How many of us knew that Edmund Hillary had written a novel called Call Not To the Gods under the nom de plume Gary Sankar about an expedition on Gauri Shankar that involved monks, memsahibs and mountaineers?
Or that when Hillary’s permit to climb Makalu in 1961 was cancelled because he made an unauthorised ascent of Ama Dablam, it was British writer Desmond Doig who negotiated with Prime Minister Tulsi Giri to get the permit reissued.
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The Pilatus Porter that crashed on takeoff from Kathmandu airport in 1975, killing Hillary’s wife Louise and their daughter Belinda, was piloted by Peter Shand, a New Zealand bush pilot who was hired by Royal Nepal Airlines even though he had lost his job in Africa for carelessness. Shand did not perform a pre-flight check, and forgot to remove the wooden aileron wedges before taking off for Phaplu that morning.
These and many other nuggets of new information are embedded in the 544 pages of Michael Gill’s carefully researched new book, Edmund Hillary: A Biography. As a friend and climbing partner, Gill had unprecedented access to archival material, private correspondence between Hillary and Louise and hitherto unpublished details about his life.
We know of Hillary’s mountaineering triumphs, his family tragedy and devotion to the development of Khumbu. But Gill fills in the blanks about what drove Hillary’s determination and ambition, the private details of his life, as well as how after climbing the world’s highest mountain, Hillary had to conquer his own personal Everests of grief and depression.
The book starts with a lengthy account of Hillary’s grandparents and his father’s war experience in the brutal battle of Gallipoli during the First World War, which turned him into a pacifist. When the next World War came around, Edmund Hillary himself became a conscientious objector, later changing his mind to serve as navigator on a Catalina amphibian aircraft in the South Pacific.
We discover how the challenging mountains of New Zealand’s South Island drew Hillary to climbing, and that his first trip to Mukut Parbat in Garhwal brought him to the notice of Eric Shipton and other legendary British explorers who then invited him to Cho Oyu in 1952 and Everest in 1953.
The account of the first ascent of Everest has been told and retold many times, but Gill delves into early expedition history and the critical role that bottled oxygen played. As a climber himself, he objectively explores the dynamics among members of the John Hunt expedition. The ascent was all the more remarkable because of the clunky and unreliable oxygen cylinders, inadequate clothing and rudimentary tents, compared to today’s space-age climbing paraphernalia.
We follow Hillary’s post-Everest trajectory, the South Pole (‘Where do you go after you have climbed Everest?’), Barun Valley, and jet boats on the Sun Kosi and the Ganges, as well as the Silver Hut expedition to research the impact on human physiology of prolonged exposure to high altitude. Here the book goes into first person, since Gill accompanied Hillary on those later expeditions.
Desmond Doig joins Hillary’s yeti-hunting expedition in the Rolwaling in 1973, where he imitated yeti mating calls and entered Beding announcing in Nepali that he would ‘pay for a yeti, dead or alive, or parts thereof’. But no luck.
Hillary overcomes personal tragedy by devoting his life to building schools, hospitals and airports in Solu Khumbu, and becomes New Zealand’s envoy to India and Nepal. In interviews before died, Hillary regretted building the airfield in Lukla and the mass tourism it brought to the region.
Edmund Hillary should not just be known as the first man to climb Mt Everest, he was a larger than life persona. In the words of James (later Jan) Morris, the correspondent from The Times who accompanied the first expedition in 1953, Everest was ‘…the last earthly adventure before humanity’s explorers went off into space’.
And that is worth pondering on the week of Hillary’s birth centenary, and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s first landing on the moon.