Monday, January 27, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
The composers of ancient epics knew that one certain way of grabbing an audience’s interest was to begin in the middle – in medias res – rather than at the beginning of the story. Start off with something dramatic and the audience might be hooked. Brian Wilkins uses this technique with great effect in Among Secret Beauties. This book is, as its subtitle says, A memoir of mountaineering in New Zealand and the Himalayas. Born in 1925, so now 88 years old, Wilkins spent many years as a lecturer in pharmaceutical chemistry, and before that he had spent some time as a high school science teacher. But he always had many interests in his life (or “passions” as he prefers to call them), and one of the most prominent was mountaineering.
Aged 29, Wilkins was part of the climbing expedition in the Himalayas that was organised in 1954, with Edmund Hillary, Charles Evans and George Lowe as leaders. This was the year after Hillary and Tenzing had conquered Everest. Without any exposition, Chapter One of Among Secret Beauties throws us into the most dramatic episode in which Wilkins was involved in the 1954 expedition. He and fellow-climber Jim McFarlane fell down a crevasse as they were following quite a way behind Hillary’s party on a trek to a mountain camp. Wilkins managed to get out. To his amazement he heard the voice of McFarlane, who was badly injured 18 metres below him, apologising for not rescuing them both, even though Wilkins was the one who had tumbled in first. This is a frightening narrative, capped by Wilkins’ account of reaching the camp on his own and getting help from Hillary and a party of sherpas.
Hillary himself almost died as he descended the crevasse to retrieve McFarlane but, says Wilkins, Hillary’s account of what happened was so modest that no reader would have known his life was in danger. It was only later that it became sensational world news. As we are told only much further on in the book, Jim McFarlane, having suffered amputations after his crash into the crevasse, was later carried all the way down the mountains in a modified tea chest strapped to a sherpa’s back
After this opening, all the first half of the book concerns itself with the 1954 expedition, copiously illustrated with excellent colour photographs taken at the time, many by Wilkins himself.
Wilkins is clearly proud of his part in the expedition and proud of his connection with Hillary. Hillary sent off dispatches to The Times of London, which had contributed to financing the expedition. Wilkins watched him writing part of his account of the Everest expedition during the rest days of the 1954 expedition. Wilkins doesn’t stint his praise for some other members of the party and for the sherpas.
But his account is not always uncritical. He goes into the planning of the expedition, with its genesis in the New Zealand Alpine Club and the initial fear Hillary might not join them. He shows awareness of some tensions between New Zealand-based and British-based organizing committees. He notes:
“Anyone who has lived in London for a few years can be forgiven for believing that they are at the centre of the world, and any climber celebrating the achievement of John Hunt’s expedition could be forgiven for claiming it as the centre of the universe. The correspondence became occasionally rather testy.” (p.35)
He remarks sharply on how much those who receive the acclaim are only part of any climbing expedition. The imagery he uses is entirely appropriate to the 1950s. Chapter 4 opens thus:
“The rocket that propelled Sputnik 1, the first satellite, into orbit weighed nearly 300 tons and the Sputnik a mere 80 kilograms. What better image for a Himalayan expedition, another huge construction, delivering perhaps two climbers only to be the first to stand on the summit and to move into an orbit of acclamation? The others who helped to get them there, most of whom would have had summit ambitions themselves, were discarded like booster rockets, leaving only their hacking breath drifting away into space like spent rocket fuel.” (p.43)
When he mentions the French team which, the following year, conquered the summits that the 1954 team had failed to conquer, he describes them wistfully as “a triumph of careful planning and concentrated effort from a harmonious party” (p.104), clearly implying that some of these qualities were not present in their own expedition. Indeed he goes on to criticise forthrightly the poor planning of the 1954 expedition and the way it has subsequently been misrepresented as a geological surveying exercise with a little climbing thrown in, rather than as the climbing-focussed expedition which everybody understood it to be at the time.
The blurb on the back of the book says: “In this frank account [Wilkins]… submits the writings of his contemporaries to robust critical attention.”
Chapter 6 is potentially the most controversial in the book. Wilkins records how, with the accident involving Hillary and with Hillary also falling sick, the attempt on a major peak had to be abandoned as effort went into rescuing Hillary by taking him down on a stretcher to lower altitudes. He questions Hillary’s leadership in the decisions that were made, noting that Hillary had never led a Himalaya expedition before, and raising the possibility that Hillary was already weakened by a never-diagnosed illness even before the 1954 expedition even began. Hence Hillary was never again able to summit in the Himalayas. Wilkins’ real “villain” however is the later-knighted Charles Evans, the peremptory ex-army officer who took over after Hillary fell ill, and whom Wilkins sees as having falsified a report about Wilkins in order to justify terminating the expedition. Much later in the book (pp.188-189) Wilkins takes a crack at another historian of New Zealand mountaineering who misrepresented one of Wilkins’ climbs.
If you are absorbed in Wilkins’ well-told story, you might be tempted to skip the endnotes, but they are very worth reading. It is here that Wilkins dissents from some other peoples’ version of mountain expeditions in which he was involved. His dissent includes his story of how other mountaineer-writers misassigned to themselves his photographs of a fellow-climber on a perilous slope.
Only after all of the 1954 matter is accounted for does Wilkins go back to the formative autobiographical material, telling us of his Catholic childhood in Mosgiel and giving a generally positive account of schooling with the Christian Brothers and intellectual formation from the likes of the adventurous Jesuit priest who visited when he was a chaplain with American forces during the war. (Incidentally, the title “Among Secret Beauties” is a quotation from a pope’s account of the attractions of mountaineering.) Wilkins tells us of his other major passion outside mountaineering, singing art songs as a baritone. He is as enthusiastic about this as he is about climbing, and he describes one singing engagement under Maxwell Fernie as “a weekly liturgical space flight powered by Palestrina, Vittoria and other geniuses of polyphony.” (pp.126-127)
Then it is on to his climbing career in the Southern Alps, both before and after the 1954 Himalayas expedition. The anecdotes are vivid, such as the one about surviving a snowstorm by sheltering with friends in an ice-cave, but having to carry out one team member who proved to be diabetic (p.144); or, more hauntingly, worrying about whether his own cheerful published account of descending on one route down Mt Cook didn’t encourage the climber H.R. (Harry) Scott to try the same route some years later – and plunge to his death (p.154). The party with whom he ascended Mount Aspiring hid in an ice cave during an electric storm and found themselves shoving all the metal objects they had outside the entrance to the cave, as they did not wish to be electrocuted when the lightning kept getting attracted to them.
There are a number of mountaineering deaths recorded in this book, and in his final reflections Wilkins tells how he gave up mountaineering as he gradually came to see it was important not to leave his wife a widow. Even so, his interest continued, and one of the book’s last photographs shows him, in his late 70s, standing on the East Peak of Mt Earnslaw.
This is a good, very readable account of the life of a very active man, generous in his praises but also eager to correct what he sees as misrepresentations of events he witnessed. Its observations give it an edge over other books of physical endeavour.