"In 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 a world’s 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 Hillary’s 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 Century’s defining moments. In a footstep Hillary moved on a journey to become one of its most famous and 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; of a subjective and private kind. Sometimes ‘winning’ a contest doesn’t even achieve anything more substantial. Nagged in the thin air by the straightforward man's aversion to completing a 'half-job' the irony of standing on the highest point on the planet is that the feeling of a task completed must be pervaded by a sense of humility. As Hillary commented on his feelings on top: "I was very much aware that we still had to get safely back down the mountain again and that was quite an important factor. I really felt the most excitement when we finally got to the bottom of the mountain again and it was all behind us."
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 with the romantic sublime, had the ability to inspire awe and admiration. Andres Delgardo, attempting the climb in 1997 contemplates the asault on the peak:
"Sometimes in dreams I wonder how Hillary and Tenzing must have felt on that day... stepping on ground that had never been tread upon ... all the heights of the planet were below their feet, and above them, nothing but the infinite. That is what I would call a communion with the world and with existence ... to transcend, or at least to try."
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 an 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: "It was a measure of the men [Hillary and Tenzing] that over the years they truly grew into the [heroic] condition. Perhaps they thought that just being the first to climb a hill was hardly as qualification for immortality; perhaps they instinctively realised destiny had another place for them. For they became, in the course of time, representatives not merely of their particular nations, but of half of humanity. Astronauts might justly claim that they were envoys of all humanity; Hillary and Tenzing, in a less spectacular kind, came to stand for the small nations of the world, the young ones, the tucked away and the up-and-coming."
Hillary, 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, has devoted half of his life and limitless energies to environmental causes and to humanitarian efforts on behalf of the Nepalese people. From the beekeeper from Tuakau to as, Salon’s 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 in the face at Gallipoli and was described as "rigidly principled" by Edmund: 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 Zealand’s 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 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, taunt 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 father’s 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: "Some day I’m going to climb Everest’, he had told a friend just before the war. He meant it though no one believed it then. After his discharge from the Air Force he joined the Auckland section of the New Zealand Alpine Club, taking part in the first ascent of the southern ridge of Mount Cook and several other high climbs in the Southern Alps."
After the war, Hillary spent as much time preparing for Everest as he could. 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 training team.
Knocking the Bastard Off
"We didn’t 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 weren’t at all sure whether we wouldn’t drop dead or something of that nature."
Everest is a very big mountain to ignore, 29,028 feet high to be exact. Known and revered as Chomolungma to its people. A mountain – unreachable, fearless, deadly, intangible - that had defeated 15 previous expeditions. On its slopes many of the worlds strongest climbers had perished. The North Pole had been reached in 1909; the South Pole in 1911. But Everest (often described as the Third Pole), had defied all man’s attempts – up until Hillary and Tenzing, reaching the summit had come to seem beyond mere mortals.
Hillary joined a British expedition to climb Everest in 1953, led by British mountaineer John Hunt and 400 others. 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. "...I then realised that the ridge ahead, instead of still monotonously rising, now dropped sharply away, and far below I could see the North Col and the Rongbuk Glacier. I looked upwards to see a narow snow ridge running up to a snowy summit. A few more whacks of the ice-axe in the firm snow, and we stood on the top."
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 his 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. Hillary found no signs. 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 event 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, we’ve knocked the bastard off."
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, Norgay was given the George Medal, Britain’s 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 Hillary remained 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 Mallory’s 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. Well before Leonardo DiCaprio would bellow, propped up by stage-hands and harnesses on a cardboard ship sinking to the bottom, "I’m the King of the World", Hillary and Tenzing were quietly, actually, there. Hillary: "I was just an enthusiastic mountaineer of modest abilities who was willing to work quite hard and had the necessary imagination and determination. I was just an average bloke; it was the media that transformed me into a heroic figure. And try as I did, there was no way to destroy my heroic image. But as I learned through the years, as long as you didn’t believe all that rubbish about yourself, you wouldn’t come to much harm."
