Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ascent, by Sir Edmund & Peter Hillary

A double autobiography sounded awfully suspect to me, but I think Sir Edmund and Peter Hillary's Ascent works. This is a bit of a strange book. It comes off a bit like a passing of the torch, with a depressed and aging Sir Edmund declining, and Peter continuing with adventures much like Sir Edmund's from his prime. Sir Edmund comes off much more human in this book than his earlier works; perhaps he is no longer keeping up appearances; his style is much more natural---more documentary, less stereotyped. Additionally, we get a literary introduction to his son, Peter, who has jumped headlong into the adventure lifestyle.

Ascent begins with the elder Hillary, and in a couple short chapters brings the reader up-to-date on his life up to the publishing of Nothing Venture, Nothing Win. Shortly thereafter, Hillary's wife, Louise, and daughter, Belinda, die in a plane crash in Kathmandu and Hillary's world is turned upside-down. After a serious fight with depression, Hillary has some minor adventures, and then heads up the Ganges in jet boats, making an unintentional Hindu pilgrimage from its mouth to Himalayan snows. On his team's trek to the top of a mountain at the Ganges headwaters, Sir Edmund falls unconscious from HACE. His team, including his son, drag him down the mountain in his sleeping bag to a helicopter rescue waiting below. His teammates soon after complete the trek without him. The Hillarys' Ganges trip is covered in much greater detail in Sir Edmund's From the Ocean to the Sky. After the Ganges trip, Sir Edmund tries his hand at movie-making, and then goes back to India for some serious tourist travel, his first such trip. In 1981, he is invited along as a Chairman Emeritus for the American Kangshung Face expedition. He, unfortunately gets severe altitude sickness even in base camp, and has to head down. The expedition is greeted by atrocious snow conditions after they scale an immense rock buttress that leads to the upper face, and calls it quits. The core of the group returns in 1983 to finish off the job.

Meanwhile, Peter Hillary is coming into his own. Peter begins his story with his childhood, and works his way to his young adulthood fairly quickly. He works at several passions at the same time to start, including climbing, flying, and skiing. Eventually, after gaining his commercial pilot's license and competing in ski racing, he makes up his mind to focus on climbing, at least in the short-term. He heads to New Zealand's Southern Alps, and works on progressively harder routes. He also completes the first ski descent of Mount Aspiring, an Ama Dablam-shaped snow spire. He heads to Ama Dablam for his first Himalayan foray, attempting the unclimbed West Face with a couple friends. An avalanche throws them off the mountain, and a friend dies and Peter gets serious injuries, including a broken arm, high on the mountain. After his descent and eventual recovery, he heads off to complete a traverse of the Himalayas from Kanchenjunga to K2. His narrative finishes with the tale of his difficult, but unsuccessful Lhotse climb, along with friends Fred From, Aid Burgess, and Paul Moores. They become inextricably tangled with the Canadian Everest Southeast Ridge expedition, covered in Al Burgess and Jim Palmer's Everest Canada. It was interesting to read about the Canadian Mountain Soap Opera from an outside perspective. It seems to me based on this book and others that Peter Hillary is always there when the poop hits the fan high in the mountains, but somehow is always the one to come home, including a tragic Everest West Ridge attempt, the 1995 K2 disaster, and other unfortunate climbs.

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