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Eric Shipton: Everest & Beyond

Eric Shipton: Everest & Beyond. Peter Steele. The Mountaineers: Seattle, 1998. Black- and-white photographs. 280 pages. $24.95.

Fans and friends of Eric Shipton will be delighted and surprised at the appearance of this biography. For several years after his death in 1977, there were rumors (which turned out to be wrong) of various memorialists hard at work. As the years rolled by, it seemed a certainty that no summing up of Eric Shipton’s life would appear. All the more reason, therefore, to celebrate Peter Steele’s effort, and to commend him for persevering against the considerable obstacles involved. Four years after Shipton’s death, his friend Steele traveled to the U.K. from his new home in the Yukon and conducted some 30 interviews, hoping to find enough material to justify a follow-up to Shipton’s autobiography, That Untravelled World. Subsequently, Steele dropped the project for 20 years, then took it up again, did another 30 interviews (half of the 1981 interviewees had, by then, passed on), and convinced himself that there was enough material to “tell a story that Eric never told about himself.”

Aside from interviews, the chief basis for this assertion are letters by and to Shipton from his wife Diana and successive paramours, lady friends, and mistresses. This epistolary data presents several difficulties for the author. One is that, like all biographers, he is caught in one of the traps of history: what accidentally comes out of the attic trunk shapes biographical reality. Two, Eric Shipton was neither a skilled writer (Steele believes him dyslexic) nor an avid reporter of ordinary life. Here is an example. In 1951, Shipton spent an overnight with the royal family at Sandringham. He writes Diana a five-sentence note on a socially “terrifying” evening, concluding, “When the Queen had gone to bed I got involved discussing religion with the Duke of Edinburgh, which went on till after one.” Observe that he did not reveal the Duke’s views, which might be of especial interest in the light of his carnal relations with the head of the Church of England. Could it be that the Duke in his cups said “religion was the opiate of the people?” We shall never know.

The third issue about these letters is that they lead Steele to present a highly sentimental picture of Shipton’s amorous and sexual adventuring. On page 71, Steele writes about a collection of letters between Shipton and Pamela Freston. Shipton and Pamela were fortunate because the majority of the letters survived to cement their bond of love. So the usual militarystyle convoy lumbered through Tibet; and Shipton wrote to Pamela, “I should like to do a long journey through Tibet with just a rucksack and a pony.” Undoubtedly he meant to add the words “and you.” But he didn’t. And this band-aid, and a thousand others, in language that echoes a gentlewoman’s magazine, doesn’t work.

Shipton rarely reciprocated the degree of affection that his Leslie Howard good looks and quiet charm inspired in women, to whom he was compulsively unfaithful. Phyllis Wint, the subject of the longest liaison (20 years), says Shipton “[a]1 ways wanted someone to be close to; all his life he was looking for something that wasn’t there.” To which Steele comments out of both sides of his mouth: Phyllis felt confident of his affection, despite his philandering track record, and her confidence was justified throughout their two decades.

I doubt the world gives a damn that Shipton lacked affect and emotional honesty with women. Misogynists like Tilman might actually think it a good thing, and that Eric’s womanizing takes up too much of this book. The critical issue is the degree to which Eric Shipton: Everest & Beyond fills in the lacuna in our knowledge of him as explorer and mountaineer. The blanks that I’d have liked filled are the gossipy and pop-psychological stuff that Shipton carefully excluded from his own narratives. But Steele seems not to know much of this, though in private Shipton could be pretty candid. In the few hours I spent with him, he told me that both John Auden and Michael Spender, brothers of famous poets and who were with him in the Karakoram, hated one another; and that Smythe was a cold-blooded ego maniac.

Steele does offer fresh perspectives on Shipton’s climbing career: the degree to which he had to live off his writings, his development as a self-taught surveyor, his absent-mindedness and lamentable organizing skills, his naïveté about those enemies in the Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society that sacked him from the leadership of the 1953 Everest expedition. Steele’s chapter on this incident seems to reflect good research and reporting. In the appendix, Steele cites the names of over a dozen sources interviewed, including Hillary and Hunt (who checked the draft for accuracy). The conclusion Steele draws is that Eric brought this on himself more than he was ill done by others. This account should demolish whatever remains of the old rumor that he’d made enemies by cuckolding one of the climbing Establishment.

Thus far, my review has failed to convey the pleasure this book gave me. It is not a great evocation of the man, but an enjoyable reminder. The reader is left with a hundred fresh little details that would have dissolved in time and floated into the ether unless rescued by Steele. There is also a wonderful sprinkling of old photographs. The climbing community is lucky to have this presumably last look at the great explorer who defined the mountaineering ethics of a later generation.

John Thackray