Sir Edmund Hillary
some ways I believe I epitomise the average New Zealander: I have modest
abilities, I combine these with a good deal of determination, and I rather
like to succeed." These typically modest words
were uttered by the most famous living New Zealander a sporting and
adventure hero, who scaled heights and reached places where no human being
had gone before.
He conquered Mount Everest and the South Pole and captured the worlds imagination. Yet where others would have been content to admire the view, look down and bask in the sheer individuality of achievement, for Sir Edmund Hillary it was only the beginning of a lifetime of service to others.
To approach writing of Sir
Edmund Hillarys achievements, generosity and the reverential awe in
which he is held is, excuse the pun, like looking upwards squinting into
the sun while standing at the bottom of a very
big mountain. The conjunction of New Zealand and hero will
indelibly be associated with Edmund Hillary in our collective memory. His
achievement in climbing Everest was one of the Twentieth Centurys
defining moments. In a footstep Hillary began a journey to become one
of its most famous, and most interesting people.
In some ways this is unusual,
because the real point in mountain-climbing, as in most hard sports, is
that it voluntarily tests the human spirit and body against the sternest
odds. The heroism of this achievement is mostly focused on the interior;
it is of a subjective and private kind.
Sometimes winning a contest doesnt even achieve anything more
substantial than such satisfaction.
In the thin air of Everest's peak, Hillary was nagged by an aversion to leaving a job half done. There was the irony of standing on the highest point on the planet with the feeling of a task not yet completed. Hillary said this of his feelings at the top:
After all, what was remarkable about getting to the top of a mountain? As travel writer Jan Morris (who accompanied the 1953 British expedition as the Times correspondent) writes in Time: 100 People of the Century, "by any rational standards, this was no big deal. Aircraft had long before flown over the summit, and within a few decades literally hundreds of other people from many nations would climb Everest too. [...] Geography was not furthered by the achievement, scientific progress was scarcely hastened, and nothing new was discovered. Yet the names of Hillary and Tenzing went instantly into all languages as the names of heroes, partly because they really were men of heroic mold but chiefly because they represented so compellingly the spirit of their time."
The beekeeper and the Sherpa, one from a remote former colony of the Crown on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, the other from the edge of the heavens. They affirmed the power of humble determination and, placing themselves firmly with the mythic paradigms of their respective cultures, won one for the underdogs. Certainly the act, a coupling of the romantic with the sublime, inspired awe and admiration. Andres Delgardo, attempting the climb in 1997 contemplates the assault on the peak:
What was to become truly heroic about both men though, was the way that they would live with the feat and the fame. For Hillary the accomplishment was not just the celebrity he achieved through being the first to reach the top of a piece of geography (ok an exceptional piece), but with the way he used his fame to aid the people who had helped him reach Everest: his beloved Sherpas. Morris again:
Trancsending the projections of celebrity, rising up to stand up for those who cannot spare the time or energy, let alone the money, to mess around in mountains, Hillary has devoted half his life, and limitless energy to environmental causes and to humanitarian efforts on behalf of the Nepalese people. From the beekeeper from Tuakau to, as Salons Don George describes Hillary's path, "[t]he man to match his mountain".
A Shy Boy
Edmund Percival Hillary was born in Auckland in 1919. His father Percival was a strict disciplinarian who had been wounded at Gallipoli and was described by Edmund as "rigidly principled": Percival quit his job as editor of the Tuakau District News after disagreeing with the board of directors. He then took up his hobby full-time, working as a beekeeper.
The young Edmund went to Auckland Grammar School. It took over two hours each way to get there from Tuakau, so he filled the time by reading. He was younger and smaller than most of his class, and not socially adept, as he says: "I was a shy boy with a deep sense of inferiority that I still have." (This shyness was to stay with him. In 1953, when he wanted to ask his future wife Louise to marry him, he was so shy that his future mother-in-law asked her on his behalf.)
Surprisingly, for someone who
would later become known as New Zealands most famous adventurer, he
also felt inferior at sport, awkward and uncoordinated. He took refuge in
reading and dreamed of a life filled with adventure. "There was a
phase when I was the fastest gun in the west," Hillary recalled in an
interview, "then another when I explored the Antarctic. I would walk
for hours with my mind drifting to all these things."
