Friday 1 March 2019

Edmund Hillary- A Biography...extracts

The following extracts are from the forthcoming Vertebrate biography of Sir Edmund Hillary. Authored by Michael Gill.Publication date is 7th March 2019.

Harry Ayres teaches Ed the craft of mountaineering
A few days later, Ed had the breakthrough he needed. At short notice a client cancelled and Harry was available to guide Ed for a week, with an attempt on Mt Cook as the final goal. On 30 January, they set off from Haast Hut towards Cook under a starlit sky. In the dark Harry led through the crevasses of the Grand Plateau and the Linda Glacier with its litter of avalanche debris. Not long after dawn they reached the summit rocks. At the foot of the summit ice cap they put on crampons and climbed steadily up hard snow, with bouts of step-cutting on patches of ice. At 11 a.m. they were on the summit. To the north they looked on the ice-bound ridges of Teichelmann which they would climb five days later. Further north was Mt Tasman, New Zealand’s second highest peak, which Ed would climb with Harry three years later. To the south, the mile-long summit ridge ran down to the Middle and Low peaks of Cook, and beyond them on the plains far below stretched the milky turquoise waters of Lake Pūkaki.
Ed was always unstinting in his praise of Harry Ayres:
The technical climbing knowledge I gained in the New Zealand Alps came from Harry. We did some great climbs together and I was constantly amazed at his shrewd appraisal of difficult situations and his superb skill in overcoming them ... Of moderate size but incredibly wiry and strong, he had the toughness and endurance to tackle any problem. His great ice axe cut innumerable safe steps in solid green ice and his arms seemed tireless. As a guide he was patient, encouraging and very secure ... Up on the mountain he was incomparable.
Harry had learned his craft largely from experience. He was born in 1912, almost exactly seven years before Ed. His father was a plasterer and lather in Christchurch; his mother died when he was only 12. He followed the path of many Kiwis born into straitened circumstances during the early twentieth century: he left school at 12, did a milk round and picked up low-paid jobs such as collecting spent hops from the local brewery. At age 16 he left home to look for work on the West Coast. He milked cows, cut scrub, laid railway lines in the Buller Gorge, went panning for gold in the Coast’s brutally inaccessible gorges.
The break into guiding came through working on the farm of Mick Sullivan at Fox, where a hotel was being built. Tourists were taken on to the nearby glacier using steps cut into the ice by the guides – not death-defying climbing but the ideal training ground for Harry, who learned to cut perfectly shaped steps. In 1937 he went east across the Alps from the West Coast to take up guiding serious climbs on the high peaks around The Hermitage. This was the golden age of guiding when few amateurs would attempt high peaks such as Tasman or Cook on their own. Equipment was primitive. Boots had leather soles fitted with metal tricounis and clinkers which gave poor grip on rock and very little grip in small steps badly cut in ice. Crampons were available but required a modest level of experience and were not always used. The job of the guide was to know the route, judge the snow conditions and weather, and cut bucket steps in ice or frozen snow. And he had always to be ready with ice-axe and rope to hold a client who slipped on an icy surface and took off at high speed down an exposed stretch of mountainside. 
For Ed, joining up with Harry was a quantum leap forwards in the development of his mountaineering skills. Country like the Kaikōuras was turning him into the tough all-rounder who could carry a bigload over difficult mountain terrain, but it was Harry who led him into the big central peaks sheathed in dangerous ice. Where an icefall looked impenetrable, Harry could show him a way through. He passed on his knowledge of how to handle the multitudinous varieties and textures of snow and ice and how to use a rope for safety. From being just another Auckland amateur, Ed moved into the ranks of the best climbers of his day.
This is not to say that he, or any other New Zealand climber, had technical skills comparable with those of top Swiss, Austrian, German or Italian climbers who between the wars had been putting up routes on faces that had previously been thought impossible. Climbing in the Southern Alps was still at an exploratory stage of its development and its devotees were for the most part self-taught. The first ascent of Mt Cook in 1894 had been made by three patriotic young employees at The Hermitage who improvised a route up the north ridge when they heard that a British-American climber, Edward Fitzgerald, with his Swiss guide Matthias Zurbriggen, might beat them to it.
By the late 1930s and ’40s Europeans were adopting smaller ice-axes as front-point crampons came into use, but in New Zealand, where step-cutting was still in favour, the long-handled variety of ice- axe was still used. Ed learned to apply his natural strength and stamina to cutting steps tirelessly in frozen snow or hard ice. He thrived on long, hard days in difficult conditions and bad weather. He was not aware of it at the time, but it was excellent training for the Himalayas.
His partnership with Harry Ayres was put to the test the following year when, in February 1948, they set out for the unclimbed South Ridge of Mt Cook with guide Mick Sullivan and client Ruth Adams. This was the outstanding challenge of the time. They began from a high bivouac at the foot of the ridge just north of Nazomi. The early morning light showed a fine, windless day as they ate breakfast and stuffed their sleeping bags into their rucksacks while looking up at the three rock steps guarding the ridge. Previous attempts had reached the top of the first step but no one had climbed further. The second step was steeper than the first, but they were fired up and strong, and by 9.15 had climbed it. The crux was the third step which was steep, smooth rock at the limits of their combined abilities; but Harry, with help from Ed’s upstretched hand, was finally able to climb the last vertical section of rock and step on to the snow ridge leading up to the Low Peak. Back at The Hermitage, a watching crowd used mirrors to flash sun messages applauding their progress. Fourteen hours after leaving their Nazomi bivouac, the climbers were back at their base hut in the Hooker.
Three days later, the same South Ridge quartet started out on the week-long epic that became known as the La Perouse Accident. Before the days of the magical nylon rope, Beale’s hemp rope was the preferred material for climbers, but it was awkward, unpredictable stuff that would invisibly rot from the inside. Older ropes would be cynically appraised as ‘probably all right if you don’t fall’. Ed’s first letter after his 1947 climb of Cook had been to his sister June on her way by boat to England to study psychology: You’ll be through Panama by now. I may as well get down to business straight away and say the only thing I really want is 120 feet of Beale’s Alpine rope.’
The accident happened when Harry, Ed, Mick Sullivan and Ruth Adams were close to the snow summit of La Perouse. Mick was protecting Ruth with a shoulder belay when she slipped on steep snow. Holding such a slip was routine for a guide, but this time the rope snapped and Ruth was gathering speed down a steepening slope. Just short of a fatal plunge over some cliffs, she was brought up short by a rock. Ed and Harry found her bloodied and unconscious and perhaps with spinal injuries. Helicopter rescues were unavailable in those times; instead they divided between them the work of calling in a rescue team: Ed to stay with Ruth; Mick to descend to the hut for bivouac equipment, warm clothes and food; Harry to run to The Hermitage to summon a rescue team of top climbers from Christchurch. 
Over the next week, they dragged, lowered and carried Ruth’s stretcher down icefall, snow, rock, tussock, alpine scrub, thick forest and finally the bluffs of a river gorge to the West Coast. Ruth’s father, who ran a cake- making business, air-dropped in 10 kilograms of his best fruit cake. She made a complete recovery. Ed had climbed another memorable mountain, participated in a vital rescue, and met some top climbers, among them Earle Riddiford who was to play such an important role in the next chapter of his life.

