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The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest

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Pages: 672 | ISBN: 978-0-307-70056-8
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The definitive story of the British adventurers who survived the trenches of World War I and went on to risk their lives climbing Mount Everest.
On June 6, 1924, two men set out from a camp perched at 23,000 feet on an ice ledge just below the lip of Everest’s North Col. George Mallory, thirty-seven, was Britain’s finest climber. Sandy Irvine was a twenty-two-year-old Oxford scholar with little previous mountaineering experience. Neither of them returned.
Drawing on more than a decade of prodigious research, bestselling author and explorer Wade Davis vividly re-creates the heroic efforts of Mallory and his fellow climbers, setting their significant achievements in sweeping historical context: from Britain’s nineteen-century imperial ambitions to the war that shaped Mallory’s generation. Theirs was a country broken, and the Everest expeditions emerged as a powerful symbol of national redemption and hope. In Davis’s rich exploration, he creates a timeless portrait of these remarkable men and their extraordinary times.



On the morning of June 6, 1924, at a camp perched at 23,000 feet on an ice ledge high above the East Rongbuk Glacier and just below the lip of Everest’s North Col, expedition leader Lieutenant Colonel Edward Norton said farewell to two men about to make a final desperate attempt for the summit. At thirty-seven, George Leigh Mallory was Britain’s most illustrious climber. Sandy Irvine was a young scholar of twenty- two from Oxford with little previous mountaineering experience. Time was of the essence. Though the day was clear, in the southern skies great rolling banks of clouds revealed that the monsoon had reached Bengal and would soon sweep over the Himalaya and, as one of the climbers put it, “obliterate everything.” Mallory remained characteristically optimistic. In a letter home, he wrote, “We are going to sail to the top this time and God with us, or stamp to the top with the wind in our teeth.”

Norton was less sanguine. “There is no doubt,” he confi ded to John Noel, a veteran Himalayan explorer and the expedition’s photographer, “Mallory knows he is leading a forlorn hope.” Perhaps the memory of previous losses weighed on Norton’s mind: seven Sherpas left dead on the mountain in 1922, two more this season, the Scottish physician Alexander Kellas buried at Kampa Dzong during the approach march and reconnaissance of 1921. Not to mention the near misses. Mallory himself, a climber of stunning grace and power, had, on Everest, already come close to death on three occasions.

Norton knew the cruel face of the mountain. From the North Col, the route to the summit follows the North Ridge, which rises dramatically in several thousand feet to fuse with the Northeast Ridge, which, in turn, leads to the peak. Just the day before, he and Howard Somervell had set out from an advanced camp on the North Ridge at 26,800 feet. Staying away from the bitter winds that sweep the Northeast Ridge, they had made an ascending traverse to reach the great couloir that clefts the North Face and falls away from the base of the summit pyramid to the Rongbuk Glacier, ten thousand feet below. Somervell gave out at 28,000 feet. Norton pushed on, shaking with cold, shivering so drastically he thought he had succumbed to malaria. Earlier that morning, climbing on black rock, he had foolishly removed his goggles. By the time he reached the couloir, he was seeing double, and it was all he could do to remain standing. Forced to turn back at 28,126 feet, less than 900 feet below the summit, he was saved by Somervell, who led him across the ice-covered slabs. On the retreat to the North Col, Somervell himself suddenly collapsed, unable to breathe. He pounded his own chest, dislodged the obstruction, and coughed up the entire lining of his throat.

By morning Norton had lost his sight, temporarily blinded by the sunlight. In excruciating pain, he contemplated Mallory’s plan of attack. Instead of traversing the face to the couloir, Mallory and Irvine would make for the Northeast Ridge, where only two obstacles barred the way to the summit pyramid: a distinctive tower of black rock dubbed the First Step, and, farther along, the Second Step, a 100- foot bluff that would have to be scaled. Though concerned about Irvine’s lack of experience, Norton had done nothing to alter the composition of the team. Mallory was a man possessed. A veteran of all three British expeditions, he knew Everest better than anyone alive.

Two days later, on the morning of June 8, Mallory and Irvine set out from their high camp for the summit. The bright light of dawn gave way to soft shadows as luminous banks of clouds passed over the mountain. Noel Odell, a brilliant climber in support, last saw them alive at 12:50 p.m., faintly from a rocky crag: two small objects moving up the ridge. As the mist rolled in, enveloping their memory in myth, he was the only witness. Mallory and Irvine would not be seen or heard from again. Their disappearance would haunt a nation and give rise to the greatest mystery in the history of mountaineering.

