Because it’s still there, Geoff Chapple

Everest – Summit of Achievement
Stephen Venables
Allen & Unwin, $79.95,
ISBN 1741140668

Everest – 50 Years on Top of the World
George Band
Collins, $49.95,
ISBN 0007147481

High Adventure: Our Ascent of Everest
Sir Edmund Hillary
Allen & Unwin, $29.95,
ISBN 1741140986

Everest – Reflections from the Top
(ed) Christine Gee, Garry Weare and Margaret Gee
Rider, $29.95,
ISBN 1844130525

View from the Summit
Sir Edmund Hillary
Corgi Books, $26.95,
ISBN 0552151041

Paul Holmes standing beside the tall bloke and gesturing towards the Bradley high altitude boots on their pedestal. Holmes, suffused with the presence of greatness and plucking his words from left and right of the tall bloke:

“You mean these boots. These are the boots. The very boots. The very first boots. That stood on the summit of Everest.”

The tall bloke, nonplussed, peering down: “That is correct.”

“And how then did that feel?”

“I was very pleased to have got there. My feelings were mostly feelings of satisfaction.”

Well, he would ask. Holmes was previewing the newly-opened Sir Edmund Hillary exhibition at the Auckland Museum. By a happy coincidence the lead up to the 50th Everest anniversary year and the museum’s 150th birthday fell together, and the museum produced an enormous cake, accurately representing the great mountain’s north and south cols, its arêtes and couloirs leading to the summit itself. Applause rained down from the crowd leaning over the balconies as Ed with wife June moseyed into the museum atrium. Hundreds more on the ground floor clapped him through.

Knife in hand, Ed perused the great cake then lumbered around to the northern side. He cut through the icing alongside the Eastern Rongbuk Glacier. That first slice of heavily iced chocolate cake, further diced and distributed to the adoring crowd, came from under the North Col and marked where the first doomed attempts to climb Everest began.

Cynics might ask why the fuss, but it seemed fair enough. For those over a certain age, the 50th anniversary palpated memory of an event as historic as the Kennedy assassination, Princess Diana’s death or September 11 – an event so vivid you retained an exact picture of where you were when you heard, and what you did. For anyone under that age, it was something they should know anyway, part of New Zealand’s social memory, but also an icon to the world. As 29 May 2003 approached, sherpas in their villages, Nepalese and British royalty, the Alpine Club and Royal Geographic Society in London, and the National Geographic Society in Washington, planned for the big event.

Predictably, therefore, two Everest histories were published in the lead up to 29 May. Both were coffee-table books, their authors Stephen Venables, a British climber who summited Everest in 1988 via the so-called Jaws of Doom on the mountain’s eastern face, and George Band, the youngest member of the successful 1953 British team.

Both books lay out the long history of early British contact with the mountain. The British first identified the world’s highest peak in 1852, by trigonometrical calculation from six separate stations some 179 kilometres distant in India, and in 1856, it burst into British cartography fully fledged with a height 29,000 feet (8,840 metres, later revised to 8,850) and a name, Everest, after the British surveyor-general of India. The name stuck – one suspects because of its eerily accurate resonances, for the British attempt to name the second highest peak Mt Austen after a later surveyor-general failed to gain general usage, and reverted to its name on original maps – K2.

Both books deal also with the early British expeditions. There were seven, and the first three at least had all the pukka sahib tone of the Empire abroad, dusky porters carrying crates of champagne and cans of Fortnum and Mason quail in truffles, crystallised ginger and so on into a savage interior. The mountaineers themselves did their watercolours of the formidable Himalayan peaks as competently as one might in the Lake District. Venables’ beautiful book has superb photographic reproductions of all this, and the book’s pictures of both the early surveys and, as the expeditions meander through, of Tibet, are poignant.

Band’s book is diligently researched and has a far more thorough account of the expeditions, but too often digresses into Band’s personal reminiscences, and is too often marked by shrieks and parentheses. The photographic layout is less attractive, and the author indulges the amateur sin of Photoshopping one image.

The early history is dominated by those who died – en route, as two did in 1921, or on the mountain itself, as another seven porters did in 1922, but most of all by the hobnail-booted George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. They were last seen climbing a rock step on the north-east ridge at 12.50 pm on 8 June 1924, their position difficult to ascertain because of drifting cloud but maybe as close as 490 metres from the summit. Mallory was renowned for his physical beauty – reportedly having “overwhelmed” the homosexual Lytton Strachey at Oxford – and he’s shown in these books in more than one nude pose. He also minted the classiest Everest prose, famously answering the question as to why we should bother to climb the mountain – “Because it is there”  – and writing, after climbing a ridge and sighting it for the first time in 1921, “It was a prodigious white fang excrescent from the jaw of the world …”

Sir Edmund just wouldn’t say that, as the reissue of two of his books reminds us. He first wrote High Adventure in 1955, but the book remains highly readable and thrilling. It’s plain prose about real people and dangerous achievements, underlain by a laconic sense of humour, but wonderfully candid also, with a cool eye for the failings of fellow climbers, occasional sharp criticisms of his own performance, and a frankly-confessed competitive streak.