Typically humble, refusing his heroic mantle before we have even barely begun to lionise him. The achievements of Sir Edmund Hillary, imbedded in New Zealand myth like the ragged lines of experience scored in his face, are so commonplace that they almost don’t bear repetition.
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 Norgay’s achievement had in 1953. For many it represented the last of the earth’s great challenges. It placed Hillary in the lineage of great terrestrial explorers. Adventurers such as Marco Polo, Chistopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark, Stanley and Livingston, Perry and Scott and Amundsen, Sir Richard Burton, Ernest Shackelton, Charles Lindbergh – explorers driven to find, step, see, go, endure, where no person had gone before. His achievement as one of mankind’s great accomplishments 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, "The explorers of the past were great men and we should honour them. But let us not forget that their spirit lives on. It is still not hard to find a man who will adventure for the sake of a dream or one who will search, for the pleasure of searching, not for what he may find."
Climbing Everest could have been the pinnacle of his career, but Hillary had a lifetime ahead of him. He continued to go on mountaineering expeditions, always breaking new ground. In 1958, he led an expedition riding tractors across Antarctica to the South Pole, following in the footsteps of Scott. 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 was never the sort to be able to accept the profession of full-time celebrity. He had higher ideals than that. His travels in Nepal and friendship with Tenzing had given him a deep appreciation of Nepalese culture and people. Yet he was not so blinded by the romantic beauty of the landscape to overlook the very real social problems that Nepalese people faced, living in a small, poor country dwarfed by two huge nations.
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 1960’s Hillary’s commitment to Nepal broadened as he returned there to help the Nepalese build clinics, hospitals and more schools. Over the next four decades, Hillary 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.
"I have never felt sorry for the Sherpas , and I have never tried to impose projects on them. These are all things that the local people wanted, and we just responded. Every time we finish one project we get more requests."
Hillary’s 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 he’s raised. It is largely thanks to Hillary’s persevering efforts that the Sherpa’s 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 euphemism that ‘modern life is rubbish‘ is brought a little too close to 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 dubious about the way 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 Sherpa 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.
"I think that the tourism is a very big economic benefit to the Sherpa people and also they have very strong ties to their own social attitudes and their own religion, so fortunately they’re not too influenced by many of our western attitudes … they have a very strong culture and very strong village spirit. They work together on projects and so on and much of this is very admirable."
Nepal was also the site of the greatest tragedy of Hillary’s 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: "I could hardly bear to look at them… In the evenings I walked alone on the airfield with great mountains behind and tears running down my cheeks."
The only solace at this time was work. Stoically, Hillary soldiered on in Nepal, fundraising and adding practical assistance, refusing to give in to despair. In 1985, Hillary was appointed by David Lange’s 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 valley’s 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 which he approaches his 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 Zealander Now 80 years old, Hillary is no longer an active mountaineer, but is still a tireless fundraiser and worker for education and health projects in Nepal. Hillary 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 Jane Mulgrew, a lifetime friend, who assists him in his efforts. His son Peter has followed in his father’s footseps, having climbed Everest twice himself, and amongst other adventures, has visited the North Pole with astronaut Neil Armstrong and has climbed Mt Vinson, Antarctica's highest peak.
Hillary senior has been the subject of a major Television New Zealand documentary, several books and is consistently lauded in the world’s 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 client’s life), said: "Quite simply, Edmund Hillary shaped the course of my life."
Hillary’s 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 goal. "… while standing on top of Everest, I looked across the valley, towards the other great peak, Makalu, and mentally worked out a route about how it could be climbed… it showed me that, even though I was standing on top of the world, it wasn’t the end of everything for me, by any means. I was still looking beyond to other interesting challenges." - from the foreward to Peak Performance by Clive Gibson, Mike Pratt, Kevin Roberts and Ed Weymes.
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 Mallory’s body and, unsuccessfully, his camera. Whatever the veracity, Hillary’s 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: "Wouldn’t Mallory be pleased if he knew about this."
Hillary was someone who did the virtually impossible, climbed the world’s 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 exist of an act of adrenaline filled expression, a singular moment of exhalation. Conversely Hillary’s 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 world’s 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.
"It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves"