Before the space race, before the sound barrier, the conquest of Mount Everest was the final frontier, or so the British public thought after the disaster of World War I. The two poles had already been visited, and the British Raj were engaged in a tremendous effort to map India and the surrounding areas. In their endeavors they discovered the highest mountain in the world. Many veterans were terribly disenchanted with the war and its aftermath. Britain’s honor, dragged through the mud and gore at the Battle of the Somme, must be restored, but how? Everest was the answer. The British must conquer it or die trying.
Into the Silence chronicles three British expeditions launched in the early 1920s to attempt to climb Everest. There were numerous factors working against them. First was the woefully inadequate equipment. Clothing, climbing gear, tents, stoves, and oxygen tanks (if they had them), were not made to withstand the rigors of the extraordinary altitude. It would be like sending a man into space without a spaceship or spacesuit. Second was the non-cooperation of the local people. The Buddhist monks held that Everest, or Chomolungma as they knew it, was a sacred place guarded by demons, who would cast out anyone trying to climb its rarified slopes. Sherpas, who really are the unsung heroes in any Everest climb, before or since, were not in the business of climbing at that time. They all thought the British were mad. Why go to all the trouble of climbing the mountain? Of course we know why, “because it is there”, as Mallory famously stated. Thirdly, Nepal was closed to foreigners, and the expedition had to take an indirect route from their base in Darjeeling, India, adding about 150 miles to the route. In the end, the expeditions met with failure. On the second try, ten porters were swept to their deaths. On the third try, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared while attempting to summit Everest.
At 655 pages, this book was a bit of a challenge, with some sections bogged down in detailed descriptions of the expeditions and their privations, but the author gives the reader a great feel for what the people in the expeditions experienced.