Never did Odell doubt that they reached the summit before meeting their end. Nor did he question the sublime purpose that had led them all to cross hundreds of miles on foot, from India and across Tibet, just to reach the base of the mountain. Odell wrote of his two lost friends: “My final glimpse of one, whose personality was of that charming character that endeared him to all and whose natural gifts seemed to indicate such possibilities of both mind and body, was that he was ‘going strong,’ sharing with that other fi ne character who accompanied him such a vision of sublimity that it has been the lot of few mortals to behold; few while beholding have become merged into such a scene of transcendence.”


Great Gable

On the very day that George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared on Everest, another party of British climbers slowly made their way to the summit of a quite different mountain and in very different circumstances. At 2,949 feet, Great Gable was not a serious or diffi cult climb, but it was said to be “the most completely beautiful of English mountains.” It anchored the fells of Cumbria, and from its summit could be seen a dozen or more of the rounded hills and rocky crags of the Lake District, where so many En glish climbers had first discovered the freedom of open space and the feel of wind and rain and sleet on cold hands jammed into cracks of granite and slate.

There were some eighty men and women in this solemn party, most of them members of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club, a loose association founded in 1906 and dedicated exclusively to the celebration of the English hills. Among them was the club secretary, Leslie Somervell, whose brother Howard was then with the Everest expedition, and Arthur Wakefield, club president since 1923. Wakefield had served as medical offi cer on the 1922 Everest expedition and had been the first to rush to the relief of the climbers swept away by the avalanche on the North Col that buried alive seven Sherpa porters. Death was something he knew well.

The most prominent fi gure on Great Gable this day was Geoffrey Winthrop Young, who brought up the rear, supported by his wife,
Len, as he struggled over boulders and wet stones in rain so fi erce it swept the cape from his back. Considered by many to be the greatest English mountaineer of his era, Young was the mentor of Mallory, and had been responsible for both Mallory and Wakefi eld securing invitations to join the Everest expeditions. This was his fi rst climb since losing his left leg to an Austrian shell on the night of August 31, 1917, at Monte San Gabriele while serving on the Isonzo Front, in Italy. In time he would summit the Matterhorn with a prosthetic limb of his own design, but for the moment it was all he could do to keep his balance and move steadily up the slope toward the others. A gifted Georgian poet and a fi ne orator, he was here at Wakefield’s invitation to help dedicate a bronze plaque inscribed with the names of those members of the FRCC who had been lost in the war, and to consecrate in their memory a tract of some three thousand acres purchased by the survivors and gifted by them to the nation as a living memorial. The actual deeds to the land had been presented by Wakefi eld to a representative of the National Trust several months before, on October 13, 1923, at the annual FRCC dinner at the Sun Hotel in the nearby village of Coniston.

“These title deeds,” he had told his audience that night, “represent the lives of those of our members who died for their country, men with whom in many cases we have walked over these fells, and whose friendship we treasured. The cost is great indeed. Sir, we hand these deeds over to you in the hope and belief that future generations will be inspired with the same sense of self-sacrifice and devotion to great ends, even at the cost of self- obliteration, that were shown by those who died and whose monument this is.” The names of the dead were then read, as those present stood in silence.

Now many of the same company of men and women gathered around a boulder at the summit of Great Gable. Covering the memorial plaque was a rain-soaked Union Jack, the very flag that had flown at Jutland from the bridge of the battleship Barham of the 5th Battle Squadron of the Royal Navy. Before drawing back the flag to reveal the bronze, Arthur Wakefield stepped forward and began to speak of the land, the breath of the moors, the spirit of freedom that had impelled them all to march to war. It was an inspiring address, wrote a reporter for the Manchester Guardian who was present, one that brought all thoughts back to those years of strain and trial and sacrifice.

Wakefield’s rhetoric was moving, heartfelt, and sincere, but his appearance shocked Young, who had not seen him since before the war. Both were scions of the British elite. Born six months apart in 1876, they’d gone to college together, attending Trinity at a time when no fewer than 195 members of Parliament, fully a third of the House, were Cambridge men, and of these 68 were from Trinity. Young remembered Wakefield as a short, broad-shouldered, curly-haired, good-looking northern lad with an attractive smile, well liked by all. But it was Wakefield’s prodigious strength that had led Young to recommend him to Captain Percy Farrar of the Alpine Club and the Mount Everest Committee as a candidate for the Everest expeditions. Wakefield, known to his friends as Waker, was a man who liked to walk. In 1905 he had set a record in the Lake District, traversing Scafell Pike, Helvellyn, Skiddaw, Green Gable, Kirk Fell, Steeple, Red Pike, and a score of other summits, covering some fifty-nine miles with a total vertical ascent and descent of some 23,500 feet in twenty-two hours, seven minutes. He had climbed in Switzerland in 1893, and in the spring of 1894 had encountered for the fi rst time the rock of the Lake District, the Central Gully of Great End. Powerful, cautious, methodical, he never fell.

