Q. In your book, Into the Silence, you trace the connection between World War One and the attempts by British climbers to scale Mount Everest in the early 1920s. Can you tell us more about this?
A: The fundamental story of Mallory and Irvine is well known, especially to people in Britain. Famously, on 8 June 1924, on the third attempt on their third expedition to Everest, George Mallory, the most illustrious climber of his age, and the young undergraduate Sandy Irvine were famously seen crossing the northeast ridge of Everest going for the summit, when the mist rolled in and they dissolved into memory and myth.
The question that has always haunted mountaineers and historians of the mountain is whether Mallory got to the top or not before he met his end. From the very start I was less interested in that question than the issue of what was the spirit that carried these men on. I knew from their age, their class and their background that a big percentage of the 26 men who went to Everest on those three expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924 would have gone through the agony of the Western Front in the Great War. It wasn’t as if I was suggesting they were cavalier about death, or that they deliberately courted death, but they had seen so much of death it had no mystery for them. Death had nothing more to teach them, save that of their own. In a sense they were prepared to take risks on the mountain that might have been unimaginable before the war because for all of them, and indeed for all of that generation, life mattered less than the moments of being alive. And so that was the idea I had when it came to the story.
It’s fascinating how Everest evolved in the British imagination. The British had lost the race for the North and South Poles and so Everest, looming over the Raj, became known as the third pole. And in a sense the initial attempts to climb Everest were a gesture of redemption for an empire of explorers who had famously lost the races to the North and South Poles. But in the wake of the war, it became more of a mission of regeneration for a nation and a people who had been bled dry.
Q. Can you tell us more about how living through World War One affected the climbers?
A: The war had affected every aspect of these men’s lives. Twenty of them saw the worst of the war. Jack Hazard, who climbed to the top of the north col in 1924, did so with bleeding wounds from the Somme soaking the tunic of his climbing gear.
One of the things that we have to remember about going to Everest at that time was that it was almost the equivalent of going to the moon today. People spoke of polar expeditions, but Everest was the equivalent of a polar expedition but one in which every step forward took you to a zone of death where oxygen deprivation obliterated consciousness. So this was an extraordinarily challenging thing and the climbers quickly came to understand that if they were to get to grips with the mountain in these conditions you have to be prepared to accept a level of risk, even at the risk of your own obliteration, as one of them put it.
So I think they came to recognise that they were playing in a different ballpark, and what I think is so fascinating is that entire generation had, in a sense, come to play in a different ballpark. One of the most powerful social realities of Britain after the war was the chasm that existed between those who had seen the front and had fought in the trenches versus those who stayed at home and continued to revel in its imagined glories, profiteering from the war in many cases.