Jeff Glor talks to Wade Davis about "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest."
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?
Wade Davis: My interest in this story began in the spring of 1996 as I completed a 4,000-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 had grown up with tales of George Mallory; his father was a close friend of Howard Somervell who climbed with Mallory on Everest in 1922 and 1924. The British climbers were Daniel's 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 his imagining, not the disappointing commercial scene of today.
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. Compared to the British expeditions, 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 10 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.
From the start I was less interested in whether Mallory reached the summit, than in the spirit that inspired them to carry on. I knew that all had endured the fires of the Great War, the mud and blood of Flanders. They were not cavalier about death, but they had seen so much of it in the trenches that it had no hold on them. What mattered was how one lived, the moments of being alive. Life was precious but effervescent. Perhaps this explained their willingness to climb on, accepting a degree of risk that might have been unimaginable before the war. This was the theme I explored over 12 years of archival research and in the many months it took to write the book.
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
WD: The challenge was to go beyond the iconic figure of George Mallory and take the research to new levels of depth and scope. My goal was to learn as much as possible about the lives of all 26 men who went to Everest in 1921-24. Several escaped the war, but 20 men most assuredly did see the fighting, and I was able to determine, with some notable gaps, where each was posted on virtually every day of the entire war. 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.
The British war zone in France was relatively small, the number of men engaged enormous, and the outpouring of literature after the war so vast that virtually every corner of the battlefield at every point in the war has been described by multiple voices, by enlisted men and officers, in poetry and prose, in tones as brash and confident as a fearless Yorkshire sergeant, or as haunted as a young subaltern calling out from a well of despair. As long as I knew that one of our key figures was present at an action I could extrapolate from other sources what transpired.
In addition to personal memoires, a great number of books and anthologies give voice to individual soldiers, poignant testimonies that read like notes in a great musical score of madness. If the war shattered the last vestiges of the old order, making a mockery of notions of glory, honour and valour, peace heralded the birth of modern times, a new century stained, as Winston Churchill would write, in blood. Caught between worlds, the old and the new, spinning in a whirlwind of psychological and social uncertainty, was an entire Lost Generation, including most of the key players in the Everest adventure. Beyond simply knowing what they had faced in the war, it was essential that I understood what the war had implied for the society and culture in which they lived. For this I turned to social histories, including any number of brilliant books. 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.
In Canada, two avenues of research proved extremely useful. After Everest Arthur Wakefield settled in Quebec, where members of his family still live. They 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.
Oliver 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. 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. 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.
A second major phase of the 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. Established in the immediate wake of the British conquest of Everest in 1953 by Jawaharlal Nehru, the father of Indian independence, the HMI from inception was inspired by new ways of thinking about mountaineering. Its formal mandate was to train young men and women "not only to climb Himalayan peaks, but also to create in them an urge to climb peaks of human endeavor." Dorjee had been recruited to the HMI as an ideal candidate to realize Nehru's dreams. He was married to Sonam Doma, niece of Tenzing Norgay, who first reached the summit of Everest with Hillary in 1953.
Born at Yatung in the Chumbi Valley, Dorjee had fled Tibet as a small boy with his widowed mother, economic refugees, and his anger for what the Chinese have done to his country was matched in its intensity by his distain for what the Tibetan theocratic leadership had failed to provide for the Tibetan people before the Chinese invasion. "They offered us prayer wheels," he would say, "when what we needed and wanted were real wheels." A veteran of Everest, as well as Nanda Devi and Chomolhari, Dorjee had trained generations of Indian climbers, including Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to reach the summit of Everest.
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. Dorjee was an invaluable source of information not only on the challenges of Himalayan climbing, but on the ethnography and history of Kharta, where his wife's family originated.
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.
To learn more I turned to an old friend and brilliant anthropologist living in Nepal who was able to secure a copy of the namthar and have it translated by a revered Buddhist monk, Lama Urgyen. An extraordinary scholar, Lama Urgyen had worked on no fewer than 40 namthars. Thus he delivered not only a complete and accurate translation, but also great insights into the character of Dzatrul Rinpoche, the intensity of his devotion, and the reverence with which the people of the region embraced him. When in Kathmandu I met Tsering Tsamchu, a 90-year-old Buddhist nun who had studied with Dzatrul Rinpoche at Rongbuk, I asked her what he had looked like. She replied without hesitation, Shakyamuni, the Buddha.
When Dzatrul Rinpoche passed away in 1940, his spiritual heir Trulshig Rinpoche became Abbott of Rongbuk. In 1959 with the final Chinese conquest of Tibet, the monks and nuns of Rongbuk were forced to flee to Nepal, crossing the Nangpa La. After a time in solitary retreat, Trulshig Rinpoche saw to the construction of a new monastery at Thubten Choling, which in every way replicated the devotional ambiance and ritual rigour of Rongbuk.
Thus in order to know what life was like at Rongbuk in 1924, I had only to travel to Solu Khumbu and Thubten Choling, home today to some 800 Buddhist monks and nuns. 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. In terms of ritual activities this was quite literally true, for the esoteric rites and purifications delineated in such detail in Dzatrul Rinpoche's namthar mark fixed points in a liturgical calendar that does not vary year to year. The "devil dances", for example, that several of the climbers witnessed and John Noel filmed at the end of the 1922 expedition were elements of a celebration known as Mani Rimdu, an 18 day festival that I attended at Chiwong Monastery in 2005. More significantly our time at Thubten Choling opened my mind to the power and wonder of the Buddhist path, a new awareness that unfolded with even greater insight during the month I later spent walking close to Everest with Matthieu Ricard, renowned scholar and monk, as we studied the Buddhist science of the mind.
Finally I needed to understand Tibetan notions of sacred geography. This 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.
WD: Though I have published many books- 15 I believe at this point- I don't really think of myself as a writer as much as a storyteller. Were I not to be writing books I would be making films, taking photographs, and conducting research as an anthropologist and historian both in the field and in the archives. Which is what I am already doing. As an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society my mandate is to celebrate the wonder of culture and share our mission with a global audience. While writing Into the Silence, I published five other books and made some 20 films.
WD: I read for the most part biographies and history. Over the last three weeks I have read three books by one of my favorite historians, Sir Max Hastings. But I am also reading the manuscript of a new novel by my close friend, Leslie Cockburn. It's called The Palace of Sand and it is the best work of fiction I have read in years and by far the most insightful book I know to have come out of the debacle of the Iraq campaign.
JG: What's next for you?
WD: 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. A second collection of my photographs (2000-10) will also appear in 2013. 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 more on "Into the Silence," visit the Random House website.