Tuesday, January 13, 2015

View from the Summit: The Remarkable Memoir by the First Person to Conquer EverestView from the Summit: The Remarkable Memoir by the First Person to Conquer Everest by Edmund Hillary
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"View from the Summit" is an autobiography of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person who, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, climbed Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth. I am not a climber as I suffer from vertigo and am unusually clumsy, yet I love reading mountaineering books. With my wife, we have hiked in the mountains a lot and one of our friends 30+ years ago in Poland was the famous woman climber Dobroslawa "Mrufka" Wolf (by coincidence born in the same year, 1953, that Hillary and Tenzing climbed Mount Everest), who perished on K-2 (the second highest peak on Earth) in the deadly summer of 1986.

The book begins with the description of the final phases of the climb to the summit of Mount Everest. The prose is vivid and so much more interesting than the dry and almost impersonal telling of the same story by John Hunt, the talented organizer of the expedition, in his 1954 book "The Conquest of Everest". Hillary describes the horror of sleepless nights on the South Col (elevation of 7,986 meters, i.e., over 26,000 feet), at about -30 degrees Celsius, ravaged by extremely strong winds.

In fact, Hillary and Tenzing were the backup summit team. The first team, composed of Evans and Bourdillon, had to turn back about 300 feet from the summit because of defects in their primitive oxygen equipment. There was a lot of tension at the elevation of over 26,000 feet when some climbers had to go down when others were allowed to go up. There comes the crucial point of the entire expedition. Hillary carries a 60-pound backpack at 8500 meters (27,887 feet) at -27 degrees Celsius. He and Tenzing reach the South Summit and encounter a 12-meter tall extremely difficult rock wall, which requires vertical climbing. Hillary manages to conquer it (the wall has since then been known as "Hillary's Step"), and from there the way to the actual summit (8,848 m, 29,029 feet) is pretty easy. They reach the summit on 5/29/1953 at 11:30. In a funny coincidence, the news reaches the United Kingdom on exactly the coronation day of Queen Elizabeth II, June 2nd, 1953 (no internet or cell phones at that time; news took days to travel from Asia to Europe).

The main part of the book is the actual autobiography; Hillary describes his youth in New Zealand, where he helps his father in the bee-keeping business (consisting of 1600 beehives). serves in the Air Force, and having discovered his mountaineering skills, he climbs in Alps and Himalayas. After the conquest of Mount Everest, his expedition fails to conquer Makalu, the fifth highest peak on Earth (By the way, my friend and colleague from work, Jan Wolf, the husband of Dobroslawa, whom I mention in the first paragraph, participated in Polish expedition on Makalu in 1978; he also died in the mountains many years later.) After the Makalu attempt, Sir Hillary is involved in various adventures often connected with scientific explorations. He wins the so-called "Race for the Pole", when the British and New Zealand teams race to get to the South Pole from opposite "ends" of the Antarctica. He also participates in a search for Yeti, and proves that the existence of this creature is just a myth. In the 1980s, Hillary even becomes a diplomat, the High Commissioner of New Zealand to India.

Sir Hillary's most important contribution to humankind is certainly not his first ascent of Mount Everest or winning the race to the South Pole. Thanks to his fame and ability to attract financial contributions, he established the "Himalayan Trust" to help Sherpas and Nepalese people in general. The fund allowed him to build 27 schools, two hospitals, 12 outpatient clinics, many bridges, and renovate several monasteries. Hillary was also active in environmental issues, and spearheaded reforestation of areas destroyed by climbers and tourists.

Hillary, born in 1919, was given to live until 2008. This 1999 book is terrifically interesting, and the author is refreshingly honest about himself and others. It is not high literature, but a really good adventure book. It shows an ambitious, often stubborn, yet good-hearted man who begins life with an extremely strong drive for adventure, but gradually realizes that the meaning of life is to help other people.

Three stars.

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