Discovering the Heights
It was when he was sixteen, during a school trip to Mount Ruapehu, that his interest in mountaineering began. He was fascinated by the snow which, as a born and bred Aucklander, he had never seen before. He was also discovering that, while he was not a natural athlete, his gangly, taut frame was physically strong and had higher levels of endurance than many of the friends he went tramping with.
By World War II, Hillary, who had followed in his fathers footsteps as a beekeeper, was seriously involved in climbing. He served in the New Zealand Air Force for two years as a navigator, but was discharged after an accident. By this stage a dream had also been born. As Grayland relates:
After the war, Hillary spent as
much time as he could preparing for Everest. He climbed the Southern Alps
in summer and winter, to practice both rock climbing and ice pick work,
and also took up wrestling. In 1951 Hillary made his first trip to the
Himalayas and the following year joined a British Everest Committee
Knocking the Bastard Off
"We didnt know if it was humanly possible to reach the top of Mt. Everest. And even using oxygen as we were, if we did get to the top, we werent at all sure whether we wouldnt drop dead or something of that nature."
Hillary joined a British expedition to climb Everest in 1953, led by British mountaineer John Hunt. It was in May, and the expedition was trying to stay ahead of the monsoon snows. Different climbers in the expedition would be chosen to make the assault on Everest. After an earlier pair had to retire 300 feet short of the summit, Hillary and a Nepalese Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, recognised as the strongest and fittest in the team, were chosen to try the ascent.
After an uncomfortable night, they left the last camp at South Col in the freezing chill dawn of May 29th 1953. Five hours later, at 11:30am, Hillary, who was leading the climb at this point, stepped onto the summit.
Then Tenzing stepped up and Hillary took a photograph of him. Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stood literally on top of the world. It didn't enter Hillary's head to have his photograph taken. "As far as I knew, he [Tenzing] had never taken a photograph before, and the summit of Everest was hardly the place to show him how".
He looked around for signs of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, who had gone to the mountain 30 years before and who, some people believe, had reached the summit. He found no sign of them. Tenzing dug holes for food, small gifts to the gods. Having paid their respects to the highest mountain in the world, they then urinated on it.
Hillary heralded the ascent with the laconic style that made him a New Zealand archetype. Returning from the summit, he greeted a fellow New Zealand member of the expedition George Lowe, with the iconic words: "Well George, weve knocked the bastard off."
The photos of Hillary and
Tenzing on the top of the world were broadcast across the globe.
From Salon writer Don George, "The photo of Sir Edmund Hillary shows him at the pinnacle literally of his career: on the summit of Mount Everest. Sir Edmund just plain Edmund back then is 33 years old; his hair is wind-tossed, his craggy, angular face is ruddy and burned by the sun and breeze, and he is wearing a smile as big as the Himalayan sky. Beside him Norgay is smiling just as broadly. They are on top of the world."
Hillary and Tenzing became instant icons, and the event itself one of the defining moments of the 20th century. Heightening the impact even further was the felicitous coincidence of their arrival just before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and the dramatic announcement of their triumph on the morning of the coronation. Hillary was knighted, Tenzing was given the George Medal, Britains highest civilian award, and the duo were medaled, toasted, and feted around the world.
The image of the tall, imposing New Zealander, catapulted Hillary into the status of media hero, both then and over the intervening half century. Yet he remains modest about the whole event, seeing it as a triumph of a whole mountaineering team, rather than just one man.
Part of the myth of Everest is the image of Hillary and Tenzing. They were not heroes of the old epic kind, dedicated to colossal purposes, prone to colonial utterances such as Mallorys famous explanation as to why he wanted to climb Everest, "because it is there". Nor were they larger than life Hollywood media creations. Hillary had reached the highest pinnacle of the earth. This was well before Leonardo DiCaprio would bellow, propped up by stage-hands and harnesses on a cardboard ship sinking to the bottom, "Im the King of the World" Hillary and Tenzing were quietly, actually, there. Hillary:
On this lonely planet of freeze-dried food,
computer generated fabrics and commercialised mountain climbing, it is
almost impossible to imagine the earth-shaking impact that Hillary and
Tenzing's achievement had in 1953. For many it represented the last of
the earths great challenges. It placed Hillary in the lineage of great
terrestrial explorers. Adventurers such as Marco Polo, Christopher
Columbus, Lewis and Clark, Stanley and Livingston, Perry and Scott and
Amundsen, Sir Richard Burton, Ernest Shackleton, Charles Lindbergh
explorers driven to find, step, see, go, endure, where no person had gone
before. His achievement came
at one of the last times in history when such a feat could still be
recognised as a distinctly human one, and not technological. Sir Edmund,
writing in 1958, remarked,
Climbing Everest could have been the pinnacle of his career, but Hillary had a lifetime ahead of him. He continued to go on expeditions, always breaking new ground. In 1958, following in the footsteps of Scott, he led an expedition riding tractors across Antarctica to the South Pole. In the 50s and 60s he undertook another half dozen Himalayan ascents; in 1960 he embarked on a much-publicised expedition to find the Abominable Snowman; and in 1977 he journeyed by jet boat to the source of the Ganges.
