“We even wept a little”, Philip Temple

View From The Summit
Sir Edmund Hillary
Doubleday, $59.95,
ISBN 0 908821 09 3

This is a book by a man’s man, the kind of Kiwi male whom R A K Mason saw as the “embodiment of the New Zealand working class … tall, rangy, quiet, unemotional, direct”. There is also a strand of John Mulgan’s Johnson in Ed Hillary, a socially inept loner who found in mountains both refuge and self-definition. The key moment for Hillary was his solo winter ascent of Tapuaenuku in 1944, made within only three days’ leave from air force training. From this he gained self-confidence and confirmation of the value of stubborn determination and endurance in meeting physical challenges. The mantra of “challenge and achievement” has been a kind of spiritual sponsor in the career of someone who has also been as lucky as one of Napoleon’s best marshals, and who knew what to do when he found himself in the right place at the right time on Everest or heading for the South Pole.

Hillary has borne well his burden of accolades. Thinking about his 80th birthday party at Government House, he considered the kind of tributes he continues to receive for
his successful adventures, and his splendid humanitarian work for the Sherpas, as “all bullshit”. But surely he has grown to understand the mythic role he plays in our national psyche; our need for the reassurance he gives us that, despite the moral and physical pollution of the world about us, we are all good blokes at heart; that a simple, no-nonsense approach to life will see us through, even to the top of the world, and we’ll all be right as rain in the end. And “blokes” is the word because there are few sheilas in this alpine All Black story and not too much rumination over what it has all been about, beyond the challenge and the achievement.

Self-effacing and artless as Ed Hillary reveals himself to be, he is, nevertheless, conscious of being the hero of his own story. Memory’s not so reliable, as we know, and in what is almost certainly his last word, a little more reflection would have been useful. Hillary is endearingly open about his feelings at various important moments of his life but he takes little time to examine them or, often, the consequences of his actions. One of his guiding aphorisms might have been, “Just DO it.”  To date, the media at large have co-operated with this limited analysis of the life of our national hero, including the recent TV hagiography. Myth-making, rather than myth-breaking, is a safer and more rewarding road to take in our relentless desire to feel good about ourselves. But what no-one has noticed is that Hillary is big enough to handle some analysis; not only to get beneath the “bullshit” but also to test the foundations of the myth.

Ed Hillary gives credit to the crucial help some fellow climbers gave him early in his career, such as George Lowe and Harry Ayres, but bears a lasting grudge towards Wellington climber Earle Riddiford. Riddiford has been dead a dozen years but clearly this intellectual and rather weedy lawyer from a pioneer landed family got right up our no-nonsense, egalitarian hero’s nose. These things happen on climbing expeditions, but why Riddiford cannot be given his due half a century later is a mystery. As Hillary admits, he has “not always been thoughtful and kind” and, since Riddiford’s contribution towards Hillary reaching Everest was important, the record needs straightening a little.

Riddiford was one of a group of Canterbury University students who turned themselves into top climbers soon after the war. Riddiford was the one who lifted their ambitions towards new routes on New Zealand’s high peaks, and then the Himalayas. The first New Zealand Himalayan expedition in 1951, which included Hillary and Lowe, was largely organised by Riddiford.

On this expedition, Riddiford climbed their main objective, Mukut Parbat; Hillary and Lowe did not. When two of the expedition were invited to take part in Eric Shipton’s British reconnaissance of Everest, all agreed that Hillary should go, as the fittest and strongest. The wrangling became unpleasant about second place. Hillary supported Lowe, but Riddiford insisted he go himself since he had put more money into the expedition and done most of the organising. The decision was just. Lowe had his chance with Hillary in 1952 when a British expedition attempted Cho Oyu in preparation for Everest in 1953; and then on the big one itself. Riddiford, in England, completely organised the Cho Oyu expedition on Shipton’s behalf. On that trip, never physically strong, he badly injured his back and left the mountain scene. But Riddiford’s contribution to Hillary’s place on Everest was seminal.

Long-distance memory has also proved treacherous in Hillary’s recollection of leader John Hunt’s decisions about the final assaults on Everest. Early in this book, Hillary describes seeing the “first assault party of Evans and Bourdillon” approaching the South Summit. Later he insists that the terms “first assault” for this and “second assault” “were completely misleading”, and that Hunt always intended that the “final summit assault would be the responsibility of Tenzing and myself”.  Hunt, Evans and Bourdillon are all dead now but other surviving members of the expedition consider that the attempt by Evans and Bourdillon was a serious first assault from the South Col using closed circuit oxygen; if that failed, the second assault was to be by Hillary and Tenzing using open circuit oxygen from a higher camp.

Everest was the first and last time Hillary went really high. In 1954, during an attempt to rescue Southlander Jim McFarlane, who had fallen down a crevasse, Hillary broke ribs. Before he was mended, Hillary writes, “I made the unbelievably stupid decision to push on”. He collapsed at 22,000 feet on Makalu, requiring the other expedition members to put all their energies into his rescue. This happened again – on the same mountain and at the same height – in 1961; and again on Akash Parbat at 18,000 feet at the end of the Ganges jetboat expedition in 1977; and yet again on the American Kangshung Face expedition of 1981. There is an enduring doggedness, even recklessness, about all this which is both a key factor in Hillary’s success and explains his numerous near-disasters. The final push to the South Pole, arriving with half a drum of petrol to spare and made despite the reluctance of most of his colleagues, could have easily ended in embarrassing failure.

View From The Summit is a good read, provided you don’t mind becoming bogged down occasionally in soft snow, seracs and sastrugi, in a kind of alliterative trudge that makes sure you have a sense of being there. Much of the story has been told before, especially in Nothing Venture, Nothing Win (1975), but in the new book, as well as covering events of the past 20-odd years, Hillary has chosen different emphases from his adventurous career. For example, the earlier book had an extended chapter on climbing in the European Alps and nothing on the 1952
Cho Oyu expedition whereas the new book drastically reduces the former and devotes a whole chapter to the considerable exploits of 1952. If Hillary had chosen to give a fully detailed and definitive account of his life and career, then View From The Summit could have been twice as long.

The new book is more open about his personal and domestic life though Hillary reveals the emotional inarticulateness of his generation of Kiwi males and how this impinged on son Peter and daughter Sarah after the death of his wife Louise and daughter Belinda in the 1975 Kathmandu plane crash. Sarah wrote: “In our family the people who would have dealt with an accident much better died. Those left couldn’t really cope very well”. Months passed before Hillary was able to fully admit his grief to a close friend: “Then the dam burst – we drank and talked and I’m ashamed to say we even wept a little”.

In 1999, the word “ashamed” in this context is almost shocking, and Ed Hillary is a figure in whom the lately feminised may find little example. But he represents robust masculine values, limned by a puritan ethic, softened by an ingenuous generosity, which we could not have done without. Nor the Sherpa people, whose description of him as “our father and our mother” pays ultimate homage. It was safe, a long time ago, to put him on our five-dollar note, because his image is one we have always been able to trust, and if the myth has inevitably become rather greater than the man, then it is neither his fault nor a bad thing. It is a matter for regret that as the 20th century ends, the Governor-General’s birthday bash and the publication of this book mean we must begin to say goodbye to all that.

Philip Temple is a Dunedin writer.

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