Climbing with Ed

“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”

BBC Television Newsroom, White City, London, United Kingdom:

Press Association Bulletin. RUSH. 28 November, 1979, 0930 hours
Slug: Commercial aircraft crash. Antarctica.
Air New Zealand Flight 901 is reported to have crashed while on a sight-seeing flight over the Antarctic. Early reports from United States rescue personnel based at McMurdo Sound indicate the McDonnell Douglas DC-10–30 collided into Mount Erebus on Ross Island, Antarctica, while at an altitude of approximately 1,500 feet. All 237 passengers and 20 crew on board are presumed dead. Among those missing is Peter Mulgrew, a member of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1957–58, who was acting as commentator on the flight.
More to follow.

We took an ancient bus to Kathmandhu. The road pulled hard east out of New Delhi, winding up and across the Uttar Pradesh to the border crossing at Raxaul. Chickens in slatted coops were tied to the top, along with boxes of all shapes and sizes and rolled up carpets and even several battered steamer trunks, rejected heirlooms from the Raj. One elderly man sat up there too, in his dhoti, clutching a black umbrella. After hundreds of miles through the rainy heat we grew accustomed to the staring. Suzy was quite afraid at first and you could see why. You would finally fall into a half-sleep and then a sudden jolt might abruptly wake you and the first thing you would see was a pair of brown eyes that would dart quickly away, only to return to stare a few seconds later. The air stank inside and outside the bus, an indigenous smell familiar to us after three months in India, an odor rich in an exotic Hindi essence of spices, incense, flower garlands, coconut oil, and also unwashed bodies, cow dung, gasoline fumes. We clung to our precious bottles of Coke and our oranges as the bus labored on.

The road was eerily empty of vehicles but an endless procession of people trudged along it like a disorganized rabble, peeling off hurriedly to either side as they heard our approach. Pack donkeys trudged along with them. Simple stands stood haphazardly just off the blacktop, each selling an identical array of fruit protected from the flies by a lazy whisk of horsehair. Occasionally we would pass a heavy wooden cart pulled by ponderous white oxen, grossly overladen and swaying from side to side as it lumbered along. We suddenly became aware that what little traffic there was had stopped completely. It was dusk on the second day out of New Delhi. As the bus crept forward a policeman was interviewing the driver of a small, dusty truck perched precariously on a steep overhang. It was difficult to see what had happened through the throngs of people but as we slowly edged forward we spotted some kind of bundle overshadowed by a wheel of the truck and then we saw a woman, struggling and pulling desperately against the grasp of another policeman, shrieking upwards to the gods that had without warning taken her young child from her. We had not been meant to witness this. We turned away without saying anything to each other and slowly fell back to fitful sleep against each other.

The first thing you noticed about Ed were the hands. They were the hands of a giant, and too many hard days in the freezing cold had marred the skin and rendered it tough and wrinkled, like animal hide. He sat upright in the little chair in the hotel bar — his back had bothered him since he drove a tractor into a crevasse while racing to the South Pole with Mulgrew and the others in 1958 — and having slurped the hot black tea with relish, he put down the tin mug and clasped the hands together carefully in his lap. He was weighing us up.

“So you’re from New Plymouth and you’re from Masterton,” he said. “I spent some time in New Plymouth when I was in the Air Force during the war. I studied navigation there. Used to climb Mount Egmont every bloody Sunday afternoon. How long have you both been traveling?”

We told him about the trip from Darwin to Bali on the cargo ship, how we’d moved on around to Singapore and up through Southeast Asia to India, about my sister and the orphanage in Calcutta, about the Kiwi we met who said he was heading for Nepal to help Ed Hillary build a school for the Sherpas, how we decided we’d like to spend a couple of weeks helping do that too. If he would like us to, that is.

It was in May of ’53 that Ed reached the summit of Mount Everest with the Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay. They were the first ever to make it. It was a month or so before his 34th birthday, he was the humble son of a Kiwi beekeeper, and as they made his way back down to base camp he had no earthly idea how much excitement and wonder their achievement had spawned. But overnight his name became one of the best known in the world. Everything he said would now be written down, dissected, taken very seriously. “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off,” he pronounced to his good friend and fellow Kiwi George Lowe when he came running up the slope from base camp to greet him. It was not the sort of mystical proclamation the world was expecting but it didn’t really matter — back then it was deemed too shocking a thing to say for publication anyway.

