Sunday, July 15, 2012

Nothing Venture, Nothing Win, by Sir Edmund Hillary

Edmund Hillary writes about his lifetime of adventures in Nothing Venture, Nothing Win. His book had fortuitous timing, as later the same year it was published, he lost his wife and one of his daughters in a plane crash in Nepal. He mentions in the book that if he died tomorrow, he would die a happy man---if he had only known what was in store for him, instead! The book catches him on a lifetime highpoint, as he had already climbed Everest, had a number of other adventures, begun his life of philanthropy, and settled into a comfortable family life. Nothing Venture is distinguished by its positive tone, its focus on the external life of Hillary, and his overall great fitness. His next autobiography (along with his son, Peter), Ascent, would turn these paragons on their head, with a introspective, sallow tone that spends much time on his physical decline and thoughts of his family. His final autobiography, View from the Summit, is the most balanced, and also the best representation of his life and work.

Nothing Venture does have its virtues, however. We get a number of details from his lesser adventures that are glossed over or missing from his other works, such as his detailed telling of his jet boating up the Sun Kosi River, his expedition to Mount Herschel in Antarctica, or his family road trip in Australia that turned into a grand adventure after too much rain. He gives a few more details about his Everest adventure, letting a couple skeletons out of the closet, noting Tenzing Norgay's ambition and mentioning his disappointment about not being able to climb with George Lowe. His first Himalayan adventure gets quite a bit of detail in this one (an ascent of Mukut Parbat, see also Lowe's From Everest to the South Pole); he even happens to mention that they were accompanied to the mountain by Keki Bunshah, who would later be the deputy leader for the first Indian Everest expedition (see Singh's The Lure of Everest). Hillary's South Pole adventure gets some explanation here, and he is a bit candid about his differences with Sir Vivian Fuchs, admitting that he (Hillary) was not a great leader for something so logistically complicated and a difficult deputy to handle.

His philanthropy doesn't get as much attention in the book as you might expect. Many of his works are detailed in other books, such as Schoolhouse in the Clouds or High in the Thin Cold Air, and he gives only short narratives of these. Nothing Venture discusses his work at Lukla quite a bit, as he realizes that this airstrip will perhaps have the biggest impact on the Khumbu of any of his projects, for better or worse. He writes about his hospital construction and several bridges that do not make it into earlier books, even mentioning the fundraising for his upcoming hospital project that would cost him half his family. He mentions his philanthropic and business connection to the United States; though initially he's not a fan of the place, he changes his mind after meeting everyday people on a grand road trip. He still worries about its consumer culture, though at the same time he evaluates and refines the camping goods line for Sears & Roebuck and helps World Book Encyclopedia expand its business to Australia.

This is a fun book, but not necessarily a great book. It represents the apogee of classic Hillary, as viewed in High Adventure, etc., as well as his first extended look back at his early life. I have to say that I like the much more human and wizened Hillary of later years, but I hate what he had to go through to get there! 

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