The conquest of Mount Everest was a passion of empire. After failing to be first to reach the North and South Poles, Everest became the focus of new British endeavour.
This is the story of that remarkable and heroic pursuit, told against the backdrop of an era of fundamental transformation in the 20th century.
Davis took 10 years to research and write this substantial history. He brings us a thoughtful and compelling work that captures the essence of the times across which the drama of George Mallory’s attempt at the summit played itself out.
Everest looms large, a sinister and alluring adversary, inviting parallels with the recently ended World War I. The tragedy of Mallory becomes a trope for the tragedy of an empire in decline. He was an Edwardian, that genteel generation that lost its composure when war broke out in 1914.
Davis skilfully interweaves chronicles of the war, of death and mutilation into the lives of the protagonists who took part in the three Everest expeditions that culminated in the death of Mallory in 1924.
He moves seamlessly from the general to the particular, from the killing fields of France and Flanders to the garden-like valleys of the Himalayas. He vividly describes the unendurable agony of braving snow storms in flimsy tents, wearing knickerbocker suits, woollen underwear, flannel shirts, waistcoats, lambskin jackets, Shetland pullovers and Royal Air Force boots – the state-of-the-art climbing gear of the time.
Davis deftly populates his story with vivid cameos of the men involved: Mallory emerges as the pre-eminent climber only gradually through his deter- mination to make the mountain his own.
This was the time of the gifted amateur, when professionalism was frowned upon and effortless insouciance was highly regarded. It plagued the British in the war and the expeditions to Everest.
General Haig, the British commander-in-chief, rejected the machinegun as a weapon of war and much preferred the cavalry charge with sabre.
The Everest Committee rejected the need for the use of oxygen at high altitudes – which it considered gave climbers an unfair advantage.
Reluctantly it admitted George Finch to its second expedition. He was a technocrat and fine climber who had experimented with oxygen at high altitudes for the Royal Air Force. He introduced its use to alpinism and almost summited before Mallory, thus proving its value to the conservative committee.
In a sense he is the unsung hero of Everest: professional, focused and efficient, he wrestled with the contempt of others for his disciplined and methodical ways.
The 1924 expedition was filmed – a remarkable technical feat for the time. It can be seen on You Tube – merry men frolicking in their inadequate gear, unaware of the tragedy to come.
The book’s pace never flags. One is driven to read on by sheer admiration for the extraordinary men who explored Everest.
We will never know whether Mallory, taking the North-East Ridge to the top, ever made it.
His body was found, frozen and nearly intact, at the bottom of the ridge in 1999.
This book will rate as one of the great biographies of the early 21st century.