Canadian discovered secret to Everest, not Mallory
wade, davis, everest
Published Tuesday, November 8, 2011 9:21AM EST
It was a little known but brilliant and tenacious Canadian who found the key to success on Mount Everest, not the legendary climber George Mallory.
That's one of the fascinating revelations in a new book by Canadian anthropologist and explorer Wade Davis that traces the lives of the men who made the first three attempts on Everest.
In the new book "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest," Davis delves deeply into the military histories of the men who became the key players in the adventure story that captivated the Western world in the early part of last century.
In meticulous detail, Davis builds a biography for each of these men using journals, private letters, military records, memoirs and interviews to track their journey right up until they set foot on Everest, then follows them throughout their adventures in Tibet in 1921, 1922 and 1924.
While countless books have been written about those early assaults on Everest, few writers, if any, had delved into the life experiences that preceded the expedition members' arrival at Everest.
But Davis said he felt the two storylines were impossible to separate.
"If you really look at the age of these guys and their class you realize that the war had been the seminal experience of their lives," he told CTVNews.ca.
War had direct impact on Everest experiences
The horrors that men such as George Mallory and George Finch experienced in the First World War -- which Davis documents in incredible detail -- had a direct impact on their accomplishments on Everest, he said.
"I'm not saying they were cavalier about death. ... It's just that they had seen so much of death it had no mystery for them and I think they were prepared to accept a degree of risk that would have been unimaginable before the war. And it was just that kind of intensity of commitment that Everest demanded."
Davis, an anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, spent 12 years working on the epic retelling of the Everest saga. In addition to vast amounts of research in the U.K., he also travelled to India, Tibet and Nepal in order to tell the story as experienced by Tibetan Buddhist monks who met the British as they came through.
He even had translated into English for the first time, the memoir of a lama, a Tibetan teacher of of the Dharma, who met the expeditions as they passed by his monastery.
It was through the course of his meticulous background research that Davis discovered the vital role a Canadian surveyor played in the first expedition -- a man who to this day barely shows up on a Google search of his name.
Canadian played key role in Everest expedition
Oliver Wheeler, a surveyor from British Columbia whose father founded the Alpine Club of Canada, joined the 1921 reconnaissance expedition with the task of mapping Everest with a new photographic survey technique he had helped pioneer in the Rocky Mountains.
An accomplished climber in his own right, Wheeler was for some reason considered essentially useless by Mallory, who admitted in letters to his wife Ruth that he had a "complex" when it came to Canadians, and didn't care for Wheeler.
Wheeler, initially ruled out for any summit attempts, spent the vast majority of his time high in the mountain ridges and passes around Everest with a team of porters, struggling against Himalayan weather with heavy equipment to map the ranges and search for a way to approach the mighty mountain.
Mallory and his climbing partner Guy Bullock had inexplicably walked right past the entrance to the Rongbuk Glacier more than once and were stymied in their search for an approach to the mountain.
It would be Wheeler who discovered the secret during his tireless survey efforts, covering the same ground Mallory had already trodden but seeing it through surveyor's eyes and immediately recognizing a chink in the armour around the mountain.
He sent a hand-drawn map to the climbing team that revealed the way and opened the door to the summit, as approached through Tibet.
Mallory 'blew it'
"Mallory's job was to reconnoiter all of that so it's really an oversight that he didn't go up there," Davis said.
"They did a lot of heroic stuff but he blew it. But the point is Mallory wasn't a surveyor and Wheeler was and he wasn't going to miss that. So when Wheeler went up there he absolutely finds east Rongbuk, he goes up it, knows exactly what it is and he sends a sketch map over."
The incredible accomplishment by Wheeler and his Sherpa assistants didn't do anything to endear him to Mallory, however, who went out of his way to downplay Wheeler's role.
In a letter to Ruth written after Wheeler had found the way up, Mallory talks about the mystery of the Rongbuk glacier and how they have yet to find a way up to it.
"Mallory then went ahead in the expedition account and completely did everything he could not to credit Wheeler. And yet there's no question whatsoever that Oliver Wheeler found the doorway to the mountain," Davis said.
"Wheeler's map is still the fundamental map used by the Tibetans and the Chinese. He did it."
After Everest, Wheeler would go on to become surveyor-general of India, his maps detailing the lay of hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of previously uncharted land.
But Davis makes no attempt to take the shine off of Mallory's accomplishments. His book paints a realistic portrait of the man who despite his moodiness, pride and tendency to complain, carried all three of the first expeditions on his back.
The incredibly powerful climber, who would eventually die on Everest along with 22-year-old Sandy Irvine, paved the way for hundreds of future climbers who would follow in his footsteps up the mountain.
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