This is the autobiography of the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest, and return to tell the tale. His friend and comrade Tenzing Norgay was second on the rope to the summit: whether George Mallory and Andrew Irvine had got there twenty-nine years before we shall probably never know. Edmund Hillary was chosen by destiny to be the allegorical champion of the Everest saga, and an excellent choice he was. Tenzing was too exotically aristocratic to be a hero for all peoples. Mallory was too much of a Rupert Brooke (‘George Mallory!’ cried Lytton Strachey. ‘My hand trembles, my heart palpitates, my whole being swoons away at the words’). But Ed Hillary the New Zealander was just right: a big, bold, simple and benevolent man from a brave young country, somehow standing beyond the ordinary squalors and ambitions of the world.
He does not stand, of course, altogether beyond them. As he says in this book, ‘I have not always been thoughtful and kind, I fear.’ But he began his climb to fame grandly, by reaching the top of the world, and he is ending it nobly (he is in his eightieth year) by devoting much of his time to the welfare and happiness of the Sherpa people who did so much to help him up there – a most honourable repayment of a debt. If, between these splendid markers, he has not invariably lived up to his best, he is only behaving like that other archetypal hero, Abraham Lincoln, who spent so many of his middle years as a not very admirable party politician.
In this disarming and easy-going book Hillary does not attempt to hide his less appealing traits. His writing is not subtle enough for evasions – it reminds me sometimes of John Major’s style, in its Private Eye derivative – and there is nowhere to hide between its lines. I like the sound of him least (like Lincoln again) in middle life, and especially during the British and Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1956, which occupies nearly a quarter of this narrative. Then his relationship with his co-leader, Bunny Fuchs, was evidently tense and tetchy, and Hillary sounds rather too pleased with himself. Now and then, too, one wishes that just occasionally the old hero would lose a dispute, or a New Zealander would prove less resilient, adaptable and informal than a Briton.
But Hillary himself, please note, is my only source for these aspersions. One often feels about the autobiographies of artists that the personalities they present are irrelevant – only the books or the pictures really matter. With Hillary it is just the opposite. Most of us will not be much excited by his account of the Challenge of Makalu, or the passage of the Beardmore Glacier, or even perhaps, now, by conditions on the South Col in 1953: the book’s most interesting adventure, to my mind, is Hillary’s collision with a maddened yak. What matters here is the character behind the exploits, and it is perfectly delineated, I think, in the manner of the work. De Buffon was right – the style really is the man.
Yet in his guileless way Hillary is describing in these pages one of the most marvellous lives of our time. He starts as a barefoot country boy with an evidently difficult Dad, and he ends up as his country’s famously successful High Commissioner in New Delhi. He has known tragedy, with the loss of his first wife and their daughter in an air crash in Nepal, but he has known pure loves, too – surely no autobiography of recent years has been more essentially innocent. He has sailed jet-boats up the Ganges from the sea to the Himalayas; he has searched for the yeti; he has climbed all over the world; he has been to both the North and the South Poles; he is a Knight of the Garter, and when he picks up a New Zealand banknote he finds his own face upon it. His Himalayan Trust has established twenty-two schools in the Sherpa country, two hospitals and twelve clinics, as well as building bridges and airstrips, piping fresh water to villages and restoring Buddhist monasteries.
In his youth Hillary joined one of the more obscure Christian sects of the Antipodes, and qualified as a Teacher of Radiant Living. ‘I gained quite a lot from Radiant Living’, he says, and so it seems. Only a curmudgeon would begrudge this fine man his preeminence, or his worldwide status as the Hero of Everest; for who but Ed Hillary, after all, would have announced his first ascent of the world’s supreme mountain with the Radiant words: ‘Well George, we knocked the bastard off’?’