Everest’s 100-Year Mystery — With Wade Davis

Everest’s 100-Year Mystery — With Wade Davis
Mountaineers’ tents at Everest base camp. (Purnima Shrestha/AFP via Getty Images)

Hosted by Finbar Anderson
Featuring Wade Davis
Produced by Finbar Anderson

Listen to and follow The Lede
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Podbean

The mystery surrounding the disappearance of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine as they attempted the first-ever summit of Mount Everest in 1924 continues to grip people’s imagination to this day, anthropologist and writer Wade Davis tells New Lines’ Finbar Anderson on The Lede.

“It’s the character of the men who made these efforts that is so enchanting,” says Davis, author of “Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest.”

While many fixate over whether Mallory and Irvine might indeed have been the first to have reached the summit before their deaths, Davis explains that the broader historical background of the story was what really intrigued him.

“It became a symbol of more than mountaineering. It was a symbol of imperial desire in the last years before the whole thing came tumbling down in the mud and blood of Flanders.”

“You cannot separate the quest for the mountain from the unraveling or the unfolding of the British Empire,” he says. The three British-led expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924 were the conceit of an empire that was in its death throes, Davis explains, and staffed by young men traumatized by the horrors of World War I.

“It became a symbol of more than mountaineering. It was a symbol of imperial desire in the last years before the whole thing came tumbling down in the mud and blood of Flanders,” says Davis.

Previous writing on the Everest expeditions of the 1920s has paid insufficient attention to the impact of World War I on the men involved, a mistake Davis sought to correct in his own writing.

“It was almost certain that the vast majority would have gone through the agony of the Western Front, and I knew enough about that war to sense that they would have seen so much of death that perhaps death had nothing more to teach them, no hold on them, save that of their own,” he says. “In some sense, life mattered less than the moments of being alive.”

Nonetheless, the experience of war encouraged the young mountaineers to explore scientific advances that might help them achieve the summit, rather than cling to tradition, Davis explains. “People back in London — the old men who had escaped the war — they continued to speak about the assault on Everest through the language of war, but we had a generation of actual climbers who had actually lived through a war where they had walked the edge of death every single day.”

Davis views modern climbers of the mountain with admiration, albeit with a qualification. “I don’t think anybody who makes the effort to climb Everest should be disrespected,” he says. “At the same time, there is a kind of commercialization of the mountain that one can’t help but question.”

Mallory and Irvine’s 1924 summit attempt was ultimately a failure, but it should nonetheless be admired, says Davis. “Some part of successful mountaineering is getting down alive. And at the same time, we should give honor to George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, because we do know that they got higher than any human being had ever done before them.”

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy