Into the Silence author Wade Davis wins Samuel Johnson award

'Momentous' non-fiction book meticulously details hardships of expeditions and relationship between British and Tibetans

Explorer Wade Davis's "momentous" look at George Mallory's doomed attempts to scale Everest has won the UK's top prize for non-fiction, the Samuel Johnson award.

Davis, a Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist who is an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, spent 10 years researching and writing Into the Silence.

The book puts the three attempts to climb Everest, between 1921 and 1924, into the context of the first world war: most of the 23 climbers had seen action, including Mallory, and Davis explores how the yearning to conquer the mountain was partly a response to the atrocities of the previous decade.

"What is truly extraordinary about this book is that it takes fairly famous subjects, like the first world war, British imperialism and the Everest expeditions, and makes a completely new narrative, so you look at that period of history in a different way," said writer and biographer Patrick French, who was on the judging panel for the £20,000 prize.

"He starts off by taking this idea – which didn't seem to have occurred to anyone else – that pretty much all these major figures would have had horrific experiences during the war.

"You might have seen them as fairly standard establishment figures, parading around on the mountain, but then you suddenly realise [one of them] had spent the war cutting trenches not through mud but through corpses. They had gone through experiences no one should ever have to go through, and the redemptive idea of climbing this mountain, which no one had ever climbed before, puts them in a different light."

Davis meticulously details the hardships of the expeditions, as well as the relationships between the British and the Tibetans. "Snow-blind, suffering from double vision, which was madly disorienting and excruciatingly painful, he went on until he could do no more, turning back finally at 28,126 feet, less than 1,000 feet from the summit," he writes of Edward Norton.

"Then things became dangerous. His nerves cracked from exhaustion. In one moment he had been fearlessly pressing on, climbing in waist-deep snow up a chute that exposed him to death with every step. Then the instant he gave up the chase, a world of fear and intimidation closed in on him."

David Willetts, the universities minister who chaired the judging panel, called Into the Silence a "momentous" book that "manages to shed new light on events and stories we thought we already knew".

It's an "absolutely gripping narrative", agreed French. "It's on the frontier of life and death – it's literally a cliffhanger and I think it will be read for years to come. Our perspective on history, and on colonial history, will be shifted by this book."

Davis is the author of 15 books, including Passage of Darkness and The Serpent and the Rainbow, which detail his Haitian investigations into zombies.

The other authors on the shortlist were Katherine Boo, selected for her debut, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an investigation into the lives of the inhabitants of a Mumbai slum; Sue Prideaux for her biography of August Strindberg; Paul Preston's The Spanish Holocaust; Steven Pinker's history of violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature; and Robert Macfarlane's search for Britain's ancient roads, The Old Ways.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Guantánamo Diary author makes Samuel Johnson prize longlist
Mohamedou Ould Slahi among a dozen writers including Jonathan Bate and Robert Macfarlane in contention for £20,000 non-fiction prize

Alison Flood

21, Sep, 2015 @11:01 PM

Article image
Biography of Italian fascist wins Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction

The Pike by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, tells how the charismatic Gabriele D'Annunzio transformed himself into a national hero

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

04, Nov, 2013 @9:42 PM

Article image
'Hopeful' study of autism wins Samuel Johnson prize 2015
Neurotribes by Steve Silberman takes £20,000 award for book ‘arguing that we should stop drawing sharp lines between normal and abnormal’

Alison Flood

02, Nov, 2015 @10:15 PM

Article image
Samuel Johnson book prize shortlist revealed
Emma Sky, Jonathan Bate and Samanth Subramanian among writers in the running for the £20,000 award

Maev Kennedy

11, Oct, 2015 @1:00 PM

Article image
Rushdie memoir heads Samuel Johnson prize longlist

The UK's pre-eminent prize for non-fiction also selects history, science, biography and economics books as finalists

Alison Flood

18, Sep, 2012 @7:30 AM

Article image
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher wins Samuel Johnson prize

Kate Summerscale's book, suffused with melodrama, murder, suspense and courtroom drama, takes the £30,000 non-fiction award

Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent

15, Jul, 2008 @8:39 AM

Article image
Samuel Johnson prize longlist: history comes first as judges take the long view

The Samuel Johnson longlist, announced today, favours political biographies and sweeping histories … with a dash of spirit, writes Liz Bury

Liz Bury

05, Sep, 2013 @11:27 PM

Article image
'Classic' study of whales wins Samuel Johnson prize
Philip Hoare's Leviathan wins Britain's most important prize for non-fiction

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

30, Jun, 2009 @6:40 PM

Samuel Johnson longlist celebrates variety

Covering subjects ranging from Istanbul to the British garden, the 20-strong longlist for the 2005 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, announced today, offers a snapshot of the diversity of current non-fiction publishing.

Michelle Pauli

20, Apr, 2005 @10:55 AM

Samuel Johnson Prize

Stephen Fry on Inigo Jones, a tribute to Barabara Cartland and Berlioz triumphant

27, May, 2000 @12:01 AM