You can feel destiny grinding away in High Adventure. Hillary just happens to be in the Himalayas when the legendary Everest mountaineer of the 1930s, Eric Shipton, gets permission for a first close look at the southern side of Everest in 1951. With Tibet now closed to the British, the south side was non-traditional and doubtful, but politically the only access. Ed calls up every bit of New Zealand back-country skill to journey with the Wellington climber Earle Riddiford through leech-laden forests and across monsoon-swollen rivers for his rendezvous with Shipton.

He finds in Shipton a man like himself, rough and ready, eager for adventure, and critical of the scale and comfort of past expeditions. The two become mates, and, climbing to a high ridge on Pumori, they burst upon the first extended view of the hidden Western Cwm. Up the colossal chaos of the Khumbu Icefall … then up the valley to the icy wall of the Lhotse Face … from there to the South Col ….  Both men spot, for the first time, a new route to Everest’s summit. It’s an historic moment, and the brilliantly panoramic photo taken that day of the Cwm does it absolute justice: Ed stands in the foreground stage-right on his snowy ridge, back to the camera, gazing into his own ice-tumbled, summit-plumed, cryogenically preserved future. The New Zealand climber knew something that day. The Khumbu Icefall was the most immediate barrier, steep and unstable, and he could feel in Shipton the leader’s instinct not to risk men, but wrote, “In my heart, I knew the only way to attempt this mountain was to modify the old standards of safety and justifiable risk, … to drive through regardless.”

Hillary and trusted buddy George Lowe are both selected for the 1953 British assault. Destiny grinds away, but a careful re-reading of High Adventure also makes plain just how critical Hillary was to many phases of the laborious 1953 assault.

He is immediately given charge of finding the path through the Khumbu Icefall, and it’s a dice with death. Tonnages of ice routinely crash down from the sheer walls of Everest one side and Nuptse the other, and he must keep to the centre. But even there the whole glacier is moving at something like 25 centimetres a day. Towering ice seracs lean and wobble. Huge subterranean caverns boom with ice chips that fall from his hacked steps, and the icy balances around him are so delicate that those reverberations alone cause the ground to quake.

Past the top of the icefall, the going into the Western Cwm gets easier and then the lead climbers ascend the Lhotse Face and begin the traverse to the South Col at 7,900 metres. They’re into the death zone, where a climber’s body begins to break down, where even the heart at rest pounds at double its normal speed, and where pulmonary and cerebral oedemas cut climbers down. The days tick by and no one is getting the necessary loads through to the Col.

Expedition leader John Hunt is deliberately holding Hillary and Tenzing back at Camp IV on the Western Cwm, husbanding the strength of this, his second summit party, but Hillary openly frets that the expedition is starting to drift. Two climbers have made it through to the South Col, but the sherpas on the camp below seem reluctant to follow, and Hillary persuades Hunt to let himself and Tenzing lead a vital load carry-up to the Col. They arrive at Camp VII, and lead off by example with Hillary cutting a broad swathe through the ice. Thirteen sherpas follow with loads that stock the Col and pave the way for the first British summit team, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans.

Venturing out from the South Col at seven in the morning, the first British summit duo reach the 8,751 metre South Summit of Everest at one on 26 May – higher than anyone had been before. The two British mountaineers look along the brittle ridge leading to the true summit, study the high rock step just a few hundred metres distant, measure their oxygen, don’t like the maths, and descend. Exhausted, they slip and tumble down a snowy couloir, stagger back to the Col, and even as they move back down to a lower camp after a day’s rest, they and their support team are reeling and fainting in the snow.

The tents are beaten up by high winds on the South Col – the so-called Roar of a Thousand Tigers – and a bone-cold Hillary comes as close then as he ever does to questioning the worth of it all. Lowe, Sherpa Ang Nyima and Alf Gregory are with them, and it’s this team of three that finally goes ahead of the summit duo to establish a dump at 8,500 metres. It’s still a desperate enterprise though, since because of sherpa sickness Hillary, supposedly husbanding his strength, must shoulder a load heavier than any of them, and follow on up. He and Tenzing tent for a night at 8,500 metres – Hillary doing intricate calculations about rates of oxygen usage – and set off for the summit at six-thirty next morning.

At nine they reach the same South Summit as Bourdillon and Evans. The fragile, corniced ridge stretches away in front. Aside from the drag of altitude, the step cutting, and thousands of metres of exposure either side, the major problem now is the 17.4 metre rock of what will become known as the Hillary step. The New Zealander reaches it, crampons up a crack between the rock and an icy cornice, then brings Tenzing up on a tight rope. The rest is a trudge into history.

