Reach the top to see what’s at the bottom

It’s always been one of my favourite anecdotes, but given an apparent lack of relevance to groin strains and lengthy suspensions, I’d never expected to be able to air it in this corner of the paper.

‘Til now.

In the latter stages of World War One, the American authorities decided it’d be a good idea to send cultured ladies to lecture their front-line troops on civilisation and culture, to educate their minds and relieve their souls.

One such lady was talking about poetry to some battle-weary veterans in Flanders and ended with a flourish, reciting a verse many readers will recognise from their time in school.

“. . . poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.”

She paused for effect before asking the soldiers: “Now, can anyone tell me who wrote that poem?”

The squad sergeant stood up.

“I can, ma’am. I did.”

And Sergeant Joyce Kilmer then sat down again.

World War One threw up that kind of extraordinary juxtaposition as a matter of routine.

A British Army doctor had served for years in Newfoundland and helped organise a company of volunteers there, most of whom he had delivered as babies: he discovered by chance that they had been wiped out almost to a man. Another officer ended up burying what was left of his best friend. A medic had to deal with so many wounded men their stretchers covered four acres of land.

The reason I bring up a war which began almost a century ago is the book Into The Silence by Wade Davis, which carries the sub-title Mallory, The Great War and The Conquest of Everest.

Quite apart from the fact that it’s one of the best books which this column has ever come across, combining both vast sweep and eye-catching detail – the two doctors and officer mentioned above are vignettes from its pages — it also goes a long way towards explaining the mountaineering mindset.

Davis, who holds the unbelievably cool title of Explorer-in-Chief at National Geographic magazine, arranges a huge amount of material which builds to a climax worthy of a thriller: on the 1924 expedition to Everest, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine made the last, desperate bid for the peak, equipped with rudimentary oxygen supplies (which Irvine was modifying on the hoof) and an assortment of clothing that in Mallory’s case included a waistcoat knitted by his wife.

Mallory and many others on the expedition – though not Irvine, who was in his early twenties — had served in World War One, and their enthusiasm for the lunar starkness of Everest is easily understood when compared to the hell of trench warfare, where the rats ate the bodies of dead friends a couple of yards away, and live soldiers could drown in mud if they took a wayward step (a British general making his first visit to the front broke down and wept when he saw the conditions his troops were fighting in; a soldier told him “It’s worse than this further up”).

Nowadays we’d say they had post-traumatic stress disorder; shellshock was the term of the day.

On the 1924 expedition, one of the other climbers, Noel Odell, caught a brief tantalising glimpse of Mallory and Irvine late on the day they disappeared, high up the mountain, leading to decades of speculation as to whether the pair made it to the top or not.

Quite apart from Davis’s gift for the telling detail – such as the climber who coughed up the lining of his larynx while on a mountain – it’s his exploration of the mountaineering mind that stays in the memory.

There have been very good mountaineering books before such as Touching The Void by Joe Simpson, and Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer, but Davis’s book explains the motivation better than any of them.

Even to those who don’t don crampons and risk frostbite on a regular basis, the danger of a last bid for the 29,028-foot peak is pretty apparent, and must have been obvious to Mallory, an experienced mountaineer.

Another member of the expedition, Tom Longstaff, explained the motivation in a letter: “It’s obvious to any climber that they got up. You cannot expect of that pair (Mallory and Irvine) to weigh the chances of return . . . Nothing could have stopped that two with the goal well in their grasp.”

Longstaff’s is the perfect summation of an attitude to climbing that would otherwise remain a mystery to the earthbound amongst us, but it comes after Wade Davis has given Mallory, Irvine and their colleagues a worthy memorial. And Joyce Kilmer? He was killed in action in 1918 at the second Battle of the Marne. He was 31.

* Twitter: MikeMoynihanEx

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