Friday, 26 April 2019

Michael Gill's 'Edmund Hillary: A Biography'...Reviewed

Edmund Hillary A Biography, by Michael Gill, is the story of the man who took a photograph that electrified the world: his companion, Tenzing Norgay, ice axe and flags held aloft, on the summit of Everest. Unheard of for the first third of his life, Hillary was thrust from obscurity in distant New Zealand to front page news on the day of the Coronation. His name transcended the narrow world of climbing and mountaineering, and, like Yuri Gagarin eight years later, everyone knew who he was.

In the pantheon of action heroes for boys growing up in the 1950s, none ranked higher than Hillary, seemingly the embodiment of the expression 'larger than life.' And what a life his was. Over its span the author describes a string of remarkable metamorphoses: from unsure boy, the smallest in his class, to physically assertive young man, and force to be reckoned with on the rugby field; from conscientious objector, to wartime service with the Royal New Zealand Air Force; from abandoned university career, to honorary doctorates; from loose cannon on the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, to New Zealand's High Commissioner in Delhi, and Garter Knight.

But what lay behind the received narrative of the self-effacing bee farmer from Auckland, and how did he wear the mantle of New Zealand's favourite son for over 50 years? Having known his subject personally, the author is well qualified to tell us. His primary sources include the Hillary archive in the Auckland museum, personal contact with many of the Everest team, and access to private letters. In an outstanding book of over 500 pages there is scope for width and depth, both of which he develops to advantage, writing with an engaging style, light on jargon for the general reader.

Ed and Harry Ayres on the summit of Aoraki-Mt Cook, 1947. © Hillary Museum Collection 
Gill lays out Hillary's ancestral line from 19th Century New Zealand to his birth soon after the end of the First World War. The subject is neatly placed in his time, as when describing his own young country as 'makeshift', and, on a 1950 visit to London, himself as 'British first and a New Zealander second'. A brief aside tells us of the young man's awareness of bygone attitudes to the indigenous Antipodean people, still an uncomfortable subject today.

From the front cover Hillary's face, bearded and unsmiling, looks hard into the camera lens. We read of the restless son of an austere father, finding his metier in the snows of the Southern Alps; later going on his first expedition, to the Garwhal Himalaya, in 1951. On Mukut Parbat he experiences the rigours of climbing a big mountain, dropping nine kilos in body weight, and learning a hard lesson... 'that the race is not just to the strong, but to those who have the courage and tenacity to see it through to the end.'

Gill is particularly good on Hillary's interactions with family members, friends, and contemporaries: the relationship with his father; his ever dependable brother Rex; his long friendship with George Lowe; his respect for John Hunt and mentor Harry Ayres, and many more. Neither is Gill's objectivity compromised by friendship with his subject: whilst Hillary was generous in praise of his climbing companions in published writings, diary extracts show that in private he could be sharply critical, even of his closest friends. His winning affability served him well, but was not always enough. On the Garwhal trip, Gill contrasts the waggish humour of Hillary and Lowe with the more cerebral Earle Riddiford, who...'with his cool intellect just wasn't Ed's sort of person.' We learn that Hillary could be sensitive to criticism, and, in Gill's words, 'preferred his own version of his life,' admonishing an unauthorised biographer with “I write my own books!” Public appearances brought contact with the political class, for whom he showed scant regard; there were clashes with two Prime Ministers, Keith Holyoake and Robert Muldoon. This spikier side shows in the account of the 1958 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, when, disregarding team orders, he made a 500 mile dash for the Pole, upstaging the British party approaching from the Weddell Sea. It went down badly in the British press, and his own Antarctic Committee in New Zealand disapproved. 

Ed with companion (probably Jack McBurney) and two unknown young women outside a corrugated iron hut. © Hillary Museum Collection 

Inevitably, the narrative leads to Everest. Gill addresses the question of why success was so long in coming, when a 19th Century French scientist had shown in the laboratory that breathing supplementary oxygen could overcome the debilitating effects of altitude. In chapters examining the early attempts on the mountain, the author's skill in portraying the individuals and institutions at work shows far reaching consequences flowing from random interactions and prejudices: in London, the Everest Committee; on the mountain, the solid Lieutenant-Colonel Howard-Bury, leader in 1921; the pithy General Bruce, of 1922 and 24; George Mallory, outstanding climber though 'technically illiterate when it came to equipment such as cameras and oxygen apparatus'; and Australian George Finch, Mallory's equal as a climber, possessing the technical skills he lacked, but whose independent views offended the establishment. 

Following the tragic end of the 1924 attempt, the 1930s expeditions fared no better. Still the view held that given the right conditions, an ascent without oxygen was achievable. After the hiatus of the Second World War, geopolitics intervened. With the opening of access from Nepal, success in 1953 became imperative after the Swiss got close in 1952, and the French were booked for 1954; 'merde!' the author observes, further comment clearly unnecessary. The 1951 Everest reconnaissance, led by Shipton, showed Hillary's credentials. In London, a more single minded leader was appointed for the next attempt, and now was the time for oxygen to be fully embraced. Digressing occasionally, Gill imagines a parallel universe where events diverge from the version we know: what if Finch had gone back to Everest with Mallory in 1924? What if Hillary had not been the youngest in his school class? The conclusions are invariably thought provoking and point to how history might have been written very differently.

Having climbed Everest, how does one follow that? There would be no further Himalayan trips for some years; instead, marriage, and a young family. The hitherto male dominated story is leavened by extracts from personal letters from the time of Hillary's courtship of his wife Louise, showing his reliance on her for emotional support, and later for active help with his work in Nepal. There was international travel, and authorship too; High Adventure, his account of the 1953 success was published to critical acclaim in1955. From a bizarre early 60s expedition to find the yeti came the seeds of development work among the Sherpa people. Schools, hospitals, and airstrips followed, and a close association with the Khumbu area for the rest of his life. 

Aoraki-Mt Cook. The prominent rock ridge between sun and shadow is the South Ridge which was first climbed by Ayres, Hillary, Sullivan and Adams in 1948. It leads to Low Peak. The summit ridge continues to Middle and then High Peak. © Colin Monteath/Hedgehog House 

The latter years are passed over briskly. Gill suggests that a later biographer might write more fully of this time, yet I felt an opportunity was missed. At the close of the narrative the author quotes the Everest tribute by Jan Morris, referring to '...the last earthly adventure before humanity's explorers went off into space.' In this context, it would have been entertaining to read of the 1985 meeting of Hillary and Neil Armstrong. One can imagine a conversation on memorable one-liners.

For the climber, the book will be essential reading, but there is much here too in the more general appeal of a life well spent, in making the utmost of one's talents, and in man's pursuit of goals at the limit of human endeavour. A minor criticism concerns two useful maps, one of New Zealand and one of Antarctica, among the appendices, which could have been placed to better effect in the appropriate chapters.

Mike Bailey: 2019

Edmund Hillary A Biography, by Michael Gill. Published 2019 by Vertebrate Publishing £24.00
ISBN 9781911342960