Climbing  Among Secret Beauties

A Memoir of Mountaineering in New Zealand and the Himalaya

By Brian Wilkins, Otago University Press, Dunedin. Softcover, 216 pages, $40.

People of my generation, born well after the 1950s, often have the impression that the decade was a time of dull oppressive conformity in New Zealand. But for a small group of Kiwi mountaineers the 1950s were anything but dull. Brian Wilkins presents a story of a time when climbing became centre stage – emerging from a somewhat fringe activity into something with real status.

Men like Wilkins, Ed Hillary, Colin Todd, Norman Hardie, Jim McFarlane, George Lowe, Earl Riddiford and Bill Beaven were climbing at the highest level, and New Zealanders were – perhaps more than at any time since – at the forefront of world mountaineering, notably in the Himalaya. In many ways, the 1950s were a golden age of mountaineering for New Zealanders, both here and overseas.

In 1954, Wilkins joined the Hillary-led New Zealand expedition to Nepal’s Barun Valley, a venture that has often been ignored, glossed over or had undue negative attention because of events that saw both Hillary and McFarlane injured. A 1991 summary of the New Zealand Alpine Club’s achievements failed even to mention the expedition. But these simple facts tell a different story: expedition members climbed 23 peaks, including Baruntse, 19 of them over 20,000 feet, explored much new ground, pioneered the route by which Makalu was climbed the following year, and successfully evacuated the two seriously-injured climbers. Wilkins himself made some of these ascents, notably Pethangtse (6738m), a stunning peak situated between Makalu and Everest. That’s a record that deserves celebration rather than silence. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the expedition, with Brian’s book providing a timely echo into that void.

Wilkins spent more time with Hillary than anyone else on the expedition, and so was in a unique position to gauge the famous climber’s character and actions at a formative time in his life – and also to assess his leadership abilities. On his first night sharing a tent with the world’s most famous mountaineer, he made a searing impression by kicking over a candle that burned a hole in Hillary’s sleeping bag.

In the crevasse accident that eventually resulted in Jim McFarlane losing both his feet to frostbite, Wilkins provides a harrowing account of his own precarious escape from the icy depths, and the subsequent rescue effort that left Hillary with three broken ribs. Carrying McFarlane out of the mountains was a feat of extraordinary strength, and Wilkins gives due credit to the stoic Sherpa who completed this task. He also offers explanations for why Hillary never summitted a major Himalayan peak after Everest.

In New Zealand, Brian climbed with a number of other well known mountaineers such as Paul Powell and Colin Todd, and shares his memories not only of their climbs but their personalities as well. Brian’s climbing achievements include a number of first ascents, notably Moncreiff Col, Sir William Peak and the first traverse over both Mt Earnslaw’s Peaks (all in Mt Aspiring National Park) and Castle Mount (Fiordland). His account of the first climb of Aspiring’s northeast ridge is a gripping portrayal of survival, human endurance and the ethics of mountaineering, played out near the summit of a beautiful mountain.

Brian provides just enough background of his life to give context to his climbing, but keeps the book squarely focussed on the mountains. Fortunately, he does not rely on memory alone. By going back to his own diaries, reading other’s accounts in the New Zealand Alpine Journal, and researching NZAC archives in the Hocken Library, he avoids the mistakes of too much hindsight, or too little perspective. Where appropriate, diary quotes provide a sense of immediacy. Endnotes clarify sources where his account differs from those of others.

Among Secret Beauties is a fine piece of writing, with honesty and insight, and infused by a warm, gentle humour. For example ‘The Plan for the expedition, a fifteen page document, detailed everything from the estimated cost (£9000 plus a £1000 reserve), to the number of cakes of toilet soap. We had the climbers and the money, we’d calculated the soap; now we needed something to climb.’ There’s an economical elegance to his writing in some passages too, like this description of travel through India: ‘crowds, ankle deep dust, cow manure and pandemonium.’

Brian also displays an ability to choose a good anecdote or an apt metaphor, sometimes a musical one, or once, a cricketing analogy. Others are astonishingly original, like the one that compares a Himalayan expedition with a space rocket. Such refreshing passages suggest careful crafting to avoid clichés or platitudes. Both colour and black and white photographs illustrate the book, complemented by Geographx maps. I had the privilege of scanning many of Brian’s fascinating collection of 35mm Kodachrome slides for the book, which were ably prepared for printing by Geoff Norman. Happily, Otago University Press chose to disperse the pictures liberally throughout the text, rather than sandwich a few into blocks, a common and disappointing cost-cutting feature of many memoirs.

Among Secret Beauties made me curious to reread Paul Powell’s books, and reaching for other volumes such as Hillary’s East of Everest and George Lowe’s Because it is There. Successful is the book that brings out curiosity in a reader, and a thirst for more knowledge. That’s not to say that the book does not stand alone – it does, and left this reader wanting more – always a good way to finish.

(This review first appeared in the FMC Bulletin – March 2014)

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