But this was not the man who appeared at Young’s side ready to pull back the flag to reveal the names of the dead. What stepped forward was a shadow of the man he had once known, with eyes that appeared to be focused into some distant past, as if on a memory that could not be embraced, a thought impossible to distill. Then, unexpectedly, the weather cleared; as Young recalled, “The sun broke through the clouds as he made his address under the highest rocks, and in the rather silvery gleam, with its faint halo of mist, I saw him for a few moments again as he had been in his very vital and sunnily serene youth.” Other witnesses remember Wakefield hesitating and then slowly beginning to sob as the fl ag drew back to reveal the names of those who had perished: caught on the barbed wire, drowned in mud, choked by the oily slime of gas, reduced to a spray of red mist, quartered limbs hanging from shattered branches of burnt trees, bodies swollen and blackened with flies, skulls gnawed by rats, corpses stuck in the sides of trenches that aged with each day into the colors of the dead. It was, according to Wakefield’s son, the last time his father ever displayed human emotion. He would go to his end never speaking of the war, consumed only by abiding hatred of all things German.

A Mr. Herbert Cain began slowly to read the names of the deceased: S. Bainbridge, J. E. Benn, H. S. P. Blair, A. J. Clay, J. N. Fletcher . . . There were twenty in all, from a club with a membership of 450, men and women, young and very old. Such rosters had become all too familiar. Young had dedicated his recent book, On Mountain Craft, published in 1920, to fi fty friends who had died—some on mountains, but most in the trenches. In another of his books, The Mountains of Snowdonia, he recalled innocent times before the war when climbing had the freshness of the dawn and some of the best minds and certainly the fi nest climbers of a generation— George Mallory, Siegfried Herford, John Maynard and Geoffrey Keynes, Cottie Sanders, Duncan Grant, Robert Graves, George Trevelyan, and many others—came together in Wales at the top of Llanberis Pass, at a place called Pen y Pass. By day they would climb and by night they would sing, recite poetry, debate, and argue. In ways impossibly innocent to the contemporary eye, they explored dreams of purity and purpose in a new century where all that mattered was authenticity and beauty, loyalty and friendship. Young was the inspiration for these gatherings, the maître d’ and impresario, and from the fi rst in 1903 he recorded each event in a photographic album, which he called the Pen y Pass diary. Of the honed and beautiful faces, the innocent glances—no fewer than twenty- three of the men would be killed in the war, another eleven so severely wounded that to climb again they would have to overcome immense physical impediments, just as Young himself had done.

But of the names read with such intense emotion from this memorial bronze on this cold and windswept day, there were two that especially haunted Young. One was that of Hilton Laurence Slingsby, the brother of his wife, Len, who stood stiffl y by his side. Geoffrey was twenty years older than she, and as he looked over the rocks and into the mist, he could see the face of Hilton as a young boy of nine when he had first led the lad up this very mountain. He recalled the day—August 20, 1917—when a letter had reached him in Italy with word that Hilton, after three years at the front, and having already survived a grievous wound, had been “killed in action,” a term, of course, that could mean anything.

The second name was that of Siegfried Herford, killed at Ypres in 1915. A friend of Mallory’s and arguably the fi nest rock climber of his generation, he was, as Young recalled, “a poet at heart,” a youth who came and went with the “spontaneity of the wind, so near to the light and wonder of the hills in spirit that his feats upon the cliffs only seemed natural.” As much as anyone who came to Pen y Pass, Herford had inspired Young to dream. “With our coming together,” he would write, “in that high air all cares seemed to drop from us, like clouds sinking below on that two way view down the pass.”

The litany of the dead had done much to quell such sentiments. In August 1917, when it seemed to everyone that the war might go on forever, Young recorded in his diary a list of good friends who had died, no fewer than twenty-five, and this left room for those he termed acquaintances; of these there were another twenty- five. Writing from Ypres in 1915, he’d spoken of the dead in more intimate phrases, as noted in his book The Grace of Forgetting.

In the new army around us I knew that there were many younger friends, those who would have become the leaders in mountaineering and in our country. I saw in passing Twiggy Anderson, the perfect hurdler and lively scholar, again an Eton pupil; Terrence Hickman of Kings, good friend of so many mountaineers; and J. Raphael the football player, whom I took to Wales to climb, and who ran hard up the steep slopes of all his mountains, springing on his toes, and explaining to me that that really was the correct way to climb.