Since then more than 1000 climbers have summited Everest, pioneering 15 new routes. Eighty-five climbers have summited without oxygen, the first and best-known, Reinhold Messner, with Peter Habeler in 1978, who two years later, eschewing staging camps and oxygen, and humping a one-man tent, did a solo dash to the summit. More sadly, 171 climbers have died, including on 9 May 1996, in a ferocious storm, our own Rob Hall, Andy Harris and six others.

Everest – Reflections from the Top is a record of comments from 121 climbers who’ve summited, including New Zealand’s Lydia Bradey, Guy Cotter and Peter Hillary. It’s a good book to flick through. Reaching the summit is obviously a defining event, but the book has an unconscious subtext too – you bring to a place, be it even the world’s highest summit, no more than what you are. In Reinhold Messner’s case, that is something close to oblivion: “I am nothing more than a single, narrow, gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits.” For some it’s more conventionally spiritual. For some it’s simply serious fun; Australian summiters tend to dispense with the spiritual altogether in favour of getting back down for a beer.

But back to Hillary. In View from the Summit, again a re-issue of an autobiography first published in 1999, Hillary recaps the Everest assault, then gets on with his adventurous life. He writes of subsequent near-death blackouts and hallucinations in the Himalayas from cerebral oedema, and there’s a great account of the famous depot-establishing enterprise in Antarctica in 1956-58, in support of Dr Vivian “Bunny” Fuch’s cross-Antarctica expedition. Hillary’s base-laying support expedition morphed, as every New Zealander knows, into the New Zealander’s stubborn decision to go beyond his brief and drive his three Ferguson farm tractors to the South Pole – the first land vehicles to do so.

There is tragedy, with the loss of his wife Louise and daughter Belinda in the 1975 plane crash coming out of Kathmandu, emptiness, loss, years of depression. Through all of that, his determination to continue what was already a 15-year enterprise to benefit the sherpas does not waver. Right through to the present he, and those associated with his Himalayan Trust, have built 27 schools, two hospitals and 12 medical centres in remote areas of Nepal. His solace beyond the tragedy was June Mulgrew, a long-time friend who lost her husband Peter Mulgrew in the Erebus crash of 1979. In 1984, Labour Prime Minister David Lange appointed Hillary High Commissioner to India, and June went with him, becoming his wife in 1989.

Everest changes everyone, and it changed Ed into New Zealand’s best-loved hero. But it took more than that to give him his special place. His story has archetypal elements. The ugly duckling thing – the young Ed made ashamed of his wretched rib-struck body. The little red hen thing – Ed particularly enjoys recalling any incident where it’s him doing the work while various others skive off. There’s also the trad Kiwi characteristics – the modesty, the bottled emotion, the shyness with women, the egalitarian spirit.

Also some things that are unique: in 1948 the sheer strength as Ed holds out his hand above a 1000 metre drop on Mt Cook’s South Ridge, and the legendary Harry Ayres steps up to reach a difficult rock hold and continue their first ascent by that route. That same awesome strength is acknowledged by any fellow climber who watched him cut those huge and relentless bucket steps in the ice and gasping atmospheres over 20,000 feet up in the Himalayas.

A frequently unstated but powerful part of the story too is its satisfying colonial cheek. The 1953 British assault on Everest was a team effort, and without it Ed would never have summited. But it’s also true that without him, in concert with George Lowe and Tenzing, the British team would probably not have made it. And that surpassing of the Poms happened twice, the second time when his three faintly ludicrous farm tractors pipped at least one of the goals of the full-scale Sno-Cat military-style trans-Antarctic British expedition.

Like all the best fairy stories too, Ed’s life has within it an astonishing transformation. A beekeeper from Papakura became a British KBE, was admitted to the select Order of New Zealand, then in 1997 was knighted. That highest of British honours makes necessary a coat of arms, and perhaps Ed went into heraldic design in the same slightly clownish way that his own down-under society displayed later, when its vast Everest cake struck such a casual balance between reverence and absurdity. The newly plumed and gartered Sir Ed invoked as heraldic representation of his life iconic prayer wheels on a shield, solemn penguins standing at attention either side, and above it all the kiwi rampant, holding an ice axe in the dexter foot.

Remember, it seemed to say, that life is fun – but earnest too. Beneath all the heraldry was the legend that described Hillary’s own extraordinary determination, and his continuing inspiration to New Zealanders: Nothing venture, nothing win.

 

Geoff Chapple’s Te Araroa: The New Zealand Trail won the Environment section of this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards and was reviewed in the August 2003 issue.

 

 

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Posted in Autobiography, Biography, Children, History, Memoir, Non-fiction and Review
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