Monday, July 8, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books 

 “EVEREST – THE FIRST ASCENT” by Harriet Tuckey (Random House, $NZ36:99)
            Rarely have I read a book in which a child has such conflicting feelings about a parent as Harriet Tuckey has about her father Griffith Pugh in Everest –The First Ascent.

Griffith Pugh was a scientist, a physiologist, a man who came up with ideas about the right use of oxygen that, in effect, made it possible for the world’s highest mountains to be climbed. They included Everest. Pugh was a vital part of the British expedition that made the first ascent of Everest sixty years ago. But Pugh was a difficult man who received little public recognition for his role. His achievements were, in effect, written out of both official and popular histories.

Harriet Tuckey did not particularly like father. As she writes in her introduction:

He had been a remote and irascible parent. I didn’t get on with him and I never asked him about his work and knew little about it, though I had always been vaguely aware that my mother felt he hadn’t received fair credit for his achievements.” (p.xviii)

However, in her father’s last years, she attended a public meeting where Pugh was at last hailed as the architect of the 1953 expedition’s success. Her interest was piqued and her admiration for her father rose. But she still had very mixed feelings about him. She writes:

The evening at the Royal Geographical Society made a profound impression on me and kindled the first small thought that I might one day try to tell my father’s story. But the relationship between us was so bad and, rightly or wrongly, I felt so let down by him as a parent that it was another ten years before I found the emotional strength to focus my mind on him and begin.” (p.xx)

This ambiguity of reaction sets us up for the whole book. On the one hand, Harriet Tuckey celebrates her father’s very real achievements and argues that he was robbed of the credit that was his due. She documents this scrupulously. But on the other hand, she is fully aware of her father’s many shortcomings, his egocentricity and sometimes downright cruelty to family and friends. This is no work of adoring filial piety. She makes it clear that that there were many ways in which Pugh must have rubbed up fellow-members of the expedition the wrong way, and set them against him, even if it was unethical of them not to acknowledge his contribution.

Before she gets to 1953, however, Tuckey gives an excellent short account of earlier climbs, which puts the whole business of pioneer mountaineering in a new light. Prior to 1953, nobody had ever climbed above 28,000 feet (Everest is 29,029 feet). Yet, since the 1920s, some expeditions had been equipped with oxygen – including the one in which George Mallory lost his life without summiting. (Tuckey has no time for romantic notions that Mallory might have got to the top.) Why, then, did these earlier expeditions fail? It was a combination of poor acclimatisation to high altitudes, the wrong diet and the wrong use of oxygen, not to mention the wrong materials being used for clothing and shelter.

Having imperial control of the Indian subcontinent until the late 1940s, the British, by refusing to issue visas and climbing permits, deliberately prevented climbers of other nationalities from getting anywhere near Everest, which they wanted to reserve for their own conquest. Tuckey remarks:

Unaware of the diplomatic shenanigans, some innocent British climbers believed, quite wrongly, that the Swiss, the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Austrians and the Americans were all perfectly content to focus on other Himalayan mountains and leave Everest for the British.” (p.24)

British mountaineering was hampered by the lingering public school ethos of amateurism, where the use of oxygen was somehow regarded as “unsporting” and where European teams were criticised for their more professional approach. This attitude was epitomised by the insensitive Eric Shipton, who expected everyone to acclimatise as quickly as he did to high altitudes, and who refused to accept that there was a problem that could be solved by applied science.

By 1953, Britain had lost its Indian empire and could no longer keep other nationalities from attempting Everest. The British were particularly spooked by a professional Swiss expedition, which managed to get much closer to Everest’s summit than any previous expedition had. In preparation for the 1953 expedition, the British sent a team, headed by Eric Shipton, to attempt Cho Oyu. Attached to the expedition as physiologist was Griffith Pugh, whose wartime experience included working with soldiers suffering from frostbite. Despite his careful altitude experimentation, and the scientific regime he worked out, most of Pugh’s advice was ignored by the expedition’s chief. There were mutterings about Shipton’s leadership. Tuckey writes:

Pugh… was more forthright and complained constantly to anyone who would listen. Naturally this began to grate on the team, and the view began to form that Pugh was a ‘difficult’ character; a view that only grew with each new clash.” (p.56)

The attempt to climb Cho Oyu was a miserable failure, revealing dissensions in the team. In her chapter “An Infusion of New Blood”, Tuckey shows how the British organising committee now went into panic mode. In their soul-searching, the lackadaisical, amateurish, slapdash leadership of Eric Shipton, and his indifference to scientific methods, were all revealed. They were now condemned in private memos, and after a major tirade, the better-organized ex-army-officer John Hunt was put in charge of the attempt on Everest.

But, despite being an efficient organizer, Hunt was as much a romantic, and as little ready to credit scientific methods, as Shipton had been. There were two rival oxygen systems that were tested in the 1953 expedition. The closed-circuit oxygen system was championed by Tom Bourdillon. The open-circuit system was Pugh’s baby. Hunt organized the first attempt on the summit using the closed-circuit system. It failed. Only then were Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary sent up using Pugh’s open-circuit system. They triumphed.

