Thursday, April 28, 2011

High Adventure, by Sir Edmund Hillary

Sir Edmund Hillary turns from a passionate, but unknown, amateur climber into the world's most famous mountaineer in his High Adventure. The book isn't so much an autobiography as a directed tale of how his first trip to the Himalaya, along with some New Zealand climbing friends, cascaded into his climbing Mount Everest as part of the British expedition. He gives a short introduction to his early life and tells a few details about his New Zealand Mukesh Parbat expedition before leading into his and Riddiford's joining Eric Shipton's 1951 reconnaissance of the southern approach to Mount Everest. Riddiford had sent Shipton a letter requesting that some of his team be able to join the reconnaissance, and Shipton, having pleasant memories of New Zealander Dan Bryant from his 1935 Everest post-monsoon reconnaissance, invited two of them along so long as they could catch up and pay for their own food.

The climbers and their porters had a very difficult trip through Nepal during the monsoon. Normally, the locals don't travel during this time, because the rivers flood, washing away bridges and making crossings perilous. Additionally, the leeches were out in force. After they reached Sherpa country, the weather dried a bit, and they got down to the difficult task of climbing into and assessing the Khumbu Icefall at Everest's southwest flank. In September, the snow was deep and unconsolidated, so after an initial attempt, the expedition split into two parties to do some exploration while the weather cooled and the snow hardened. Shipton took Hillary with him to explore the eastern approaches to Everest, while the other party (including Riddiford, Ward, and Bourdillon) looked over the west. On their return, the combined parties pushed through to the Western Cwm, and made the assessment that it was possible to climb Everest from this route. Hillary noted, however, that they would have to alter their threshold of acceptable danger, both for the climbers and the porters, if they were to spend any time on this route.

Shipton took a liking to Hillary during the reconnaissance, and he invited him back for the 1952 Cho Oyu training climb, along with Hillary's friend George Lowe. The Swiss had been granted permission for Everest in 1952, and the British, somewhat put off, took the opportunity to train on a high Himalayan peak in the vicinity. The Cho Oyu climb was overshadowed by the possibility of an altercation with Chinese communist forces, since the most feasible route up the mountain was beyond the Nangpa La on the Tibetan side. A small party, including Hillary, made a token effort on the route, but Shipton was unwilling to move the full expedition into Tibetan territory, and the climb was soon over. The expedition split up, and several groups made forays into unclimbed areas. Hillary and Lowe climbed the formidable Nup La beside Gyachung Kang and traveled over the Rongbuk glaciers to get a look at the old Everest stomping grounds, and then raced back before the monsoon made the Nup La unclimbable. He later accompanied Shipton to a high pass east of Everest looking into Tibet, completing three-quarters of a circuit of the mountain in a single season. (It would not be until 1981 that Ned Gillette and Jan Reynolds, in Everest Grand Circle, completed the first single-season circuit of the mountain, though they were not able to actually cross the border, but made two stages of their trip.)

Both Hillary and Lowe were invited to join the 1953 Everest expedition on account of their excellent performance on the previous trip in addition to the good impression they made on Eric Shipton. I learned from this book that Hillary's climbing mentor, Harry Ayres, was also originally invited on the climb, but somewhere along the way was dropped from the roles. Col. John Hunt took over leadership of the expedition after some back room dealing by the Himalayan Committee, though hindsight says that he did the job quite well. Hillary took a proactive role on the mountain, both showing off his drive and endurance and requesting to help as much as possible. I found it interesting that even though he was officially just a climber, he took part in the meeting along with Hunt and deputy leader Charles Evans in which they decided who would comprise the summit teams. Of course, Hillary's efforts paid off, and he and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to ascend the world's highest mountain.

Overall this is a fun read. It's a much more personal account than Hunt's official The Ascent of Everest, and my personal favorite of the 1953 books, though I haven't read Tenzing's Tiger of the Snows yet. I appreciated getting a singular perspective from someone who took part in all the climbing parts of the expedition, including the reconnaissance and the Cho Oyu climb, and from someone who played such a pivotal role on the eventual ascent.

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