A mind-bending yet somberly reflective chronicle of mountaineer Hillary’s otherworldly journey with two mates tracing Scott’s route to the South Pole.
The narrative is structured as a duet, with Hillary’s personal material in bold face, while Australian journalist Elder fleshes out the story in long segments of plain type. His coauthor’s distinctively sharp prose contrasts with Hillary’s digressive account, which often has the feel of fireside remembrances, though certainly not soothing ones. Much of the text covers his hellacious trip with Eric Philips and Jon Muir, on foot and via kite-pulled sledge, from the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole. The trio confronted all the “cruel quirks and torments” of travel at the ends of the earth, including personal conflicts and “the jaded fugue of living under cloud.” Hillary vividly evokes that “monochrome of misery . . . strong winds, drifting snow, a fog of spindrift, intensely cold conditions, no sky, no horizon, white on white on violent white.” When in extremis, which was much of the time, the mountaineer was also troubled by the voices and the ghosts of his deceased mother and lost climbing companions. (“The late afternoon was always popular with the dead friends,” he jests grimly.) A psychologist later explains, not altogether convincingly, that he was “borderline psychotic . . . it’s the visual and sensory deprivation of polar travel . . . that especially plays hell with the mind.” The neatly woven narrative tapestry also contains reminiscences about times and travels with the author’s father, New Zealand beekeeper and Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary, as well as various adventures and misadventures in the high hills. Despite the physical and emotional extremities he’s experienced, Hillary avers, “I’m drawn to the simplicity of the pilgrim’s life, and the soaring emotions that go with it.”
More cautionary even than Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey of the World or Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.