Unpopular and lonely at school, his independent spirit led to many rows with his father, who beat him often. Then, when he was just 16, Ed discovered the mountains on a school trip to Mount Ruapehu, in the middle of the North Island. He felt immediately at home, he realized right then that he would find both peace and purpose up high, going for a summit. He spent all his money and every spare moment on climbing. It helped that he was naturally very good at it.

At six feet five he was very tall. At first glance he appeared scrawny, but he was big-boned and very strong. His movement on the mountain was not so much graceful as unshakably assured and direct. He could acclimatize faster than anybody else to the thin air of high altitudes. His cheerful, cheeky New Zealand spirit was infectious, it spurred on his climbing companions. And above all he was relentlessly driven and determined, bursting with the demonic energy of someone desperate to prove his worth.

John Hunt, the army officer appointed by the British Himalayan Committee to lead the Everest expedition, originally wanted to drop Hillary and Lowe for climbers he knew better, but was persuaded in the end to include them. Ed set out to impress him. He led the first group up the Khumbu icefall — perhaps the most dangerous part of the entire climb — and established the highest base camp for the expedition, at 27,900 feet. As he picked his way up through the icefall he had a narrow escape when the ice gave way without warning and he plunged into a crevasse. Fortunately Tenzing, who was following, thrust his ice axe deep into the snow and whipped the rope around it in perfect belay. It tightened mere seconds before Ed crashed into the bottom of the crevasse. Tenzing had just saved his life.

Later, now inseparable on the mountain, he and Tenzing climbed with supplies from base camp to the highest camp and back again in a single day, a pointless effort except it showed everyone else that the pair of them were exceptionally skilled and fit.

The stratagem worked. Hunt did select them for the main attempt on the summit. They spent the night at the highest camp, staggered out of their threadbare tent at 4am with the jet stream howling and the temperature at -16 degrees, and began the assault. Then just below the summit they reached the moment of truth, a 40-feet, ice-covered rock face. They studied it carefully, quickly, aware that their meagre oxygen supply did not grant them time to hang around for long. Ed found a crack in the face and wriggled into it. He placed his back against one side of the crack and lifted his feet up against the other, and then slowly, foot by exhausting foot, he levered his body up the vertical wall of ice and out over the lip at the top. Hercules had come to the top of the world and while there, performed a feat that mortals can only shake their heads and marvel at, to this day.

Ed reached the summit first, as Tenzing later admitted in his autobiography. But Ed forever insisted the matter of who actually got to the top first was of no importance, that the achievement belonged equally to both of them. They spent just a quarter of an hour there, Ed burying a cross Hunt had given him, Tenzing anchoring prayer flags. There are no photographs of Ed on the summit, only photographs of Tenzing — who didn’t know how to use a camera. Ed didn’t think it was important to teach him right at that moment. “Having paid my respects to the highest mountain in the world,” he later wrote, “I had no choice but to urinate on it and begin the descent.”

Just a few months after he conquered the world’s tallest mountain he married his wife Louise, but there was no question of them settling into a quiet domestic life despite the three children who came quickly along. There was more climbing to do, more adventuring — and he had fallen in love with the people of Nepal. The Sherpas were tough and skillful climbers whose loyalty and bravery he greatly admired, but they lived in isolation and in abject poverty. “If you have plenty,” said Ed, in his matter-of-fact way, “and someone else has nothing, then you should do something about it.” So he formed The Himalayan Trust and dedicated himself to raising money to build schools and health clinics for his new friends.

This was the man we were facing at the table in the lobby of the little hotel in Kathmandu. “You’ve arrived just in time,” he said. “Over the next few weeks we’re putting a roof on our new hospital up at Phaplu. You’re farm kids, you’re probably good with a hammer.” He didn’t care at all that Suzy was a young woman. Why would that matter? She was an extra pair of hands, that would do.

