Wade Davis, Wandering Spirit
Credit: Photograph by Michael Edwards
The affair of the smoking toad wasn't the first time that Davis' work had stimulated controversy. His research in Haiti also generated some unwelcome attention – mostly, it seems, from conventional academics offended by all the publicity. At Harvard, there was even an unsuccessful attempt to spike his doctoral dissertation. Faculty squabbling and interdisciplinary warfare are hardly unusual, though few dissertations lead to a film directed by Wes Craven. The experience helped Davis realize that he was not meant to inhabit the groves of academe. Despite his long scientific CV – he has published some 150 papers – Davis likes to say that he is essentially a storyteller, and he draws on traditions that are far more ancient than modern science.

Exploration, for Davis, is more than a geographical or narrowly scientific pursuit; in harsh and unforgiving places, under extreme conditions, trials of the body give way to triumphs of spirit that are not easily captured by typical adventure tales or staid scientific treatises. And there are few environments on Earth more extreme than the upper reaches of Mount Everest. In October 2011, after 12 years of labor, Davis published what might appear to be a significant departure: a historical narrative about 26 white men in which he personally plays no role. In fact, Into the Silence represents his most ambitious inquiry to date. It is an exhaustively researched and subtly executed account of the first three attempts to climb Mount Everest – in 1921, 1922, and 1924 – the last of which ended in enigma, near the summit, with the deaths of mountaineers Sandy Irvine and George Mallory.

As we moved downstairs from the Trophy Room, passing dozens of photographs of the great figures who have been members of the Explorers Club, Davis explained how he came to the subject of Mount Everest. While attempting to photograph clouded leopards at the base of the Kangshung Face, his attention was captured by those famous deaths in June 1924 near the summit. He was traveling with Daniel Taylor, the founder of a community-development and educational foundation called Future Generations who grew up in the Himalayas and knew some of the members of the early Everest expeditions. Taylor told stories of Englishmen in tweeds and puttees reading Shakespeare to one another at 23,000 feet. Davis wanted to know who these men were and what energies had motivated them to penetrate the death zone. He had a strong hunch that their experience of the Great War would be important – of 26 men who took part in the expeditions, all but six had fought in the trenches.

The point was not that the Everest mountaineers reminisced about the war while sitting around at base camp. On the contrary, many never spoke of it at all. There was no need. For such men, death was not an undiscovered country, and the extreme conditions they were destined to experience on the North Col of Everest presented no deterrent. "Because death had nothing to teach them," Davis said, "they were prepared to accept a level of risk that would have been unimaginable before the war." Trench warfare, the needless deaths of millions of boys, had shattered the pretensions of empire. All certainties had crumbled, and the world had been drained of meaning. Once the war finally ended, a quest that had been interrupted by Armageddon was taken up again, and a small group of former soldiers threw themselves at the highest mountain on Earth. What had begun as a grand imperial gesture, motivated by the failure of the greatest empire on Earth to win the race to the North and South poles, was transformed by the Great War into "a mission of regeneration."