Winner of the 2012 Samuel Johnson prize
A monumental work of history, biography and adventure – the First World War, Mallory and Mount Everest – ten years in the writing. If the quest for Mount Everest began as a grand imperial gesture, as redemption for an empire of explorers that had lost the race to the Poles, it ended as a mission of regeneration for a country and a people bled white by war.
Of the twenty-six British climbers who, on three expeditions (1921-24), walked 400 miles off the map to find and assault the highest mountain on Earth, twenty had seen the worst of the fighting: six had been severely wounded; two others nearly killed by disease at the Front; one hospitalized twice with shell shock; three army surgeons, who dealt for the duration with the agonies of the dying; two lost brothers, killed in action. All had endured the slaughter, the coughing of the guns, the bones and barbed wire, the white faces of the dead.
In a monumental work of history and adventure, ten years in the writing, Wade Davis asks not whether George Mallory was the first to reach the summit of Everest, but rather why he kept on climbing on that fateful day. His answer lies in a single phrase uttered by one of the survivors as they retreated from the mountain: 'The price of life is death.' Mallory walked on because for him, as for all of his generation, death was but 'a frail barrier that men crossed, smiling and gallant, every day'. As climbers they accepted a degree of risk unimaginable before the war. They were not cavalier, but death was no stranger. They had seen so much that it had no hold on them. What mattered was how one lived, the moments of being alive. For all of them Everest had become an exalted radiance, a sentinel in the sky, a symbol of hope in a world gone mad.
An Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, Wade Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology and a PhD in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. Davis is the author of 15 books including The Serpent and the Rainbow, One River, and The Wayfinders. His many film credits include Light at the Edge of the World, an eight-hour documentary series produced for the National Geographic Channel. In 2009 he received the Gold Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for his contributions to anthropology and conservation, and he is the 2011 recipient of the Explorers Medal, the highest award of the Explorers' Club, and the 2012 David Fairchild Medal for Plant Exploration, the most prestigious prize for botanical exploration.
"I was captivated. Wade Davis has penned an exceptional book on an extraordinary generation. From the pathos of the trenches to the inevitable tragedies high on Everest this is a book deserving of awards." (Joe Simpson, author of Touching the Void)
"Powerful and profound, a moving, epic masterpiece of literature, history, and hope." (Sunday Times)
"Brilliantly engrossing...a superb book... At once a group biography of remarkable characters snatched from oblivion, an instant classic of mountaineering literature, a study in imperial decline, and an epic of exploration." (Nigel Jones, Guardian)
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Epic prize winner
- M. Griffiths
Amazing historical tour de force
It gave a detailed historical background to the Everest expeditions of the 1920s, including the wartime experience of the main participants. This brought the famous names to life, allowing the listener to identify with their struggles.
It is hard to choose just one, but some of the descriptions of the first world war left me shocked and stunned; the writing was so vivid that I felt I was there.
I was irritated at the mispronounciation of most of the French place names, and also at the American style of saying dates (eg October one, rather than the first of October). But the pace was good and the speech clear..
The film has already been made! John Noel's Epic of Everest, made by one of the participants in the 1924 expedition, has just been remastered and released.
The only reason I am givng four stars and not five is that sometimes the details of the mountain geography were rather repetitive and confusing; this might have been easier to cope with in print, where you can go back a page or two to check things. But this is a minor criticism.
I would urge anyone nervous of the length of the book to go ahead; it is full of detail, sometimes quite difficult to retain, but at the end I felt I had lived through the whole experience. I think this book will stay with me long after most works of fiction have gone out of my mind.