The Octagon seemed like the best place in the world to be this weekend. The autumn sun slanted down through the plane tree leaves, the shadows were deep, and Danish socialism ruled democratically in the Art Gallery.
They came from all over to honour the authors of the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival. Lovers of poetry, lovers of prose. Collectors of anecdote, participants in the human conversation. And along to the left, then up some stairs to the Dunningham Suite in the Dunedin Public Library, shortly after lunch, came those with a mind for mountaineering.
Huw Lewis-Jones is a bearded Englishman (picture from ODT, right). He is a graduate of Cambridge. He looks about twenty-five years old. His PhD thesis was entitled something along the lines of ‘The Geographical History of Thought and Ideas Down the Ages.’ Brilliant. He is an expert in maritime and polar exploration history, an advisor for television documentary makers, and a guide on Polar cruises. In short, he knows what he is talking about. And he talks about it with gusto.
This afternoon he was in Dunedin to shed light on George Lowe’s physical and pictorial contribution to his book The Conquest of Everest (Thames and Hudson) 9780500544235, and to present Lowe’s photos and tales (many of them previously unpublished and untold) from a recently published book of Lewis-Jones’s. That word ‘conquest,’ incidentally, the writer confessed to despising, quoting Edmund Hillary, who stated: “You don’t conquer a mountain, you conquer yourself.”
Huw Lewis-Jones, showing no signs of jet lag, was introduced by a beaming Neville Peat – local natural historian and writer – who launched in by describing Lewis-Jones as “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” an accusation that could well be leveled at Peat himself. In fact, the atmosphere of the whole event was one of enthusiastic bonhomie. The audience members were swept along.
Lewis-Jones began by asserting that in the event of a fire, don’t leave the building until we had bought his book. He eased into his lecture proper by acknowledging the recent passing of George Lowe, whom he described as “a beautiful, wonderful man.” He then zeroed in on the origins and ongoing closeness of Lowe’s friendship with Edmund Hillary; it was a mountain climbing kinship that carried them from the Southern Alps to the Himalayas in 1952 and ultimately up Everest in May of the following year.
Hillary’s part in the ultimate ascent is fairly well known, Lowe’s less so. Lewis-Jones’s book, and lectures like this afternoon’s, sought to redress that balance a little. Not that Lowe (pictured right) was troubled by the omission. But if you consider the mind-boggling organization, teamwork and support that went into the 1953 expedition as a pyramid (350 porters, 17 tons of supplies, 15 climbers in the English team and many more Sherpas) then Lowe was at the tip of that pyramid. He spent ten days carving steps up to the South Col (nearly ruining himself) and set up camps for Hillary and Tenzing. He waited by himself and met them first on the descent, to have his ears warmed by Hillary’s famous line, “…We knocked the bastard off!” He photographed them coming down (a descent held in higher regard by Hillary than the ascent, “Going up a mountain is optional, coming down is mandatory…”) and he filmed many stages of the expedition. He really was, as Lewis-Jones noted, ‘the third man of Everest.’
There was a lot to digest in the Dunningham Suite as Lewis-Jones lived up to his Cambridge nickname of ‘One More, Huw’ — rattling off opinions and facts, the stories behind the photos, and first-hand comments from the climbers (Hillary on why there isn’t a photo of himself on the summit: “It wasn’t the place to teach Tenzing how to use the camera.” Lowe on the pitfalls of fame: “We were given so many bloody Everest cakes.”) Mind you, nobody was complaining as ‘One More, Huw’ hove on.
Everything though must come to an end and this ended (almost) with the writer responding to questions from the audience about Everest today. He said, “You can’t tell a person NOT to climb if they want to. But I think you must be able to climb under your own steam.” He went on to say that while tourism is a critical part of Himalayan life, what he objects to is that now, people essentially pay money to get to the top, and that has led to other people dying while trying to make it happen. He then once more quoted a blunt Edmund Hillary: “It’s all bullshit these days.”
Then Lewis-Jones really did finish up, with a photo of Lowe and Hillary on a West Coast glacier. On the back of the polaroid is a short note from Lowe to his friend, a sort of haiku on friendship and exploration. It reads:
What do you reckon?
The applause wouldn’t die down; the audience clearly reckoned that George Lowe, not to mention the man before us, was the real deal. Neville Peat reckoned Lewis-Jones should come back soon with his wife and daughter. I reckon that in a Himalaya of high-quality Festival events, this was a lofty peak.
Event attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ
Huw Lewis-Jones will be doing an event this evening in Christchurch with the Christchurch Writers’ Festival, and carrying on to the Auckland Writers’ Festival for an event on Thursday 15 May, and another on Saturday 17 May.