Monday, January 14, 2008

Remembering Edmund Hillary

A long time ago, when I was young and working for The Statesman in Calcutta, the chaprassi came one afternoon with a message from my boss, Desmond Doig. Would I be free to go the Calcutta Swim Club to meet a visiting New Zealander? Such requests usually meant I had to churn out a quick "On The Spot" column, telling of some interesting personality passing through the city: Shirley Maclaine who had adopted an orphanage outside Calcutta; the editor of Time; a Prince something-or-other from Britain. Half expecting the New Zealander to be Edmund Hillary, with whom Desmond had once gone on a hunt for the Yeti, the abominable snowman of the Himalayas, I got out my notebook and went down to the parking lot. But it was not Hillary On The Spot but Mike Gill, his friend. Gill was in Calcutta preparing for a jet boat expedition down the Ganges from its high Himalayan torrents to the broad estuary of the Sunderbans. I was being asked to the Club because he wanted to assess my swimming skills; the expedition might want to take a reporter along. "Where did you learn to swim?" he asked after I had done a couple of laps. "A pool" was the wrong answer. "Swimming in a river is ..." his voice trailed away.

One heard a lot about Hillary in Doig's circle. Dean Gaspar had been introduced to Hillary at Doig's apartment right after the 1953 climbing of Everest. "I wanted to make an impression" he recalled dolefully; "I'd looked up all the Press clips, and found out he ran a beekeeping business. So I got this book on beekeeping out of the library and read up on it, thinking I 'd have something intelligent to say when we met. So when we were introduced, I stuck out my hand and said how pleased I was to meet someone who knew all about the bees and the birds. It was meant to be funny, but he must have thought I was insulting him, for he dropped my hand, gave me a look, and cut me dead for the rest of the evening." Joy Watkin had had an equally unpleasant run in with him. "Beastly man"she said, refusing to elaborate; "huge ego." Someone else thought Hillary was a "regular pill." But Doig liked him. "Once you get to know him, he's fine," he said defensively. They had coauthored a book on the fruitless search for the Yeti: High In the Thin, Cold Air. It was clear Doig had written the book, for it is a fine piece of writing compared with Hillary's other works, which are, to put it kindly, uninspired. "If he's such a nice guy, how did he end up with rights to the book" Joy wanted to know.

Hillary's obituaries have all mentioned that he and Tenzing Norgay remained lifelong "friends." That is a stretch. In his 1975 autobiography Nothing Venture, Nothing Gained, Tenzing is mentioned only in the account of the climb, and not included in the list of friends noted on the final page of the book: those without whom, Hillary declared "I would have been nothing." The first time Tenzing is mentioned in the book, Hillary noted his positive aspects: "larger than most Sherpas .. very strong and active ... flashing smile ... incredibly patient and obliging... great physical confidence." Then came this: "he expected to be a member of the final assault party on Everest as he had been with both the Swiss expeditions although neither John Hunt nor any of the rest of us took this for granted,.I didn't have much to do with Tenzing on the march in, he was very busy with the many responsibilities of a sirdar (foreman) and we had a very large group of Sherpas and porters to be organized, but I was impressed with his competence and pleasantness, although I can't say I rated him more highly as a sirdar than some of the other famous Sherpas I had met. He was very kind hearted and at times went too much out of his way to do things for his friends and relations. One message came through, however, in very positive fashion -- Tenzing had substantially greater personal ambition than any Sherpa I had met ... Tenzing would be keen to see us successful, that I felt sure; not that he had any particular liking for the British, but because this would mean that he too would be successful."

During the arduous preparations to scale the summit Tenzing saved Hillary's life. This is how it was recorded in his diary: "Tenzing and I left Camp II with a great rush which was suddenly checked when under the weight of a hearty jump from me a large ice block sheared off and and descended with me down a crevasse. Only lively work with my flailing crampons and a fortunately quick rope from Tenzing stopped an unfortunate experience. We continued to Base in 55 minutes. Tenzing is an admirable companion -- fit, energetic, capable and with excellent rope technique."

It was then, Hillary wrote in his autobiography two decades later, that he "had the germ of an idea that I might team with Tenzing as much as possible. My natural inclination was to climb with George Lowe but John Hunt was definitely opposed to this -- he preferred to share our vigorous New Zealand icemanship around the team. If George and I had not been so separated we might well have ended up on the summit together." That bit of speculation ignores the fact that when John Hunt paired Hillary and Tenzing for the attempt at the summit, the latter was by far the more experienced mountaineer. Tenzing had been part of six expeditions to Everest over a period of more than two decades, and on each he had been a member of the summit team. Hillary was in his second year of climbing in the Himalayas, and knew nothing of the rigors of going five miles straight up. Without Tenzing as partner it is quite likely that he would not have succeeded; especially in partnership with another equally untried climber.

It is interesting that Hillary -- and every obit that I have read in recent days -- mentions his nationality, but not that of Tenzing. The few who do mention Tenzing's nationality, including the BBC and Wikipedia, make him a Nepali. In fact, Tenzing was born in Tibet, lived with his itinerant yak-herder father in the Khumbu valley near Everest in Nepal till he was in his teens, ran away to Darjeeling in India when he was 19, and lived there till his death at 71. The only passport he ever had was Indian.

Also notable is the difference in attitude of the two men towards the mountain they had climbed. Tenzing left a reverential offering of food at the top of Chomolungma (Mother of the World) and offered up a prayer thanking her for letting him reach the summit. Hillary "left a crucifix for John Hunt" (the leader of the expedition), and his first words to friend George, who greeted the returning pair at camp was "Well, we knocked the bastard off!"

As the victorious team made its way towards Kathmandu, there were, as Hillary recorded in his autobiography, "a few signs of discord." John Hunt "was asked by elated Indian Press men for his assessment of Tenzing as a climber and cautiously commented that 'Tenzing was a competent climber within the limits of his experience,' which I imagine was probably true of all of us but could hardly be called an enthusiastic endorsement. It was not well received by the Indian Press -- and I don't blame them too much for that." As the team approached Kathmandu valley, there was great excitement; it "had been reported that Tenzing had reached the summit first." Exuberant and noisy throngs surrounded the jeep carrying Tenzing (standing up in front) and Hillary and Hunt crammed into the back seat. The streets of every village they passed was festooned with banners. Hillary noticed that "one banner was much more common than any other -- it depicted a mountain with a man on the summit, waving the Nepali flag and a rope going down the mountainside to another climber who was resting on his back with arms and feet in the air." At the first big town along the road there was an official reception and the mountaineers were asked to speak; Tenzing first, followed by Hunt. Then an official invited "a few words from the second man on Everest." The scene was repeated at towns all along the approach to Kathmandu, and Hillary was "a little irritated at the succession of banners displaying my recumbent figure."

The years mellowed Hillary. In his autobiography he recalled his early resentment at the attention given to Tenzing and admitted it was "stupid."After his adventuring days were over -- climbing in the antarctic, the jet boat expedition down the Ganges -- he involved himself in helping the Sherpas with privately funded schools and wells. His image became one of a benefactor. After his wife and daughter were killed in an plane crash in Nepal, he became an object of general sympathy. "It's eerie" Desmond Doig recalled. "I had them in my apartment once when Hillary's plane from Kathmandu was reported lost. We sat around for hours, thinking he was dead, and then word came that the plane had landed and everyone was fine."

No comments: