Once were mountaineers, Julia Millen

The Mantis
Philip Temple
$8.00, Vertebrate Publishing e-book,
ISBN 9781906148881

Among Secret Beauties: A Memoir of Mountaineering in New Zealand and the Himalayas
Brian Wilkins
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877578489

Old climbers and bold climbers, but no old bold climbers: a common saying in alpine circles. Two works by no longer bold New Zealand mountaineers tell everything you ever wanted to know – or didn’t – about climbing expeditions. Despite their different careers – Philip Temple as an acclaimed writer, Brian Wilkins as a scientist, teacher and singer – both authors have accumulated life-long experiences on snow, rock and ice. Now, they have packed into these works every hazard and impasse, the boredom, the squalor, the magic and exhilaration, the excruciating physical and mental suffering.

Wilkins’s book fits the Oxford Dictionary definition and is designed for those who prefer traditional reading matter. Unfortunately, the high gloss pages are so shiny one almost needs sunglasses to prevent a migraine headache from the glare. Temple’s e-novel brings another sort of headache: coping with new technology. Going to bed with a Kindle doesn’t seem cosy, like taking a book – and don’t try reading it in the bath.

The Mantis is a fictional account of one epic and ultimately doomed Himalayan expedition to the “last great mountain challenge”: the Pakistanis call it Puthemojar, or Praying Mantis. As the novel progresses, “praying” mutates into “preying” – the mountain waiting to pounce – and becomes one of numerous metaphors in Temple’s narrative. Unlike past expeditions that approached a mountain like the vast, military campaign so brilliantly parodied in The Ascent of Rum Doodle, the six Mantis climbers proceed “alpine style”. They are a disparate group: Geoff, older, renowned and distinguished; three experienced and well-regarded climbers; two young chaps (one a Kiwi), thrilled to be climbing with the great.

Temple’s day-by-day diary structure provides narrative coherence and is at the same time a dramatic device, building tension towards a deadline: the date when the climbers must complete – or abandon – their objective. Success depends not only on strength, ability and luck with snow conditions and the weather, but on absolute loyalty and trust. Yet, almost from the moment they leave base camp, personality clashes are apparent.

Geoff, whose reputation has raised most of the sponsorship money, has suffered personal tragedy, is feeling the altitude, and is grumpy and intolerant. By midway through the relentless timeframe, the atmosphere in tents or snow cave shelters is filled not so much with camaraderie, as the stench of bad food, gas and fart fumes, strong tobacco, and mainly with animosity. On the mountain, climbers encounter every possible hazard: injury from falling rock, altitude sickness, cramp, piles and dysentery, loss of jumars and an ice axe. A final catastrophe – the avalanche which sweeps climbers into a crevasse – creates a moral dilemma of Everest proportions.

Musings of home and family provide relief and round out characters, but are not entirely convincing, and the numerous trite homilies and sayings, though typical of climbers, become irritating. A compelling read, Temple’s tour de force will appeal strongly to a male readership – especially those who have “been high”.

Parallels are observable between Temple’s fictitious account and Wilkins’s factual mountaineering adventures. In the Barun Valley of the Himalayas, Wilkins and his companion Jim McFarlane fall into a crevasse. So begins Among Secret Beauties, recounting near disaster on the 1954 New Zealand Alpine Club expedition led by none other than Edmund Hillary. Wilkins, in an epic two-hour ordeal, climbs the 60 feet to the glacier surface and returns to camp with the bad tidings: Jim is seriously injured in a deep crevasse. Hillary and four Sherpas set off to rescue him. During the following dramatic events, Hillary, already suffering from the altitude, cracks three ribs. Two weeks later he is vomiting, desperately weak and, near death, carried out on a stretcher. Expedition objectives are revised; despite setbacks,   though, much is achieved.

Hillary recounted this episode in East of Everest, while other expedition members wrote memoirs and reports for the New Zealand Alpine Club. Some, like that of George Lowe and Charles Evans, were, according to Wilkins, biased and inaccurate. Furthermore, the New Zealand Alpine Club 1991 centennial publication failed to include any reference to the 1954 Himalayan expedition. Looking back 60 years, with most of the major figures now gone, one of Wilkins’s aims is to set the record straight with a detailed account, including excellent photos and maps. Hillary – at 35 an Everest legend – attracted publicity and sponsorship, but Wilkins highlights the mismatch between intentions and outcomes: “I believe basic strategic mistakes were made in the planning stage by Hillary, Lowe and Evans, the only members of our party who knew the area.”

Besides describing notable New Zealand climbs, in this rather oddly structured memoir, Wilkins adds a short chapter covering his early life. Brought up in Mosgiel by his widowed mother (Wilkins senior was killed in a motor accident), he writes about his Catholic education, adding that “the mountains owned my summer holidays.” Of interest are Wilkins’s successes in singing competitions, on radio and as a finalist in the 1957 Mobil Song Quest. He avoids describing his married life, beyond remarking that climbing risks are “incompatible with marriage and family”.

Even apart from the physical hardship and hazardous nature of mountaineering, the works of both Temple and Wilkins highlight the way personality and politics create conflicting goals: winning, losing and – the unthinkable. Failure to achieve objectives may mean loss of sponsorship, or income in the case of commercialised climbing. Wilkins notes the “natural conflict between pressing on to grasp prizes such as those which were almost within reach above us, and the sharing of the mundane work of bringing up supplies.” Unforgiveable to Wilkins is the moral failure, as highlighted in recent years on Everest, to assist dying climbers who might otherwise be saved.

“Why climb this mountain?” In The Mantis we find a different answer to that of George Mallory: “Because there is nothing there.”


Julia Millen is the biographer of Ronald Hugh Morrieson and a director of Writes Hill Press.



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