This year’s IDays opening ceremony kicked off with a fresh look on the history of the British Mount Everest expeditions, as told through world-renowned anthropologist and former National Geographic explorer-in-residence Wade Davis.
“Tonight I thought I’d tell the story of my own culture,” said Davis, who has extensively researched and published literature on the Everest expeditions. “It’s really a story of modernity as we know it. Everything you know of your life, every sense of being modern, was in some sense born in the mud and blood of Flanders [France] during the First World War. [The war] is the backdrop of this era.”
In the 1920s, just two years after the First World War ended, England undertook three reconnaissance expeditions – in 1921, 1922 and 1924 respectively – to scope out and reach the summit of Mount Everest, Davis said.
“England, an empire of explorers, famously lost the race to the North and South Poles,” he said. “Looming large over their main colony, the Raj, was Mount Everest, which soon became seen as a kind of ‘third pole.’ Having lost the race to the North and South Poles, they became obsessed with reaching the summit of Everest.”
Throughout his keynote presentation, Davis retold the stories of the men who ascended the mountain – most of whom were veterans of the First World War, already hardened to harsh and uncertain conditions, he said.
Two of the most prominent climbers mentioned in Davis’ research were George Mallory and Sandy Irvine.
“On June 8, 1924, George Mallory, the most famous climber in the British Empire, together with his young protégé Sandy Irvine, were last seen cresting the northeast ridge, going strong for the summit, when the mist rolled in and enveloped their memory in myth,” Davis said. “The question that has haunted mountaineers and historians since that moment was whether Mallory and Irvine reached the top.”
There are three prominent rocky steps on the northeast ridge of Everest, and it is commonly thought that the second one was impassible to Mallory and Irvine, Davis said.
“It’s unlikely that they reached the summit…save for one incredible, enticing possibility,” he said.
“The snows that had carpeted the mountain that season – which we now understand was not the early onslaught of monsoon but a rare low pressure system – are being studied by scholars at the University of Toronto to this day. The system created historic levels of snowfall that, had those snows accumulated on the northeast ridges, it would be conceivable in October 1986 that it formed a ramp that actually buried the second step, allowing them to reach the summit.”
Davis also talked about some of the unorthodox approaches he took in undergoing his research. At one point, he mentioned Australian climber George Finch, who was rejected from the expedition team.
“Not two weeks before they were scheduled to sail from Mumbai, both [Mallory] and [Finch] were asked to take a medical exam,” he said. “Mallory passed with flying colours, but Finch failed.
“But curiously, a week later, Finch, unaware he’d been kicked off the team, goes up to Oxford and sets records for endurance in the oxygen deprivation tanks. That summer, while Mallory was up on Everest, Finch sets records in the Alps. So the question that haunts mountaineers is: why was Finch kicked off the expedition?”
“Sometimes when you do research, the public record office and the national archives are very helpful, but the really juicy stuff is found in the ‘poor sport records,’ and this was a history that haunted the literature, but I solved it just by looking into Finch’s marital record, of sorts.”
The backstory to Finch’s failed test was long, but with a humorous punchline, Davis said. It began with Finch marrying an aspiring actress in 1915, leaving for the war, and coming back to find his wife pregnant with another man’s child a year later. In the wake of these events, Finch left again for war, impregnated a nurse in Salonika, decided he did not love the nurse anymore, and fell in love with another actress.
“It was no wonder he failed, because events on the very day of that medical examination, this is how things stood: Finch was ordered back to the bed of a woman he disdained who was about to give birth to a baby of his blood, out of another disastrous relationship comes a child who went on to become the famous British actor Peter Finch, and he’d taken the obligation of paying that woman 100 pounds a year for the rest of her life, and on the very day of the medical examination, he was scheduled to commit public adultery in a hotel.”
“So I wrote in my book,” Davis said, “it’s no wonder he lost his appetite, or that his doctors wrote that his complexion was sallow. What happened to Finch was a huge mystery, and all you had to do was look into his sex life.”
Davis also recalled the uncanny way he stumbled onto Canadian climber Oliver Wheeler’s rare written account of the expeditions.
“At the Whyte Museum in Banff, they told me that his son John Wheeler was still alive and living in Vancouver. Well I found John, living five doors down from the house I was born in. I went to see him, and according to all British historians, only one journal was kept in 1921 and, in the middle of my interview with John, he pulled off his bookshelf these two fat diaries kept by his father as he walked across Tibet with Mallory.”
“I was too Canadian to ask to borrow them, but it turns out I had climbed all these mountains that he had surveyed, and he went to the same boarding school that my father had gone to in the 1930s. As I left his house he simply took these journals and said, ‘you know son, I think these might be helpful to you.’ And I kept those journals for 12 years, and the family never asked what had become of my project. And that’s why I’m writing a book right now on Oliver Wheeler. When you read that book, you’re going to see that there was a Canadian hero that was never heard of that was an extraordinary man of the last century.”
Davis concluded the presentation with a clear message to the audience:
“These were men of a character the likes of which we will never know again. And the most important thing to recall, is that these men were our grandfathers. That is something you should never forget this year, at the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War.”
Photo by Ryan Turcot/The Omega