The next day we loaded supplies and building materials into an old Bedford truck that would bounce and rattle us halfway to Phaplu. The few of us on the truck would then help carry the load in the rest of the way, deep into the peaks and deep valleys of Solukhumbu district, with the foreboding shape of Everest a constant presence in the distance. For three weeks we worked on the roof of that hospital, while at night we sat around the fire, eating bowls of daal bhaat and listening to Ed and his mates as they swapped yarns and laughed uproariously about their adventures. There was a swagger about him, but it faded slowly as the night wore on, for though he was sure of himself he was also shy, almost retiring. To say the Sherpas loved him is an understatement. They adored him, he was the Bara Sahib, the Big Man, every word he said was full of truth and wisdom.

This was before the separation, before the realization that once the distractions of the Kangaroo Trail had ended, there would be nothing else to keep Suzy and me together. We broke up later, in Baghdad. It was also just a month or so before Louise and Belinda Hillary, at 16 their youngest child, flew into Nepal from New Zealand to celebrate his birthday. Their little plane took off from Kathmandhu bound for Lukla and the airstrip Ed and his Sherpas had carved out of the side of the mountain to make it easier to bring in building supplies. Shortly after takeoff their plane lost power and nose-dived into the ground. They were killed instantly.

“Life’s a bit like mountaineering. Never look down.”

Ed said that, but it took him 10 long years to stop looking down, to recover from the tragedy. The scotch nearly got him, night after night he drank and drank to get to sleep. Once he was asked by a clueless BBC Television talk-show host how, after all his adventures, he thought he might die. “When I’m ready,” he said quietly, sitting up awkwardly in an armchair, “I’ll climb as high as I can now up my favorite mountain in Nepal and then, after a while, I’ll step off the bloody thing.” There was not a sound in the studio as the stunned audience regarded this giant of a man with the craggy face and the huge clasped hands and tried to understand what they had just heard.

He threw himself into speaking tours to raise funds for the Trust. He grew used to rising from a strange bed, to hotel stays thousands of miles from Auckland or his adopted homeland of Nepal, speaking rehearsed lines, knowing when the laughs would come, increasingly certain the admiration in their eyes would never fade. “I was just an average bloke,” he told an interviewer. “It was you in the media that transformed me into a heroic figure. And try as I have, there’s no way to destroy my heroic image. But, I’ve learned that as long as you don’t believe all that rubbish about yourself, you can’t come to much harm.”

When he talked of Everest, the polar expeditions, finding the headwaters of the mighty Ganges, searching for the fabled yeti, he was able to forget who was doing the talking, forget the pain. He could lose himself again in the adventures.

Ed providing Antarctic commentary — National Geographic magazine

Ed himself was supposed to be the celebrity commentator on the doomed flight over the Antarctic, but World Book Encyclopedia in Chicago had lined up a lucrative series of lectures for him, so he called his old mate Mulgrew and asked if he might step in for this one trip. Peter didn’t hesitate. “Sure mate,” he said, “happy to do it.” That was just the opening the unceasing brutes in the heavens needed. They had taken his wife and daughter, now they would take his best friend too. Once again they showed their feckless hand.

But Ed would have the last laugh. As the years went by he grew closer and closer to June, Mulgrew’s widow. Eventually, a decade after the little plane had gone down near Kathmandu and he thought he had lost all that was most precious, Ed and June were married. At long last, the circle was complete. They were inseparable for the next 19 years.

Ed was a person with never a flicker of self-doubt. What was the source of that? Sitting around the late night camp fire in Phaplu there were many opportunities to ask him if climbing Everest had changed him in any way. Was he more spiritual now, even perhaps more enlightened? Having stood higher than any other human in history, what had he concluded about life? Was it, as the Nepalese believed, an endless ladder up which one climbed towards a better, more spiritual form and a higher understanding? Or, was it as Darwin and his followers described it, a fecund gruel of tiny parasitic organisms whose sole desire was propagation, with neither purpose nor aspiration? I never summoned the courage to ask, so I avoided making a fool of myself. To Ed, such a question would be far too personal. And to him especially, the answer would not have mattered at all.

Peter Winter writes from his home on the coast of Maine. He tells his stories here at Life of Fiction and he blogs about media and management at BlastofWinter

Feel free to drop him a line:

Peter is represented by The Garamond Agency of Washington D.C.

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