Tuesday, June 5, 2012

From Everest to the South Pole, by George Lowe

Take the opportunity to read about the other New Zealander who climbed to the highest reaches of Everest in 1953 and reached the South Pole in January 1958, George Lowe, in his From Everest to the South Pole. I've been interested in the life of the other guy, who climbed with Hillary from the beginnings of their climbing careers and supported him all the way to Camp XI on the Southeast Ridge of Mount Everest, who seems to have equaled Hillary in fitness, but didn't make quite as much of a show of his ambitions during their historic climb. In his book, Lowe admits to my suspicions that they climbed more-or-less as equals until Everest (with Lowe actually doing more of the leading on their climbs in New Zealand), and that it was the Everest climb in which Hillary stepped up to his full potential. Whereas I'm a bit suspect of other climbers saying that it could have been them on May 29, 1953, I don't have any doubt that Lowe could have filled Hillary's shoes on the summit climb, as he spends four days on or above the South Col, including humping a heavy load to the final camp and remaining below in support. (I doubt, however, that Lowe could have equaled Hillary's charm and good humor after the climb in the face of so much publicity.)

Lowe provides a unique perspective on the Everest climb and Hillary. He admits that there was quite a bit of contention among the climbers of New Zealand Himalayan Expedition in 1951 after the arrival of Eric Shipton's telegram inviting two of them to join the Everest reconnaissance, with Lowe firmly stating that his lack of money should not discount his ability to participate. Riddiford, as the nominal leader, and Hillary, who could pay his own way ended up joining Shipton. Lowe discusses some of his and Hillary's climbs in New Zealand, including their ascent of Elie de Beaumont, a difficult and inaccessible peak. Lowe makes his fellow climbers seem a little more human than other writers, recounting Hunt's crying at the thoughtfulness of a fellow climber and Tenzing's only half-hidden ambition to make it to the summit. He seems a bit more truthful about the functioning of the oxygen sets, with both his and Tenzing's failing in their first test, and their giving trouble during the ascent of the Lhotse Face.

Most of the book recounts his trip to the South Pole alongside Vivian "Bunny" Fuchs, as it was a three-year, rather than a three-month, adventure. I had never really known anything about this trip beyond the information I've gleaned from Edmund Hillary's many biographies, with Hillary filling a supporting role, but then racing off to the Pole. Lowe was the official photographer for the main party, making the full crossing of Antarctica with three cameras strapped to his body. He dispels the myth of the "race" to the Pole, stating that Hillary made his trip to the Pole useful to the main party by charting out a safe route, and that Hillary did it out of a great sense of fun, rather than any sort of ambition to be first. Lowe's own experiences are varied and entertaining, learning to drive a Weasel while photographing the expedition or reading War and Peace, taking over a team of dogs for three days, and regretting his decision to have a Sno-Cat drive over him for a good shot.

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