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Riffing on Mallory, Everest and Sex: Banff 2012, Part II

On the fest's biggest night, remembering mountaineering's biggest mystery


The biggest event at Banff is the Saturday evening presentation, which opens with the festival’s semi-mythic film trailer. As the room darkens, the big screen lights up with micro-snippets of badass stunts in the outdoors, syncopated to a booming four-chord progression, overlaid by a stentorian voice proclaiming the words to live by of the two chief sponsors: “National Geographic: One hundred and twenty-five years . . . and the adventure continues” and “The North Face: dedicated to [something or other] . . . and to never stop exploring.” (Let us forgive the split infinitive.)

That opener revs up the already revved-up crowd. It reminds me of ABC’s old Wide World of Sports—“the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” with the gruesome clip of the skier cartwheeling off the jumping ramp. Or, more recently, Monday night’s “Are you ready for some football?” And after the trailer blazes on the screen of Eric Harvie Theatre, the presenter invariably steps up to the lectern and demands, “Is everybody having a good time?” Because the roar is never loud enough, s/he follows it with, “What? I can’t hear you!”

Bathing in this cacophony a week ago Saturday, Wade Davis was quite at home. Anthropologist, writer, and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, Davis was invited to speak about his 2011 book, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. Without a word of preamble, he launched into his dissertation. While I’d seen him do his thing before, it never fails to amaze me. For 50 minutes, with scarcely a glance at his notes, he speaks not only in finely crafted sentences, but in Ciceronian paragraphs. Others have told me that if you hear Davis speak at one venue one evening and at another a week or two later, the talks are identical, word-for-word. It’s as if the man had effortlessly memorized a speech the length of a Bill Clinton State of the Union address.   

“So what?” someone at Banff rejoined when I mentioned this phenomenon. “It’s exactly what a stand-up comic does. It sounds spontaneous, but it’s rehearsed to a tee.” I nodded. “Except that a comic,” the fellow added, “doesn’t have to keep it going for 50 minutes.”

I confess I haven’t yet read Into the Silence, though some of my friends have told me it’s a terrific book—all 655 pages of it. Davis’s central premise is that the heroic and tragic British Everest expeditions of 1921, 1922, and 1924 had their spiritual genesis in the horrors of World War I, in which nearly all the members of the three expeditions had served in the trenches. To quote the dust jacket, “Mallory and his generation found themselves and their world utterly shattered” by the war, so that the effort to climb Everest “emerged as a symbol of national redemption and hope.”

Damn it, I berated myself when I first cottoned on to Davis’s thesis, why didn’t I think of that? At once I was reminded of the scholarly coup Peter and Leni Gillman had scored in The Wildest Dream, their 2000 biography of Mallory. For decades, mountaineering historians had wondered why Mallory chose the inexperienced 22-year-old Sandy Irvine for the fatal last attempt in 1924, rather than the well-conditioned, immensely competent Noel Odell. Was Mallory secretly in love with the handsome young Oxford blue? Was he, despite his three children and his devotion to his loving wife, Ruth, a closet homosexual?

The historians had combed through Irvine’s journal, Mallory’s letters, the memoirs of their teammates, without coming close to solving this prurient question. The Gillmans simply went to Bloomsbury, where they discovered rather easily that in 1909, four years before he met Ruth, Mallory had had a one-night stand with James Strachey (later to become the great translator of Freud into English) and had immediately freaked out, never to repeat the experiment. The reason Mallory chose Irvine for the last attempt was simple. Irvine was a mechanical genius, Mallory a mechanical dunce, and the crucial oxygen apparatus had broken down again and again. (Odell, in fact, found evidence in the highest camp that in the last minutes before setting out on June 8, 1924, Irvine had desperately tinkered with the tanks and regulators.)

So, motivated by envy of his tour de force delivery, I found myself listening to Wade Davis with only one ear on his disquisition, the other straining to pick up his quirks and tics. He seemed to have coined the term “ethnosphere.” Stirring phrases, such as “born in the mud of Flanders,” spilled like coins from the pockets of his mind. Davis’s favorite adverb, I realized, was “famously.” “Mallory famously hated Canadians,” he declared, in defense of Oliver Wheeler, the sole Canadian on the three Everest expeditions. “You must remember, it was Wheeler, not Mallory, who found the way to the North Col.” While I nudged myself to remember that datum, I also remembered that Davis had been born in Vancouver.

Brilliant Wade Davis unmistakably is, but no one ever accused him of modesty. I marveled at how smoothly he slipped in kudos to his own research—“twelve years, sixty different archives all over the world”—and a sly boast about receiving “the biggest book advance in the history of mountaineering literature.” (Could you look it up, I wondered?)

For Christ’s sake, Roberts, the censorious imp I all too often drown out now whispered in my ear, give the man his due. He’s wowing a crowd of more than a thousand. You just wish you could do that. I remembered the pithy comment of a friend of Shannon O’Donoghue, former director of the Banff festival, who suggested the shindig be renamed The Festival of Egomaniacs with Inferiority Complexes.

Near the end of the talk, Davis shamed me further, as he lavished praise on The Lost Explorer, the book I had written with Conrad Anker after Conrad had discovered Mallory’s body in 1999. Davis summarized Conrad’s definitive analysis of why it was almost impossible that Mallory and Irvine could have reached the summit before they died. But then he climbed through the loophole: The possibility of a snow ramp bypassing the Second Step at 28,200 feet in 1924. “And so perhaps Mallory made the first ascent of Everest after all.”

This was the ending all mountaineers wish they could believe. It’s the ending I clung to as a teenager, when I first read about Mallory, and then in college, when I went on expeditions with two of Mallory’s grandsons. It was the ending the Banff audience craved.

Standing ovation. Standing myself, I thought, It’s Mallory we’re cheering for as much as Wade Davis. And then: It’s Banff, cheering itself. Is everybody having a good time? You bet we are.

Two days earlier, a panel of experts had solemnly debated an unanswerable question: What was “The Best Mountain Book Ever Written”? Expecting to nurse my scorn and disapproval from the audience, I ended up deciding that the panel was the high point of the week.

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