Pilgrimpace's Blog

into the silence


I’ve been reading Wade Davis’ excellent Into the Silence, a compelling account of the British expeditions to Everest in the 1920’s culminating with the deaths of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine somewhere near the summit in 1924.  I really recommend this book, not least for its setting of the attempts on the mountain within the context of a generation of climbers who had, with the odd exception, just fought their way through the meaningless carnage of World War One.

As Richard Hingston wrote in the last entry in his war diary, “What we all hunger for are hills and valleys, the green fields and shady woods, the rivers, the torrents, the glaciers and the snows.  I see visions of Himalaya and all its wondrous beauty.”


In the middle of this, tied spiritually to the Mountain, was George Mallory.  “He made one feel at once that here, in him, was the authentic thing, the real flame and passion.”


There is much wisdom in this book, much to learn about life, death and living.  Davis writes:

Mallory and Irvine may not have reached the summit of Mount Everest, but they did, on that fateful day, climb higher than any human being before them, reaching heights that would not be attained again for nearly thirty years.  That they were able to do so, given all they had endured, is surely achievement enough.  ‘To tell the truth,’ Dave Hahn remarked, ‘I have trouble enough believing they were as high as we know they were.’ And as Conrad Anker noted, there is still one possibility, one scenario by which they might indeed have surmounted the Second Step.  Had the very storms that so battered the 1924 expedition, burying the high camps and causing Norton to retreat not once but twice from the North Col, brought heavy snows of similar magnitude to the Northeast Ridge, it is possible that a drift accumulated, large enough, if not to bury the cliffs of the Second Step, at least to create a cone covering the most difficult pitches of rock.  Such a scenario did in fact unflod in 1985, albeit in the autumn.  Had this been the case, Mallory and Irvine might simply have walked up the snow, traversing the barrier with the very speed and ease that Odell so famously reported.  Had this occurred, surely nothing could have held Mallory back.  He would have walked on, even to his end, because for him, as for all his generation, death was but ‘a frail barrier’ that men crossed, ‘smiling and gallant, every day’.  They had seen so much of death that life mattered less than the moments of being alive.


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Sounds like a fantastic read… Silence is a great theme for me this year so I might go read it… 🙂
I’ve been writing my small stones on my blogspot blog.

Comment by eof737

Thanks Eliz. It is a very good read. It’s not so much about silence as a history of a particular bit of mountaineering and its social context. It does, though, deal with many of the deep issues of life in a very authentic way.

Comment by pilgrimpace

So they probably each have one cylinder remaining, unless they stored (an) other cylinder(s) for use, like the expeditions do today. Sandy and George realize there is not enough oxygen for both of them to reach the top. They decide to conserve what they do have, and at some point give what is left to one of them for the push to the summit. They reach the Second Step on the ridge, not what is referred to today, as the Second Step, which is an open-book on the North Face. The Second Step (for either of them) is too difficult to overcome, both of the men cannot go up (or up and around, as is more likely). Neither man can surmount the Second Step alone. Sandy Irvine, being the good soldier, volunteers to stay behind, and helps George up! George, with the Summit seeming to be “right there”, jumps at the chance, and with a boost (there are few options for a possible route there) from his buddy; George is over the Second Step and heading towards the Summit. (Helping some one up by using a “shoulder stand” was a known technique of Mallory’s and also used by the Chinese.) The summit appears so close, Sandy and George both believe that Mallory will return in a relatively short period of time. So Sandy waits. George, carries the rope, as he might need it later.

Comment by Michael Cote

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: