Two Generations. Edmund and Peter Hillary. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1985. 223 pages, 31 color photographs, 4 sketch maps. £10.95.
As its title suggests, Edmund and Peter Hillary’s Two Generations endeavors to reveal, explore and contrast two generations of mountain adventure. Written by perhaps the most famous of mountaineers and his son, this book is packed with many accounts of expeditions in the mountains, in boats and on skis. The stories these two men tell will naturally appeal to those who wish one more glimpse into Ed Hillary’s life. Unfortunately, this book sheds little light on the legacy Edmund Hillary has passed on to his son, as a son, and as one of the current generation of mountaineers.
The book is divided into two sections, one devoted to Edmund’s narrative, and the other to his son Peter’s. Edmund Hillary begins with a rapid trip through his early life, covering with alarming speed the events which he described in his two previous autobiographies (High Adventure and Nothing Venture, Nothing Win). The one major difference between these earlier accounts and this one is that every event has been reinterpreted and colored by the tragic death of his wife Louise, and daughter Belinda in 1975. As he rushes off to his many adventures, most notably his South Pole expedition, his sadness and great guilt at leaving Louise and the children emerges. His complete joy in recollecting experiences shared with them stands out more vividly. A softer, older more reflective Edmund Hillary emerges.
What this book mostly offers is the final lap of his life, beginning essentially where he left off in 1975 at the time he was fifty-eight years old. He attacks his continued work in the mountains of Nepal, building schools and hospitals with greater and more productive energy. In 1979, he travels up the Mother Ganga in jet boats and then assists in ascents of Akash Parbat and Na Parbat. But in this section we also see him begin to decline with age. In the mountains, he suffers from cerebral edema, and feels, at the end of this trip, that he will never be quite the same. Several years later, his weakening strength is seen again on the expedition to the unclimbed East Face of Everest. The effects of high-altitude climbing overcome him, and he is escorted off the mountains, incurring even more injuries on the descent.
A detailed account of his tour of the non-mountainous regions of India indicates he is capable of accepting his declining strength. With the same minute detail in which he describes his movements in the mountains, he provides a wise view of many small Indian villages.
But though his own activities may cease, he has passed on, if nothing else, a great deal of energy to his son Peter. Energy (or restlessness, as Edmund Hillary views it) is what this autobiographical segment begins and ends with, and what his son inherits.
The book takes an interesting turn when Peter begins to write. Though he is writing in the shadow of his father, as he has climbed in this same shadow, his story, like his climbing, is distinct and accomplished. Peter is a fine climber in his own right—his attempt on Ama Dablam and his survival of disaster is a testimony to his courage and strength. In this work, he particularly focuses on his attempt on Lhotse, Everest’s neighbor at 27,940 feet. This expedition was another defeat. But the effort and insight behind it turn the expedition into a personal success.
It is finally in Peter’s attitude towards climbing and the details about gear and technical skill which he explores that the differences between the generations begin to emerge. But these differences arrive so late in the book and only surface subtly, implicitly, never overtly. Peter writes of the troubles his expedition had on Lhotse because a Canadian party was attempting Everest. It becomes clear, on reflection, that this crowded climbing scene was something Edmund Hillary never confronted.
The two writers do, at times, contrast the generations, such as when Edmund critiques democratic leadership of expeditions. But for the most part, such comparisons lie nestled in the narrative, waiting for the reader to pull them out. It seems too bad that Edmund Hillary’s “safe climbing” which so dominated his earlier climbing philosophy and which is so opposed to Peter’s own, does not come through in this work.
This book hovers between a mountain adventure, an historical perspective of technique and attitudes in mountaineering, and an autobiographical narrative. It dips into all three modes without presenting any of them thoroughly. The writing is detailed, often plodding. The photographs appear to be chosen and placed randomly within the work. Shots of Edmund smiling energetically with his Nepalese friends are endearing, and there are some nice shots of his handsome wife Louise. But there is only one shot of all three children and in it their faces are obscured. Peter appears only once.
In spite of these failings, Two Generations provides an intimate glimpse into the already full life of Edmund Hillary. It also reveals parts of Peter’s life, with its own accomplishments and energy. Its energy alone sustains it and behind this lie two men, sensitive and often poignantly honest.