Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Life Is Meeting, by John Hunt

John Hunt, leader of the 1953 first ascent of Mount Everest, writes some chapters of autobiography in Life Is Meeting. Hunt focuses on his career and his climbing in this work, giving a brief look at many of the interesting parts of his life, including climbing and exploring in the Himalaya as a young man, his experiences in World War II, his several public service jobs after the war, and a number of climbs (including Everest) around the globe. For the Everest reader, John Hunt seems to appear from nowhere in 1952 to take over the reigns of the Everest expedition. I appreciated reading his early history, including an ambitious attempt on Peak 36 (25,400) in the Karakorum in 1935 and ascents of several lesser peaks in Sikkim before the war. His 1935 climb earned him an invitation onto the 1936 Everest expedition, but a heart murmur convinced doctors that he was not fit to climb stairs. (What's with these Everest doctors, anyway???) For part of the war, he served with Frank Smythe, instructing troops in mountain warfare. (Hunt added the military flavor back into Smythe's hill wanderings.) After the war, several good climbs in the Alps with a member of the Everest committee convinced the member to recommend him for a leadership role in the upcoming climb. Hunt was quite embarrassed, however, when he found out that he had replaced Eric Shipton as leader, especially when he found out how it came to pass.

Hunt writes a chapter on Everest in which he comments on the expedition and talks about the reunions and expedition members. He is still impressed by the cohesion of the team, even well after the climb. He comments on his book title, The Ascent of Everest, mentioning that like Bonington's Everest: The Hard Way, it supposes that it would be the only climb (or hardest) of the mountain. He backs up his choice of Hillary and Tenzing for the summit climb, saying that they were the fittest pair on the mountain, and that it doesn't matter where they're from, the point was to put someone on top of the mountain. Also, he compliments Tenzing on his handling of the media circus and his eventual career at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.

I was impressed by how much Hunt climbed with his fellow Everesters after the ascent of Everest. He climbs in the Caucuses with George Band and Alfred Gregory, Greenland with George Lowe (who later becomes his son-in-law) and John Jackson (back-up climber for the expedition), the Pamirs with Lowe and Wilfrid Noyce (who perishes along with Robin Smith on the climb), and several Alpine climbs with a number of Everesters, including Ernst Reiss (Mein Weg als Bergsteiger) and Albert Eggler (The Everest-Lhotse Adventure).

His careers are varied, but always in the service of the public. He begins in the military, graduating with honors from Sandhurst, and working his way up the ranks to Colonel, working in the command center of the European Alliance after the war. He moves on to chair the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme, which encourages young people towards higher achievement and adventure. He also works as an adviser for the beginnings of the Parole Board in Britain, and later as an MP in the House of Lords. I was amazed to read his suggestion that it is time to move on from the hereditary House of Lords and replace it with a merit-based appointed Senate that oversee the editing of legislation that leaves the House of Commons.

This isn't a great biography, nor terribly exciting. I'd recommend it to Everest fans, especially those who'd like to know more about the mysterious new leader of the 1953 expedition. He does make several interesting travels, such as mountaineering in Greece and the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, that you're unlikely to read about anywhere else.

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