Harry's Absence: Looking for My Father on the Mountain

Harry's Absence: Looking for My Father on the Mountain

by Jonathan Scott

On February 1, 1960, Harry Scott, conscientious objector, psychologist, and mountaineer, was killed while climbing Mt. Cook. Thirty-five years later, his son set out to look for him. Funny, moving, and beautifully written, this is the story of a father's absence, told party through the rich and exciting mix of biography, autobiography, and intellectual and social…  See more details below


On February 1, 1960, Harry Scott, conscientious objector, psychologist, and mountaineer, was killed while climbing Mt. Cook. Thirty-five years later, his son set out to look for him. Funny, moving, and beautifully written, this is the story of a father's absence, told party through the rich and exciting mix of biography, autobiography, and intellectual and social history, HARRY'S ABSENCE is a passionately argued book about New Zealand, addressing the distinction between nationalism and love of country. Finally, it is a recovery, from death, of reasons for living.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1960, 41-year-old Harry Scott died in a climbing accident near the summit of Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain--leaving behind a pregnant wife and two children. In 1993, Harry's son Jonathan, who was two at the time of the accident (and is now a historian at Downing College in England), discovered a box of his father's papers: poems, short stories, letters, voice recordings and academic publications (Harry was a psychology professor at Auckland University). The most interesting document in this trove was Harry's 100-page account of his intellectual and emotional development during his detention in a WWII camp for conscientious objectors. Scott writes, alternately, about his own life and his father's. He learns, most importantly, that Harry tested himself on the mountain to prove that his political principles were born of strength, not weakness--to prove that "the courage of the pacifist, and of the climber, were the same." While the book's subtitle is misleading (this is not a narrative about mountaineering, in fact the discovery of Harry's body on Mount Cook is recounted only briefly), it is a moving memoir of son in search of his father. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|

Product Details

Permanent Press, The
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.79(w) x 8.84(h) x 0.91(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Dark Blue Light (with Apricots)

Tutorial passed pleasantly enough tonight—they got onto premonitions of death and similar pleasant phenomena, so I told them a few climbing stories.

Harry Scott to Margaret Scott, 1952

The two survivors ... scanned the line of fall through field glasses, and called out. A high westerly wind was raging, and nothing was seen or heard.

Christchurch Press, 2 February 1960

The loneliness of an island may lie bleached and exposed. It is a particular place, husbanding abnormality. Yet it is strong, its aloneness connected and composed. It is not only limited, but rendered unlimited by water. We must not equate an island solely with its land. It is made what it is also by the sea in which it stands.

    New Zealand lies southerly in the greatest ocean in the world, high-sided under dark blue light. In Britain the light is fragile, tactile. In Greece it is clear and hard. In Tahiti, where the sun connects the sea and air into a single glass, it is bright blue. Five thousand miles southwest that hue has changed. Blue-black is the colour of the land. Yet no less bright: no ozone, no shelter, by thousands of miles of ocean on every side light is collected, reflected. Nature is a power which New Zealanders can deface but which they cannot, and do not particularly wish to, tame.

    It is in the Mackenzie country of the South Island that we find this country's spectacular blue heart. Here thedramatic powder-blue lakes are given their colour by the glacial mastication of stone. Here, as if the general light were not enough, drawing colour and power from the sea, stone in water throws colour at the sky.

    To the southwest are the forested mountains of Fiordland. No less extraordinary, these are the primary site of New Zealand's religion. Ask any British historian what is special to them about their geography—country or city; dry stone-walled upland or walled town—they will tell you that it has been inhabited for thousands of years. It has a history beyond the reach of human knowledge. Ask a New Zealander the same question and they will tell you that in Fiordland there are places where no human being has ever set foot. It is this truth, in the minds of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders, who have not set foot in Fiordland either, which establishes a virginity cult as powerful, if not as ancient, as that of Rome. This is the southern religion of the unput foot.

    On the eastern shore of Lake Tekapo there is a famous small chapel. Through the western window one sees in microcosm the alpine view which spans the lake. Over an impossible blue, in the lightest air on earth, under perpetual snow, the Southern Alps stand like minted teeth. At their centre, and highest, is Mount Cook. To say that on a sunny sharp day it is one of the most beautiful sights on earth may be to mis-state the case. It is unearthly, and climbers regularly abandon sea-level to seek it.

    It was in Tekapo that my mother last saw my father. This sight occurred, appropriately enough, in a rear-vision mirror. Preparations for the ascent finished, Harry had bought apricots. As Margaret drove away, the bag burst. Her last glimpse of her husband was of a man ducking and weaving through traffic to retrieve apricots.

    Two evenings later there was a knock at the door. A policeman asked to speak to my grandfather. The following morning (2 February 1960) Margaret read in the Christchurch Press under the headline `TWO MOUNTAINEERS KILLED: 6,000ft Fall Off Ice Cap Of Mount Cook':

Two of a party of four climbers fell 6,000 ft to their deaths off the ice cap of Mount Cook's high peak yesterday afternoon. The accident occurred near the Zerbruggen ridge, a well known landmark near the summit. The dead men were: MELVILLE JAMES PITT GLASGOW, married, with four children ... and DR. T.H. SCOTT, married, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland.

That evening, `CLIMBERS BODIES NOT RECOVERED: Bad Weather Prevents Search on Mt. Cook':

The bodies of the two climbers who yesterday ... slipped on the ice and plunged off the east face of Mt Cook ... have not yet been recovered. Conditions today were impossible for searching, and the search parties were confined to the Haast Hut ... Chief Inspector C.H. Reardon, of the Timaru police, said today that after making their way in bad weather to the Haast Hut the two survivors ... Messrs Bruce Young and Jack Woodward ... were badly shaken ... the climbers, victims of a tragedy which had shocked everyone from Christchurch to the Hermitage, were roped in pairs.

It was raining in the search area and visibility was bad ... Mount Cook National Park Board chief ranger Mr H. Ayres said that there was `only a 50-50 chance of recovering the bodies' ... Mr Reardon said `I want the search party to go in and come out as quickly as possible ... Conditions are extremely dangerous.

The following day (3 February): `Search For Bodies on Mount Cook Abandoned':

Announcing this evening that the search had been abandoned,
Chief Inspector Reardon said any further search would involve
too great a risk ... Snow conditions are anything but safe.

In cloudy, overcast but calm weather a strong party left the Haast Hut at 8 a.m. today ... The route taken under the leadership of Mr Ayres ... was over the Glacier Dome (8047 ft) [and] ... the Linda Glacier ... to the snow shelf on the northwest side of the Zerbruggen ridge ... a ski-equipped Cessna aircraft assisted ... A comprehensive search was made ... and at times the east face above them was shrouded in mist ... the bodies were not on any of the known routes ... It was impossible to scale the face to look for them ... and on two occasions while roped together and wearing crampons members of the party had to run for shelter because of avalanches coming down.

Without a body, there was no funeral. At the inquest on 24 May Harry Ayres stated:

There were five ropes of two men each, which meant that a fair area could be searched. The line of search made eliminates the possibility of the bodies being on the shelf. This means that the bodies are high up on the east face of Mount Cook, possibly caught on rocks or broken ice.

`Life is inside—what we have done,' Harry had written. `Death is present before it has come.' As a family we were broken by it; hooked on rear-vision, and scattered like the apricots from his hand.

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