? But when I went through the forty closely printed pages of Davis’s annotated bibliography I realised that I was largely wrong. The wartime experiences of the various Everest explorers can be tracked almost daily thanks to diaries, letters and other reports, and Davis and his assistants seem to have read them all. He has also read deeply and widely in the print and manuscript sources pertaining to every aspect of the expeditions, from the personal to the geopolitical. But after all this, what impresses most is his reluctance to provide simple answers to the questions about motivation and belief that so many have wanted to have solved. He makes it pretty clear that Mallory and Irvine were very unlikely to have reached the top of the world, despite the common wish or belief that they did. The book’s great achievement is to persuade us that this does not really matter very much.