Quest into the Unknown

Exploring Jordan – The lowest adventures on Earth
Returning to the 1990s, Jordan still had numerous challenges waiting for us. I couldn’t wait to try to descend the great chasm of the Mujib Gorge, Jordan’s answer to the Grand Canyon. What had really grabbed my attention in 1984, apart from the immensity of it when you first arrive on its upper rim, was the river in its depths and its mysterious disappearance into distant mountains. Now Di and I were back, once again heading south along the ancient ‘King’s Highway’, a route which reputedly dates back 3,000 years to the kingdoms of Ammon, Moab and Edom.
As the road abruptly reached the upper edge of the gorge, we looked down into the abyss where the sunlit river snaked between tumbled boulders. To the east we could see the forked tongues of its tributaries descending from the high desert plateau. The far southern rim, five kilometres opposite us across the gorge was equally bare and rocky. Even so, the river, 600 metres below, had mustered its waters from unseen springs and was making its way to the Dead Sea concealed beneath blue mountains and a heavy heat haze about thirty kilometres to the west and 400 metres below sea level – the lowest point on earth.
We didn’t know if it would actually be possible to follow the river and as there was – as far as we were aware – no other way out. It seemed that failure to make our way to the Dead Sea and up the coast would mean totally retracing our steps – a rather grim prospect. And our road map, which was all we had, showed no road along the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. All we knew was that a road was being built, but not how far it reached, so we had to plan for a possible additional forty-kilometre walk all the way out north to the Jordan Valley, making about eighty kilometres in total. We took four days’ food and hoped for the best.
Having arranged a lift down to the point where the King’s Highway crosses the river (now a reservoir) we threw our sacks on our backs with a deter- mined flourish and waved a positive and cheery goodbye to our bemused driver. It was already close to midday and hot, but this was not an occasion for seeking the shade; the unknown twisting canyon disappearing between hazy blue mountains beckoned irresistibly.
Initially, shepherd’s paths wound around fields scattered with poppies and beneath riverside cliffs of white limestone. The barren hillsides rose ever higher above us, inhospitable and forcing the eye back to the sparkling waters of the river that cascaded between boulders and banks of pink- flowering oleanders with the delightfully refreshing sound that running water always has in otherwise parched lands. Occasionally the cliffs closed in, forcing boulder hopping. Once or twice we passed Bedouin shepherds or farm boys at water pumps, their rusting irrigation pipes snaking crazily up to small thirsty fields hidden by the folds of the gorge. They looked at us quizzically:
Salaam alaikum?’ – ‘Where you go?’
‘Walaikum salaam, El Bahr el Moyed’ – The Dead Sea.
‘Inshallah!’ – ‘Not possible!’