They were killed very near to us, and the news came slowly and fatally. The toll of tragic loss, and not only among climbing friends, kept mounting. Dearest of all, Wilbert Spencer at La Bassée, Kenneth Powell the classic athlete, Nigel Madan a close friend, Werner of Kings, cousins John and Horas Kennedy. On other fronts, C. K. Carfrae, Guy Butlin, the brothers Rupert and Basil Brooke, Julian and Billy Grenfell . . . Gilbert Hosegood, very fair and tall, came to me in excitement because he had met his brother by chance as he marched with his company through Ypres; and he walked beside him in talk all down the Menin road. Not long after, I drove him south down the front to visit his brother’s grave, a lovely spot, and Guy du Maurier, his brother’s colonel, was more than kind to us. We were hardly returned to Ypres when news of du Maurier’s death also reached us. Hosegood joined up soon after, to take his brother’s place he said; he too fell.

Young had been at Zermatt climbing with Herford during the soft summer of 1914, when all of Europe glowed with weather so beautiful and fine that it would be remembered for a generation, invoked by all those who sought to recall a time before the world became a place of mud and sky, with only the zenith sun to remind the living that they had not already been buried and left for dead. Stunned by a mix of emotions—horror, incredulity, morbid anticipation, fear, and confusion—Young returned to London to find “the writing of madmen already on the wall.” He recalled, “I attended the peace meeting in Trafalgar Square, the last protest of those who had grown up in the age of civilized peace: and then the dogs of war were off in full cry.” Forty years later, near the end of his days, he would write, “After the hardening effects of two wars it is diffi cult to recall the devastating collapse of the structure of life, and all its standards, which the recrudescence of barbarous warfare denoted for our generation.”

He had been born to a privileged life, the second son of Sir George Young of Formosa Place, a stately eighteenth- century house of gardens and roses perched on the banks of the river Thames. His mother was Irish, a splendid storyteller and a great hostess, and their home regularly welcomed such luminaries as Robert Baden- Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts and the hero of Mafi keng; the poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson; and Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist and enigmatic champion of human rights who would be knighted in 1911 for exposing the atrocities in the Belgian Congo, only to be hanged for treason in 1916. Of his three siblings, he was closest to his younger brother, Hilton, who would lose an arm in the war. His childhood was one of action and fantasy, endless days outside in all weather and all seasons, among the bitter cherries and silver beeches, the weeping willows and ancient yews of a country setting that inspired within him a love of color and nature, rivers and the wind, mountains and rain. He never practiced religion in an orthodox sense, but all of his life was infused with a celebratory quest for the wonder of beauty and friendship, the sheer vitality of being human and alive.

At Marlborough, a school that would send 733 boys to die in the trenches, he was known for his good looks, his poetry, and his remarkable athletic abilities. At Cambridge he became a climber, of both mountains and the Gothic rooftops of the university colleges. His impish side penned anonymously The Roof Climber’s Guide to Trinity, thus beginning a long tradition of illicit midnight scrambles over slate and lead and gargoyles. Following graduation in 1898, he went abroad, living for three years in France and Germany and becoming fl uent in both languages. His true affection was for Germany; he translated the ballads of Schiller and the devotional poems of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1902, he returned to En gland to take a teaching position at Eton; there he met the young John Maynard Keynes, who would later join him on climbing trips to the Alps.

Young first encountered George Mallory in 1909, at a Cambridge dinner. At Easter he invited Mallory to Pen y Pass, and the following summer the two went off, at Young’s expense, to the Alps, where they were joined by Donald Robertson, a close friend and peer of Hilton Young’s. They climbed a number of peaks, none more dramatic than the southeast ridge of the Nesthorn, where Mallory nearly died. He was leading at the time, inching his way across fluted ice, seeking a route around the third of the four great towers that blocked the way up the ridge. Young would later recall his sudden astonishment: “I saw the boots flash from the wall without even a scrape; and, equally soundlessly, a grey streak flickered downward, and past me, and out of sight. So much did the wall, to which he had clung so long, overhang that from the instant he lost hold he touched nothing until the rope stopped him in mid-air over the glacier. I had had time to think, as I flung my body forward on to the belayed rope, grinding it and my hands against the slab, that no rope could stand such a jerk; and even to think out what our next action must be—so instantaneous is thought.” Miraculously, the rope held and Mallory was uninjured.

In another book, On High Hills, Young would remember and praise his companions on that dramatic climb: “To both of them life was a treasure of value; but it was also a talent to be reinvested for the profit of others. Neither hesitated to risk the loss of his share in it, if by doing so he could help to keep the great spirit of human adventure alive in the world.” Robertson would die a year later, on a rock face in Wales. A chapel would be built in his memory, and a monument erected within sight of the cliffs where he fell, and a trust established to bring En glish youths to the hills. Such were the sensibilities in the years immediately before the war, a time when powerful and virile men could speak of love and beauty without shame, and sunsets and sunrises had yet to become, as the painter Paul Nash would write, “mockeries to man,” blasphemous moments, preludes to death.

