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 


Friday 12 April 2019

Peter and the Icicle

The alarm rang as usual about seven and, as usual, was ignored. The debris attendant on three climbers sprawled across the floor of Blonde Nick’s caravan while the climbers lay on the bunks and struggled silently with their dreams, their bladders and whatever else came to hand. The van rocked now and then on its rusty springs as gusts of wind blustered down Glen Nevis. During the next half hour mummy like figures struggled half upright one by one and pressed their noses to the cold and misty glass. One by one they lay back down without a word and, as sleep crept back in, a first peculiar ritual of the day seemed complete.

Outside it was snowing.Not up and down snow, but side to side snow. Although each climber was silent and appeared to be asleep, their thoughts were already up and wandering dreamily around the hills outside. They wandered slowly up to the highest gullies of the Ben,down which spindrift poured, and over which cornices creaked.
Down from the ridges and buttresses where a rope of three would shuffle their feet on the ledges and freeze in the bitter wind.
Down to the C.I.C, down the soggy path to the dam, down to the Golf Club, and finally back to the sordid dripping interior of the Van. This was the strenuous reasoning that lulled the climbers back to sleep, a process often mistaken by the inexperienced eye for simple laziness.

An hour later I woke to the sharp and painful knowledge that a second ritual of the day must shortly be performed, or a sleeping bag shortly be watered. I’d had a dream, I’d looked over the mountain and seen Hendrix on stage in Coire Cas. I kicked Phil awake and started to describe the scene. He rolled his head toward me and, with the air of an old and tired confessor, asked: “What the fuck are you on about now?”

But he wasn’t the problem. I’d known him for years and we had developed a range of understanding about life and, broadly speaking, were in favour. Anyway, he’d been climbing all week, an achievement almost unique in an inglorious decade of mountaineering and was consequently knackered. The problem was Pete. He’d arrived last night fresh and keen from a conference in Aberdeen about how to die in the North Sea. It seems this is quite an easy thing to do and so, naturally, Pete spent the evening briefing us against such a possibility. Short of a partner and a doss, a few beers later he had both, and we had the usual highly defined plan. Tomorrow we would have a look at ‘something’ and it would be ‘short’. Now, even though confronted by the white hostility of the day, he was up, obviously driven by a stronger will, or weaker bladder than mine. He made a brew and we sat the three of us with glazed eyes and hands round steaming mugs, like refugees waiting for negotiations to begin.

It was from such unpromising beginnings that the fragile possibilities of the day grew slowly into an Icicle that flows from the undercut base of Number Five gully on Aonach Dubh. A rare and elusive pitch this one, creeping down slowly through the empty air on cold nights, a tantalising possibility seldom strong enough to bear the schemes of those who stood beneath it. But this was the year of the Icicle when everyone’s local crag became an icecrop, guide books were left where they fell, and trails beaten to the most unlikely places.

So, our Icicle had come of age…’ Thirty feet…no more…good landing’ according to the authorative Englishman in the bar last night. Weeks ago, in another bar in Keswick, Davie MacDonald had wizened up his face and quoted us twice that height. But then who would buy a second-hand icicle from a man who was playing pool with one ball? Second hand because Cubby had climbed it but not before showing in passing that the ground below was indeed good to land on.

So that was it, just what we needed, short walk, one pitch climb and
‘…you can always come down if you don’t like it…can’t you?’

A few veils of snow drifted up and down the Coe and the Icicle was revealed, now and then, as a very small icy incident on a very large crag. A sabre-toothed gully with the empty mouth of the rock open and dark behind. It seemed to shrink to our kind of size as we slunk up the slope beneath, only to sprout up fast when we stood with our necks bent back at the dripping bottom. A clear forty feet of it hung completely free, it’s tip tickling the slope below, with a further fifteen or twenty so feet of vertical clinging to the rock until it eased back into the gully above.

It was Pete’s pitch. He’d been here before and this time was psyched up to push things to a conclusion. Phil and I slouched about smug in the knowledge that today at least there would come no moment high and lonely on the Ice with all the choices gone. From this comfortable position we generously offered Pete our various assessments of the problem.

He racks up his gear in a suspiciously systematic way for someone who claims this is his third Scottish ice route. Nobody’s fooled though
because he’s swopped us a Devils Appendix for a Curtain and the Karakoram for a Carnmore. Mysteriously events have now developed their own momentum and the cold shower of meltwater in which we stand evokes no more comment than Pete’s throwaway line about his jacket being not much good below twenty thousand feet.

