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’.

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