From the Hardcover edition.
Wade Davis|Author Q&A

About Wade Davis

Wade Davis - Into the Silence

Photo © Ryan Hill

Wade Davis is the bestselling author of fifteen books, including The Serpent and the Rainbow and One River, and is an award-winning anthropologist. He currently holds the post of National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and divides his time between Washington, D.C., and northern British Columbia.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with

Wade Davis
author of

The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest

Q: You have written many books before, including The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Coodoo, Zombis, and Magic. How did you become interested in the topic of Everest and what inspired you to begin the 12 year endeavor that would become INTO THE SILENCE?
A: My interest in this story began in the spring of 1996 as I completed a 4000-mile overland journey from Chengdu in western China through southeastern Tibet to Lhasa and on to Kathmandu. Leading that ecological survey was a good friend, Daniel Taylor. Raised in the Himalaya, son and grandson of medical missionaries, Daniel was a veteran of some 45 expeditions to Tibet and had been largely responsible for the creation of the QNP, the 14,000-square-mile nature preserve that encompasses the approaches to Everest.
In late fall 1997, Daniel and I returned to Tibet, intent on photographing clouded leopards, among the most elusive of the great cats. Our journey took us from Kharta south into the Kama Chu along the same trails traveled by the British expeditions of the 1920s. Daniel had grown up with tales of George Mallory; his father was a close friend of Howard Somervell. The British climbers were his heroes and role models as a boy, intrepid men who had walked off the map for hundreds of miles just to find a mountain that no European had encountered at close quarters. Their Everest was the mountain of Daniel’s imaginings.

Compared to the British expeditions of the 1920s, our month long sojourn in the Kama Valley was a trivial undertaking. Nevertheless the extremes of altitude took a toll, as did the blizzards and cold. From our camp at Pethang Ringmo, at the base of the Kangshung Face, we stared up at a mountain that has killed one climber for every ten that have reached the summit. It is a formidable sight. Though we were standing on ground higher than any in North America, the mountain rose two miles above, fluted ribs and ridges, gleaming balconies and seracs of blue-green ice, shimmering formations ready to collapse in an instant. The thought of those early British climbers, “dressed in tweeds” as Daniel put it, and “reading Shakespeare in the snow” as they confronted such hazards, filled me with admiration, curiosity and awe. Who were these men, and what was the spirit that drew them on?

Q: How is INTO THE SILENCE different from other books that have tackled Everest and what new information will readers come away with?

I think it is fair to say that most books on the subject focus on the figure of George Mallory, and none of them really place these expeditions in their historical context. Altogether 26 men set off for Everest in 1921-24 and each was without doubt as compelling a personality, with as complex a past, as Mallory. Into the Silence is the first book to celebrate and bring into profile the extraordinary biographies of each of the men.

If Everest began as grand imperial gesture, it really did end up as a mission of regeneration and redemption for a nation and an empire bled white by war. What’s more these expeditions did not take place in isolation, but rather in the context of the era- the Great Game and the final years of the Raj, the complex diplomatic maneuverings between the British, the Russians and the Chinese. Permission to climb the mountain grew out of an arms deal that was itself part of a grand diplomatic scheme brought into being by Charles Bell.

Into the Silence is also the first book to examine these expeditions from the point of view of the Tibetans. To do so I spent weeks in monasteries, trekked throughout the region with Dorjee Lhatoo, and secured the first complete translation of the spiritual autobiography of Dzatrul Rinpoche, the abbot of Rongbuk who greeted the British in 1921-24.  Puzzles that have perplexed scholars for decades are solved. Why and how was Finch excluded from the 1921 effort? Who actually discovered the route to the North Col, the doorway to the mountain? Why was Howard-Bury selected to lead 1921, yet excluded from subsequent expeditions? Why Mallory chose to climb with Irvine? How Finch was betrayed in 1922 and yet, had he not chosen to save the life of Geoffrey Bruce, might well have reached the top. Wheeler has been overlooked in every other book, yet he was the key figure in 1921. John Noel went to his grave speaking of his service in the war. His own family does not know he sat out the war shell-shocked. Finch’s own daughter is unaware that her father had three, not two wives. That Mallory knew Wilfred Owen has never been reported.
Q: How did you begin to go about your research?