A Lifetime of Service: The Most
Impressive of Achievements
Hillary recalled how an elderly Sherpa from Khumjung village, the hometown of most of the Sherpas on his Everest ascent, had come to him a few years after that expedition and said, "Our children lack education. They are not prepared for the future. What we need more than anything is a school in Khumjung."
What the Nepalese needed was practical help, to be able to help themselves improve their standards of education and health. Hillary established the Himalayan Trust, and in 1961 a three room school-house was built in Khumjung with funds raised by the tireless mountaineer. Throughout the 1960s Hillarys commitment to Nepal broadened as he returned there to help the Nepalese build clinics, hospitals and more schools. Over the next four decades, he worked to raise the funds and help set up over 30 schools, two hospitals and 12 medical clinics. He also raised the funds to build two airstrips in Nepal to make it easier to bring in supplies.
Hillarys fame was the ticket
to fundraising and, into his ninth decade, he spends more than half the year travelling the world from his
New Zealand home, raising money for the trust and supervising the various
projects undertaken with the funds hes raised. It is largely thanks to
Hillarys persevering efforts that the Sherpas existence has been
made better known to the world.
One of the less fortunate
by-products of the new airstrips was that Nepal became more accessible to
mountaineering parties and tourists. The truism that modern life is
rubbish is brought home by the garbage that has
accumulated on the slopes of Everest over the last few decades. Hillary
became concerned at the damage to the environment and campaigned to
control the amount of tourism and the extent to which it affected Sherpa
life and culture. He is concerned that money has become
an important part of Sherpa culture in the half century since his ascent,
but realistic about the need to find sustainable ways of helping the people survive. He has faith in their endurance. The closeness of
the relationship that Hillary developed with the Sherpa people has led him to
admire their strength, enthusiasm and their sense of humour.
Nepal was also the site of the greatest tragedy of Hillarys life. His wife Louise, who was a strong supporter of his work in Nepal, and their 16 year old daughter Belinda were travelling to Paphlu, Nepal, in a small plane, when it crashed on taking off. Both were killed.
Hillary blamed himself for persuading Louise to take the light aircraft trip and was a long time recovering from the anguish and guilt. The Nepalese built an altar to Louise and Belinda in the cookhouse at Paphlu, decked with ceremonial scarves and lamps. As Hillary says of the altars:
The only solace at this time was work. He soldiered stoically on in Nepal, fundraising and adding practical assistance, refusing to give in to despair. In 1985, he was appointed by David Langes Labour government as High Commissioner to India and Nepal and served in that role for the next four years. In recent years, the trust has expanded its scope, devoting considerable funds to rebuilding monasteries and to reforesting valleys and slopes in the Mustang, Khumbu and Pokhara regions. That Ed, as he likes to be called, universally evokes love, admiration and respect, is not surprising given the humility with which he approaches life,
"I don't know if I
particularly want to be remembered for anything. I have enjoyed great
satisfaction from my climb of Everest and my trips to the poles. But
there's no doubt, either, that my most worthwhile things have been the
building of schools and medical clinics. That has given me more
satisfaction than a footprint on a mountain,"
The Most Famous Living New
Now in his eighties, Hillary is no longer an active mountaineer, but is still a tireless fundraiser and worker for education and health projects in Nepal. He has been widely honoured in New Zealand and around the world, and is the only living New Zealander to be featured on a bank note. He has remarried to June Mulgrew, a lifetime friend, who assists him in his efforts. His son Peter has followed in his fathers footsteps, having climbed Everest twice himself, and amongst other adventures, has visited the North Pole with astronaut Neil Armstrong and climbed Mt Vinson, Antarctica's highest peak.
