Mountains and war

2012-01-04 00:00

BY the time of the First World War, it seemed that the great age of exploration was over: both North and South Poles had been reached, and a good deal of the map of the world had been filled in. But there remained Mount Everest. Britain had lost out on the Poles: in the post-war world, prescient people could foresee an end to Empire, and the nation had lost a generation of young men in the killing fields of war. It was an age that needed a challenge that could be seen as clean, glamorous and glorious.

And if the nation needed it, so did the participants. As Wade Davis tells us, of the 26 British climbers who took part in the three expeditions mounted in the twenties, 20 had seen the horrors of war first-hand. They had lost friends and brothers, had experienced warfare of a kind never encountered before, and they had been profoundly changed. Some had lost any faith they might have had, others were searching for new spiritual paths — it was no co­incidence that the then largely unknown Tibet, which was the only route to Everest at the time, attracted so many of them.

Davis’s long and absorbing book begins slowly, meticulously setting the scene — George Mallory, whose name defined those early attempts and will become Davis’s focus, only appears 140 pages in. But before we read about the expeditions, we understand their weaknesses and strengths. The snobbery and the class-ridden society that led to the exclusion of some of the best Alpinists of their generation; the hangover of war that meant military men would be in charge; the determination to succeed that saw incredible risks being taken. Men who had faced death on a daily basis for four years saw how you lived as being more important than how you died.

Davis is not uncritical. Many of his characters, Mallory included, are far from the perfect, cardboard heroes the media would later create of them. And it all adds up to a completely fascinating and powerful story of a vanished era, both socially and in mountaineering terms, on the cusp where imperial adventuring turned into commercial enterprise.

In the seventies, Paul Fussell’s brilliant The Great Wa r and Modern Memory showed the effects of the war on culture and society: now Davis explores its results in one particular field of adventure. I cannot recommend his book highly enough.

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