The challenge from the start was to go beyond the iconic figure of George Mallory and take the research to new levels of depth and scope. I began with several visits to London to work through basic archival sources, most especially the 41 boxes of files containing reports, correspondence and miscellaneous documents of the Mount Everest Committee housed at the Royal Geographical Society, which also has the most complete visual record of the expeditions in its photographic collections. The archive of the Alpine Club was equally rich. The letters of George Mallory are for the most part at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Thanks to the generous cooperation of these institutions I was able to secure copies of all documents pertinent to the research, a collection that itself fills six file cabinet drawers in my office. While in London on those early visits I was also able to contact family members, descendents of many of the key figures in the story. All were exceedingly helpful.

My goal from the start was to learn as much as possible about the lives of all 26 men who went to Everest in 1921-24. I was especially interested in their experiences during the war, and my own preliminary efforts at The National Archives (TNA, formerly the Public Record Office), the Imperial War Museum, the British Library and other repositories had convinced me that I needed the help of a professional researcher living in Britain familiar with the complex distribution of military records, many of which are housed in regimental archives scattered throughout the nation.

Knowing the military unit and the location both in time and space of each protagonist throughout the war, the next research challenge was to ascertain to the extent possible what each man might have endured. It was famously said of both Passchendaele and the Somme that the army lacked the clerk power to tabulate the dead. If so, it recorded just about everything else. The Great War was so thoroughly documented that one wonders how the men found time to fight. Every unit maintained a war diary, with the task of reporting on operations, intelligence, casualties and any other pertinent information rotating among the junior officers. These diaries, together with letters, personal journals, and trench maps made it possible to track each of our men through the war with a level of specificity I would not have imagined possible at the outset.
Yet another major research challenge took me into the history of the Raj and the complex diplomatic maneuvers of Lord Curzon, Charles Bell, and the frontier cadre engaged in the Great Game. This phase of the research took me into the orbit of a number of extraordinary historians at Oxford, Cambridge and other British universities.
Q: Of all the incredible findings and discoveries you made in writing this book, were there any that most surprised and intrigued you?

In Canada, two avenues of research proved extremely fruitful. After Everest, Arthur Wakefield settled in Quebec, where members of his family still live. His son Bob, who passed away at 92 in 2007, and grandson, Charles, very kindly shared personal insights, as well as Arthur’s war diary and Everest journal, and the private letters he wrote to his wife, Madge, both from the Western Front and from Everest. These proved invaluable.

E. O. Wheeler grew up climbing in the Canadian Rockies and his papers are housed at the Whyte Museum in Banff, Alberta. His son John, after an illustrious career with the Geological Survey of Canada, retired to Vancouver, where I found him at 75 living a block away from the house my parents owned when I was born. It was a wonderful encounter. He and my father had attended the same boarding school at more or less the same time, and I by chance had climbed many of the northern peaks that John had been the first to survey. We met for a long afternoon, at the end of which he produced a remarkable treasure. According to Everest historians only Guy Bullock kept a complete journal on the 1921 expedition, curt notes that were published in two parts in the Alpine Journal. Mallory wrote letters and Howard-Bury official dispatches, but neither kept a daily account. E. O. Wheeler, as it turned out, did; two complete volumes that had never been seen by anyone outside of his immediate family. These journals provided an astonishing perspective on the 1921 Reconnaissance, arguably the most interesting of the three expeditions. And they revealed the character and personality of a remarkable man who spent more time alone, higher and closer to the mountain, than anyone; the unheralded Canadian surveyor who mapped the inner core of the Everest massif and solved the puzzle of the North Col, thus opening the doorway to the mountain.

Q: Your research went way beyond the page and into the field.  Can you tell us about the time you spent in Tibet?

A second major phase of my research entailed several return journeys to Nepal and Tibet. Having delved into the literature, I went back to Everest in 2000 with fresh eyes. Accompanying me was an extraordinarily insightful man and one of the greatest of Himalayan climbers, Dorjee Lhatoo, former head of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, the training ground of all great Indian climbers.

For two months, Dorjee and I walked in the footsteps of the British Reconnaissance of 1921. We visited Tingri and Nyenyam, climbed to the summit of the ruined fortress at Shegar, retraced their approach to the Rongbuk monastery and went up the East Rongbuk glacier to the North Col, and later crossed from Kharta by way of the Samchung La and Chog La to the lower Kama Chu and the headwaters of the Arun. From below Sakeding we traversed the length of the Kama Valley to Pethang Ringmo and the Kangshung Face, before returning over the Langma La to explore the upper reaches of the Kharta Chu.