Pugh’s daughter emphasises the extent of Pugh’s contribution when she speaks of other members of the expedition, the day before the last stage of the climb:

 “leaving Hillary and Tenzing alone in their high camp. That evening, sheltered by a tent made of the fabric chosen by Pugh, they started up their cooker (made to Pugh’s specifications) and, finding it ‘worked like a charm’, brewed ‘large amounts of lemon juice and sugar’. After consuming what Hillary described as a ‘satisfying meal out of our store of delicacies’ – recommended by Pugh – they retired for the night using sleeping oxygen (courtesy of Pugh), resting on air mattresses also developed by Pugh.” (pp.142-143)

            Pugh’s important role was unquestionable. But the documentary film Conquest of Everest, released shortly after the expedition’s success, and John Hunt’s best-selling book The Ascent of Everest, both belittled Pugh and his achievement by simply writing him out of the story. Pugh’s wife Josephine was furious after all the sacrifices she had made to support Pugh’s work. Hunt still had the anti-science idea that “human spirit” conquers mountains, and he refused to admit that his climbers would not have reached the summit had they not first been methodically acclimatised and equipped the way they were, thanks to Pugh’s research. Harriet Tuckey points out that within five years of the conquest of Everest, all but one of the world’s other ten highest mountains were climbed because of the right use of oxygen which Pugh had advocated and pioneered – not because climbers were suddenly inspired by the success of Hunt’s expedition. Pugh was official advisor to many of these other successful expeditions, no matter how little his name was known to the general public.

            Thus far, then, we have the story of an unsung hero. But the daughter has to give a full account of her father’s character, and she does so in a chapter called “Warts and All” where she shows Griffith Pugh as a negligent parent, totally preoccupied with his work and not interacting much with his children at all. He ignored and mistreated his loyal wife Josephine, giving her no credit for the sacrifices she made for the family. He was impatient to the point of exploding with rage at his children. Tuckey gives an anecdote of being helped by her father once, and once only, with her homework when she was aged about ten. Pugh gave up after a few moments with the comment “Oh Christ I didn’t realize just how stupid you really were.” (p.86)

Only about two-thirds of the way through the book do we get an account of Josephine’s rich family and the pressure that was placed on both Josephine and Griffith by the fact that their first child was handicapped. Pugh clearly often deserted his wife, had casual affairs, and was abusive. When she was a child, Harriet recalls, he made phone-calls within earshot of his family, organizing his evening’s entertainment at a local brothel.

This book leaves us, then, very much where Tuckey wants us to be. We admire the scientist and his achievements, but we deplore much of the man.

For New Zealand readers especially, however, there are some arresting passages about another key member of the 1953 expedition. Everest – The First Ascent is at pains to show that, even among a band of experienced mountaineers, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the stand-outs for physical fitness. However, there is the suggestion that Ed Hillary was, if anything, too competitive:

            “Hillary was the kind of man who never felt that men walking alongside him were merely keeping pace with him in a companionable way. Instead, he always assumed that they were racing him and invariably responded with a ‘surge of speed’ designed to put them in their place.  Only once his primacy had been established could normal walking be resumed.” (pp.131-132)

In 2006, as part of her very extensive research, Tuckey visited and interviewed Hillary. The resulting chapter “Man in a Hurry” gives a very mixed view of the New Zealand icon. Tuckey sees Hillary as likeable, but still, so many years after the 1953 expedition, obtusely refusing to understand the scientific bases of the expedition’s success. And later chapters show that this continued in Hillary’s account of his 1960 Himalaya expedition, when he ignored what had been Pugh’s scientific purpose (systematically testing deterioration of the metabolism at high altitudes) and went for an old-fashioned “dash” up Mount Makalu. Once again, Tuckey gives quite pointed comments about Hillary’s lack of judgement and his tendency to let people think that he himself had thought up the expedition’s scientific purpose and that that part of the 1960 venture was a “failure”. And, like Hunt’s book on the 1953 expedition, Hilary’s book on the 1960 expedition (High in the Thin Cold Air) succeeded in making virtually no mention of Pugh and the role he had played.

I should emphasize that Everest is conquered approximately halfway through Everest – The First Ascent. The latter half of the book chronicles Pugh’s later career (and domestic difficulties). Pugh became an expert on hypothermia in long-distance swimmers. He was a much-consulted expert on survival techniques on mountains.
When the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City loomed, he was the authority on acclimatising athletes and preventing them suffering the disadvantages of competing at a high altitude. But typically, the British Olympic Committee that employed him largely ignored his advice, to the detriment of British competitors. The record of his scientific success followed by his being publicly snubbed is fairly consistent.

Given that Pugh’s career, rather than the conquest of Everest, is the focus of this book, I do wonder how much the book’s title was devised at the publishers’ suggestion. Even so, Everest – The First Ascent will alter radically many people’s idea of how the mountain was conquered and who was really responsible.

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