Friday, August 29, 2008

The World According to Ed

Browsing through the offerings at a charity book fair, I came across an old paperback copy of "Nothing Venture, Nothing Win", Sir Edmund Hillary's 1975 autobiography. I considered boycotting the book due to the very poor title, but decided in the end that I was curious enough to forgive his grammar and give it a read.

I was hoping for some insight into what sort of person does the things he did. What were his motivations for climbing Everest when it was still unconquered? After acheiving fame with that, why was he so keen to make the first motorized trip to the South Pole? Was he really the humble, down-to-earth guy that Kiwis make him out to be, or is that a mass delusion brought on by hero worship?

The book did give me a glimpse into Sir Ed's personality. Granted, it was written before his wife was tragically killed in a plane crash, and well before his re-marriage to the widow of his friend Peter Mulgrew. This book was written by a 50-year-old man reflecting on his accomplishments, apparently expecting that his biggest acheivements were now behind him.

The Ed Hillary on these pages is certainly down-to-earth, but I wouldn't call him humble. He was very confident in his physical abilities, and seemed to enjoy nothing more than a challenge to his strength and endurance. In fact, the worse things appeared to get, whether on Everest or Antarctica, the more he seemed to think it was a good day. I guess this is the sort of attitude that gets you to the top of a mountain, or across the barren wastes. When things are hard, you have to look at it as a good challenge, not a reason to call it quits.

He also shows his stubborn streak. He ignores instruction, and when told he can't do something he either does it anyway, or argues with those in authority until they change their minds. This is not a trait you'd find in a humble man - this kind of behaviour requires a large ego. So although I hate to argue with public perception, I don't think it can be denied that Ed Hillary was an egotist.

I don't really fault him for that. He generally used his ego to accomplish positive things, like building hospitals and schools in Nepal. But I think it would have been annoying to work alongside someone who was always sure he was right.

As for the book itself, I can't credit Sir Ed with being a great author. His style is very understated and he often fails to bring his dramatic exploits to life in a vivid way. He practically skims over the ascent of Everest, possibly because he had already written an entire book about that (High Adventure).

All in all, I find it difficult to recommend this book. It's not as compelling as other adventure memoirs I have seen. Perhaps his later autobiography, View From the Summit, has a more interesting perspective. I haven't read that yet, so I can't say. I don't doubt that Sir Edmund Hillary led a remarkable life, but it may be more satisfying to read a professional author's retelling of it.

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