We did not by any means go everywhere the British went. A plan to reach the Jelep La, visit the village of Dorjee’s birth, and then follow the Chumbi Valley to Phari and beyond to Kampa Dzong, was stymied by Chinese officials who, having promised a permit to enter borderlands off limits to foreigners since the 1959 invasion, reneged at the last moment, stranding our party in Tibet, even as they pocketed the $25,000 fee. This set back aside, we covered in those weeks enough ground on foot to leave me only more astonished by what the British accomplished in a single season. Dorjee and I returned to this theme when I visited him in Darjeeling in 2002. We spent several days touring the town, as Dorjee introduced me to a new generation of Sherpa climbers, even as he pointed out what remained of the Darjeeling the British had known in 1921-24.    

The longer I spent with Tibetans in the environs of Everest, the more interested I became in what the mountain meant to them, and how their great-grandparents might have viewed the arrival and activities of the British climbers, the first Europeans many of them would have known. A main point of interface, as we have seen, was Rongbuk monastery, headed by its charismatic Abbot, Ngawang Tenzin Norbu, or Dzatrul Rinpoche. Although several of the British climbers wrote of their impressions of Rongbuk, the only account of the British from a Tibetan perspective is based on a few excerpts from Dzatrul Rinpoche’s namthar, or spiritual autobiography. This is the encounter between Rinpoche and General Bruce widely quoted in the Everest literature. The autobiography, as far as I could tell, had never been translated in its entirety, but a brilliant monk traslated it for us. To stay at the monastery and be in the presence of Trulshig Rinpoche was from the Tibetan perspective to return spiritually to Rongbuk and the radiance of Dzatrul Rinpoche. More significantly our time at Thubten Chöling opened my mind to the power and wonder of the Buddhist path.

Finally I needed to understand Tibetan notions of sacred geography. I had first learned of hidden valleys and spiritual refugia in the writings of two friends and colleagues, Ed Bernbaum and Johan Reinhard. Their work led me to Hildegard Diemberger, a scholar and adventurer who had spent much of her life in the Himalaya. Her father was the renowned Himalayan climber Kurt Diemberger. It did not surprise me that the daughter of such a man would turn out to be one of the world authorities on Tibetan ideas of sacred landscape. I found her at the anthropology department at Cambridge University, where she welcomed me warmly even as she opened my mind to the real meaning of mountains. It was Hildegard who showed me that the entire time the British were scrambling across the flanks of Everest, they were walking in mystic space.

Q: You write so movingly about the First World War and its impact on the men you write about. Why is it so important to understand the war in order to understand the conquest of Everest and when did you decide to make this such a big part of your book?

An author commissioned to write a biography of Mallory after the body was found took me aside ten years ago to say that he had heard that I was looking into the war angle. He said he had done so already, and it just was not there. What he meant presumably is that he had found no evidence that the men had discussed the war en route to Everest. This showed rather dramatically why so many of the previous books seem superficial. Of course the men did not discuss the war. No one did. Graves and T. E. Lawrence famously made a pact never to speak of it. How could they? Words did not exist. Yet each of these men had lived for much of their adult lives in the degradation and horror of the trenches, an experience seared into their consciousness. It was the seminal event of their lives, as it had been for the country.

Q: Although Mallory’s attempt to summit Everest ultimately failed, in what ways do you think his endeavor brought hope and redemption to a war stricken generation?

I don’t think it was a direct or conscious thing, and certainly people did not speak of it that way. But viewed from the distance of time the entire effort brought back into focus the potential of the individual to stand alone, in glorious profile. These men were seen as heroes, in the wake of a war that had crushed the very notion of heroism.

Q: Why do you think Everest and its history continues to hold such fascination for so many people?  

I think because it ultimately remains a personal test of strength endurance and courage. Even with the commercialization of the mountain, it remains only the will of the individual that allows a man or a woman to reach the summit. What’s more everyone who scales the mountain knows that in doing so they are tempting the fates, for ultimately the factors that determine success or failure lie beyond the control of the climber. The wrath of Everest, the uncertain conditions, the wind and the weather remain as unpredictable today as they did in the days of Mallory.  

Q: As National Geographic “Explorer-in-residence”—what is next for you in terms of your own explorations and expeditions?

I will be working very hard to save an area of British Columbia known to the First Nations as the Sacred Headwaters, the birthplace of three of our most important salmon rivers. I have an illustrated book on the campaign due out in the fall (The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena and Nass) and will be very active over the next months. I also intend to publish E. O. Wheeler’s journals in their entirely and also put out a small book on the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Once these small projects are complete, and the crisis in northern British Columbia resolved one way or another, I hope to embark on a final series of journeys down the rivers of life, beginning with the Ganga. This will be a ten year effort, and should carry me if not into a rocking chair, at least to the quiet of my porch at Wolf Creek overlooking Ealue Lake and the Sacred Headwaters.