He climbs up and down the first dubious ten feet or so to satisfy himself that the ice is ok and, since it seems to be, he ties on the ropes and makes a start. The first few fragile moments pass to the sound of tinkling ice and withheld breaths, until Pete develops a rhythm, switches off the relevant part of his brain and clunks slowly up into the sky. The placements are good once the surface crud is cleared away and at about thirty feet he takes a rest, arms dangling, hanging from his hooked in Terrors and apologises for the delay.

I begin to realise that he won’t be climbing down now and fumble superstitiously in my sac for a helmet as odd lumps of ice begin to sneakily appear at speed from high up the gully. Phil scurries about from side to side, framing it, composing it, wide angling and zooming it, calling for smiles and bows. Pete, with some feeling back in his arms, sets off again, almost out of my sight now, round bulges of dripping ice. He’s completed the detached section of the Icicle and moves left to a small grotto in search of some protection more solid than the screws that slid too easily into the ice below. After much mumbling and hammering he gives up the search and moves back onto the ice leaving behind a tied off peg, unconsoled by our encouraging shouts of ‘Only fifteen feet to go!’

I realise now that soon I’ll be hanging up there and so begin to scheme the easiest way from A to B. I’ll find all his placements and just hook up it, no scrabbling about with manky ice for me. I’ll leave all the screws for Phil to struggle with by persuading him he’ll need them for rests being so knackered from his big week. I’ll just scamper up with the minimum of brain damage and then I’ll be able to say how easy…BANG!’…..Shit!’ … I dive into the cave …briefly glimpse a pillar of ice in the sky settling for a moment on its fang into the slope like a factory chimney might just before it tilts out and thunders down. Three successive violent blows to my helmeted head follow as the screws attached to lumps of ice rattle down the ropes amid a dense cloud of ice dust.

All you have to do is close your eyes and then when you open them again its gone. Two ropes hanging and spinning round a roof of ice and rock fifty feet up and fifteen feet out. Pete clings to his Terrors
just above the dotted line. Phil gazes through his lens at the pitch
now noisily receding down the hill. A few feet to my left there is a crater about four feet deep littered with ice blocks as if a mortar bomb had landed. ‘Incoming or outgoing?’ I wonder, before deciding it must have been a bit of both.

The fracture had sprung from the tip of Pete’s right axe, run down beside him, curved under his feet and then broke away. Although he’d felt the screws pull he seemed to have some trouble believing that the whole pitch was gone. When he got his mind round this he also realised that going on was definitely too freaky as we could now see all too clearly how much water was draining behind the ice. Pete crept back to his peg slotting the Terrors tenderly into the placements he’d made so confidently a few minutes before. Phil and I felt helpless and silently began to heave the biggest blocks of ice from the landing strip.

Three boys from Devon piled around the corner to help dig our bodies out having heard the Bang and seen the bad news churning down the slopes. Upstairs Pete slowly made his calculations and rigged two ice screws to back up the tied off peg then gently, very gently, floated down through the air to the snow below. We swopped amazements, reliefs and useless wisdoms as passers by did double takes and stopped on the path below.

We slowly packed our sacs with much looking and wondering and shaking of heads. The weight of it…the mechanics…’If I’d ever for a moment, even a moment, thought there was the remotest possibility’….
We could now see exactly how the whole tonnage of the thing was hung from a sheet of ice eight inches thick and eight feet across.
So, treat it gently if you should ever, because there’s a trigger there, a lever, a hidden spring. We came back down as the sun came out and clambered over the blue ice blocks beneath a rainbow.Ducks on the loch stuck their bums into the air and we sat by the river and laughed.
Up there something was missing.Tomorrow was All Fools’ day.


Footnote from Phil Swainson.

The “three boys from Devon” who piled around the corner to dig out our bodies were not. They were three Scottish guys, two of whom, John Mackenzie and Duncan Macallum became friends, and sometime climbing partners. Shortly after this wee epic, I left Newcastle to live in Sheffield, where our new pal Pete Thexton became a firm friend. His skill, tenacity and formidable motivation secured him a place on a winter attempt on Everest, and other trips. He died too young in 1983 on the descent from the summit plateau of Broad Peak. And now, forty years on, John Given and I are still hauling our beer bellies up steep(ish) rock, provided there are enough bolts. The combined age of the this pair is 141.

First published in Mountain 71, this attempt at the second ascent of Eliot’s Downfall took place 40 years ago. We walked away without a scratch. Article by John Given, pictures Phil Swainson.