... was the usual reply, or ‘Big problem, many snake, maybe hyena, not good to sleep,’ was a more optimistic response. Always we were welcomed to drink ‘shai’ (tea), as is the Bedouin custom, while we wondered what lay ahead. We moved on as quickly as politeness and tradition would permit, pointing at the lowering sun and making our excuses.
We found a perfect campsite some distance above the river behind a huge boulder, yet still in the upper driftwood zone. The weather was settled so hopefully no flash floods to sweep us away in the night. Relaxed and glad to be in unknown country we ate well as the stars of the desert night appeared, far above the black, gaping jaws of the gorge into which we had been swallowed.
We slept late in the shadow of the boulder, but were soon off, walking briskly in the precious cool of the morning. As the hills drew closer, so the cliffs grew steeper, plunging directly into the river and forcing us finally to walk in the water. Hot springs cascaded in from hidden side valleys. Bright green frogs and large freshwater crabs jumped and scurried from under our feet. A mongoose dashed for cover into the reeds at the water’s edge. A porcupine rattled through the scrub on the shore. Eagles flew overhead.
A tent-sized beach under the cliffs offered a home for the night; driftwood was piled five metres above us by the floodwaters, but the weather was still settled so we slept well.
Half an hour’s walk downstream next morning brought us out of the ‘narrows’ into more open terrain, though still with no sign of the Dead Sea. Just beyond, another river entered from the north, a waterfall spouting from the mouth of an extremely narrow canyon. We consulted our woefully inadequate map: it was the Hidan Gorge and it looked every bit as long and impressive as the Mujib – something for the future we thought, but it was going to need a rope to escape from the canyon without being swept over the waterfall.
Walking on downstream, we saw the combined waters of the two rivers disappearing into another narrow and ominous-looking canyon. I took my sack off and waded in, only to find that it was immediately necessary to swim. The fast-flowing water swept round a bend into the unseen chasm beyond: there would be no way back. It would, anyway, be impossible with our sacks. I came back thinking dejectedly that we weren’t going to make it, and unless we could find a way out to the Dead Sea we had a two-day walk to do to retrace our steps.
Di, however, didn’t live on a hill farm without knowing donkey-poo when she saw it. She had commented on it once or twice on the way downstream and there was more, with accompanying human footprints, on the beach.
‘Bedouin come down here for water,’ she said, ‘maybe there’s a way out up that ravine’. 
Climbing up through foliage above the beach, she shouted down excitedly. Sure enough, there was an old trail. It eventually widened to a long- disused and washed-out four-wheel drive track which we followed up over a bizarre moonscape of dried mud hills, topping out to a view of the Dead Sea immediately below us and hardly a kilometre away. We were out! We picked our way down to the salt-crusted coast then along its edge to the downstream end of the canyon. Just to the north, a road construction camp could be seen but, reluctant to leave the mountains, we camped hidden inside the mouth of the gorge. 

Michael Gill: 2019 
Images courtesy of VP

Edmund Hillary-A Biography. Available from Vertebrate Publishing 
this month
Note, that while we are on the subject of Everest legends,Doug Scott has released the remarkable story of his and Chris Bonington's first ascent of Pakistan’s Ogre in audiobook format.

When an accident that resulted in Scott suffering two broken legs and Bonington smashing ribs turned their 1977 climb into a desperate fight for life, the roles played by their team members Mo Anthoine and Clive Rowland in shepherding the pair off the mountain was essentially written out of the story by the national press, which focused on the two already-famous mountaineers. Using newly discovered material, in The Ogre Scott reveals the truth for the first time.

The Ogre is the first book by mountaineering publisher Vertebrate Publishing to be made available as an audiobook. Commenting on its release Scott said, ‘I'm thrilled Vertebrate Publishing chose The Ogre as its first audiobook publication. It's testament to how much readers have engaged with the story. Now the book can be heard read aloud for the first time, the truth of the story behind our ascent can potentially be made available to an entirely new audience'.

Rising to more than 7,000 meters in the centre of the Karakoram, the Ogre – Baintha Brakk – is notorious in mountaineering circles as one of the most difficult mountains to climb. It waited almost twenty-four years for a second ascent, and a further eleven years for a third.
The Ogre audiobook – dubbed as ‘one of the greatest adventure stories of all time’ – makes for a thrilling listen and is available to purchase from Audible, Amazon and iTunes.