For booking information:
Gabrielle Brooks / 212-572-2152 / gbrooks@randomhouse.com
Erica Hinsley / 212-572-2018 / ehinsley@randomhouse.com

From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards


Praise for Into the Silence:

"A kaleidoscopic account. . . . Ambitious. . . . Entertaining. . . . Extraordinary."
The Wall Street Journal
"Brilliantly engrossing. . . . An instant classic of mountaineering literature."
The Guardian (London)
"Magnificent. . . . Davis tells the full story behind this almost mythic story, imbuing it with historic scope and epic sweep."
Los Angeles Times
"A masterpiece standing atop its own world, along with the classic Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer."
Salt Lake City Tribune

"Into the Silence is quite unlike any other mountaineering book. It not only spins a gripping Boy’s Own yarn about the early British expeditions to Everest, but investigates how the carnage of the trenches bled into a desire for redemption at the top of the world. . . . At its heart, Into the Silence is an elegy for a lost generation . . . a magnificent, audacious venture."
The Sunday Times (London)
"Magnificent. . . . Impressive. . . . A vivid account."
The Observer (London)
"Utterly compelling. . . . Not only a thorough examination of Mallory’s determined advances on Everest, but also insight into the psyche of post-war England. . . . A mesmerizing story of the human spirit."
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
"Powerful and profound, a moving, epic masterpiece of literature, history and hope."
The Times (London)
"A brilliant book. I can’t praise it enough."
—Christopher Hitchens
"Davis has produced a magnificent, rigorously researched account of the expeditions that set out to regain glory for an empire in decline but, instead, created some of the most enduring legends of the 20th century."
Financial Times
"A magnificent work of scholarship . . . and narrative drive. . . . [Davis] has written far and away the best account of this seminal chapter in the epic history of mountaineering."
The National
"Davis is a fine storyteller. . . . A deep current of sympathy runs through the book. . . . One comes away with a feeling almost of tenderness for these men, of admiration for their stoicism in the face of extreme suffering, and their willingness to risk everything for a transcendent ideal. . . . The quest, finally, is not for the summit of Everest, or even for the story of how it eluded these men, but rather for a complex and compassionate understanding of the world in which they lived and died."
The Boston Globe
"A gripper of a read . . . Silence revives the cliff’s-edge drama of those Jazz age climbs and drives home the tragedy of Mallory’s death."
"An exceptional book on an extraordinary generation. . . . Monumental in its scope and conception it nevertheless remains hypnotically fascinating throughout. A wonderful story tinged with sadness."
—Joe Simpson, author of Touching the Void
"Brilliant. . . . The product of a decade’s research, Into the Silence has two supreme strengths, the first of which is the emotional, spiritual and historical context it provides against which to understand the central events. The other is the author’s effortless knack for sketching character."
The Spectator
"Magnificent. . . . Fascinating. . . . To keep this mass of material from bulging out of the narrative is an impressive feat of literary organization and management."
—Geoff Dyer, The Guardian (London)
"Combining the pace of a thriller with a degree of detail as nuanced as any academic study, this is an atmospheric and exhilarating book."
Time Out (London)
"Profoundly ambitious. . . . Impressive. . . . Monumental. . . . This is perhaps the first book . . . to survey the matter not as a record of high adventure, exploration, mountaineering technique or political history, but as zeitgeist."
—Jan Morris, The Telegraph (London)
"As breathtaking and astounding as any previous climbing literature."
Publishers Weekly
"[Into the Silence] stands as a near masterpiece."
The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
"Mesmerizing. . . . An epic worthy of its epic."
—Caroline Alexander, author of The Endurance
"Richly detailed, and often riveting, with vivid portraits of all the players, [Davis’s] book juxtaposes human ambition, courage and adaptive capability with the relentless realities of terrain and weather. It will stand as the definitive treatment of this subject."
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"A breathtaking triumph. An astonishing piece of research, it is also intensely moving."
—William Shawcross, author of The Queen Mother
"Davis’s lucid and sometimes haunting prose, his masterly handling of a great volume of material, his vivid portraits of the astonishing cast of characters, and of places as diverse as Newfoundland, the trenches of northern France, and the Tibetan plateau, all contribute to this achievement. . . . A world apart from the gimmicks and media stunts that have surrounded the cult of Mallory and Irvine, Davis’s book stands as a fitting memorial to a story that is at once poignant and stirring."
The Times Literary Supplement (London)
"Highly absorbing. . . . A heroic attempt to capture the scale of the undertaking to conquer the highest mountain on earth."
The Newark Star-Ledger
"In recreating their astonishing adventure, Wade Davis has given us an elegant meditation on the courage to carry on."
—George F. Will


WINNER 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction
WINNER 2012 Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title

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