Anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Davis (The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, 2009, etc.) exhaustively charts the first epic assaults on Mount Everest by determined Englishmen after the devastation of World War I.
Britain had resolved to be the first to scale the as-yet-unexplored reaches of the highest mountains in the world since the empire’s first surveying forays into India and Tibet in the mid 19th century. Then, the discovery of Everest’s actual height was first established and named after a geographer responsible for the Great Trigonometrical Survey of 1829, Sir George Everest. In this ambitious study, Davis eventually arrives at the first expedition of 1921, sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society but delayed by the war, which had traumatized and practically eliminated an entire generation of young people in England and Europe. For shell-shocked veterans, Everest signified “a sentinel in the sky, a place and destination of hope and redemption, a symbol of continuity in a world gone mad.” Enter George Mallory (1886–1924), a graduate of Cambridge, young husband and father, veteran and accomplished climber, who was chosen to head the first exploratory mission up the North Col in 1921, only to be driven back by the summer monsoon. The reconnaissance mission was followed by two others shortly after, organized again by the Alpine Club. The expedition of 1922 was filmed by John Noel and employed oxygen for the first time, controversially; it ended with the highest climb by George Finch but the death of seven Tibetan assistants in an avalanche. Yet again, in 1924, the familiar team attacked Everest, and with Mallory claiming he was “the strongest of the lot, the most likely to get to the top,” he set off with the much younger, inexperienced climber Sandy Irvine, and apparently fell to their deaths very near the summit on June 8 or 9. Davis explores every facet of these single-minded expeditions and the deeply committed, bold, hubristic men who made it possible.
More detail-bludgeoning than riveting tale of mettle against mountain.