Sir Edmund Hillary has been the
subject of a major Television New Zealand documentary, several books and
is consistently lauded in the worlds media. Known as a living
legend and the 'world's greatest living explorer', he inspires awe among other mountaineers. As
Jon Krakauer, the author of "Into Thin Air" (the account of the
1996 Everest tragedy where New Zealand mountaineering guide Rob Hall was
killed trying to save a clients life), said: "Quite simply, Edmund
Hillary shaped the course of my life."
Hillarys near-mythical status
puts him on a plateau above sporting heroes, for he has distinguished
himself well beyond the singularity of a mountain. From a feat that would
have been the crowning achievement of many careers, he has gone on to
become a humanitarian, an ambassador and elder statesman, never giving up,
never giving in to either despair or complacency, always planning the next
In the last couple of decades a British team has attempted to substantiate the claim that George Mallory got to Everest first and a TV documentary crew went up the mountain attempting to recover Mallorys body and, unsuccessfully, his camera. Whatever the veracity, Hillarys response was that climbing to the top of a mountain was only half the job next you have to get back down. Hillary is rumoured to have said on his descent:
Hillary is someone who did the virtually impossible, climbed the worlds highest mountain, and then did the nearly impossible again refusing, as Don George writes, "to be spoiled by all the adulation and accolades that the achievement earned him, and remaining loyal to an ideal and a people he loved. Because of this man, countless lives have been bettered, and an entire culture has been preserved."
Many heroic deeds in the most narrow definition of the term, consist of an act of adrenaline-filled expression, a singular moment of exhalation. Conversely Hillarys brand of heroism is the heroism of inspiration, "of debts repaid and causes sustained". Inextricably attached to the hill in our memories is, as Jan Morris muses, a gracious reputation built on "decency, kindness and a stylish simplicity." The real story of Hillary and the meaning of Everest is in the life not the moment. So when the worlds press remembers May 29th each year as the day that Hillary and Tenzing conquered Everest, they should not be remembering a feat but an example.
It is an example that reminds, in a world where you often wonder if we have lost our capacity for awe and wonder. Ed from the edge, despite having climbed to the heavens, was never religious, but had some sympathy for the Buddhist teachings of his Tibetan friends, especially the tenet that one should choose their own path in life.
Sir Edmund Hillary: from King
of the World, to humble citizen.
[Accessed June 2000]
From The Mountain Zone:
"Legends of modern climbing history"
From the Salon writer
Don Georges excellent article, "The man to match his
mountain," in the Brilliant Careers series
From the American Academy of
The Time: 100 Most Important
People of the Century issue:
From Forbes, "New
peaks to climb", by James M. Clash:
From the Environmental News
Network, "Sir Edmund speaks out":
From the Sydney Morning
Herald: "Clear view from the top":
From the Sydney Morning
Herald: "Crowd climbs to see Everest victor":
From the Celebrity Atheists
Hillary, Sir Edmund. (2000) View
From the Summit, Pocket Books, 2000
Hillary, Sir Edmund and Fisher, James M. (1990) Sherpas: reflections on change in Himalayan Nepal, University of California Press, USA.
McLauchlan, Gordon (Editor). (1984) The Bateman New Zealand Encyclopedia, David Bateman Ltd, Auckland.
Hillary, Sir Edmund. (1975) Nothing Venture, Nothing Win.
Grayland, Eugene. (1967) Famous New Zealanders, Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, Auckland.
Sir Edmund's early exploits are
recounted in High Adventure (1955), The Crossing of Antarctica
(1958), and No Latitude for Error (1961).
Newspaper and Magazine Articles:
Herrick, Stefan. (1999), "A mountain of a man", Evening Post, July 17.
Norquay, Kevin. (1999) "Everest conquest top news story of century", The Dominion, December 27
(1998) "Standing ovation at Smithsonian for Hillary", The Dominion, November 18.
Samson, Alan. (1999) "Tributes flow as Sir Ed turns 80", The Dominion, July 21.Calder, Peter. (1997) "Sir Edmunds slow steps to recovery", The Herald, March 14.
Philp, Matt. (1997) "Tracking Ed", The Listener, April 26.
Sanders, Andrew (1996) "Ed Hillary rated the greatest Kiwi sportsperson of all time", Sunday Times, July 28.
Vincent, Rosemary (1985) "Humour, tragedy colour the life of Sir Edmund Hillary", The New Zealand Times, January 6.
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