Who was Sir Edmund Hillary?

Sketch by Roger Browne, in the style of Hillary's charity sketch - CC-BY

Sketch by Roger Browne, in the style of Hillary's charity sketch - CC-BY

No doubt you already know that Hillary was the first to conquer Mount Everest, together with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Not so many people know of his other adventures.

Hillary’s work as a beekeeper provided a summer income and allowed him to mountaineer during the winter. In 1958 he led a party to the South Pole using motor vehicles—the first to have done so, and the first overland group to reach the pole since 1912. In 1977, he led a group up the Ganges River from its mouth to the source, travelling by jet boat. In 1985 he and Neil Armstrong flew a small skiplane to the North Pole.

Hillary was admired and much-loved by the population of his home country New Zealand. The establishment, too, were keen to shower him with honours. He had shown himself to be a safe and dependable person, and was appointed Ambassador to Nepal, and New Zealand High Commissioner to Bangladesh and India where his tall stature (195cm—6 feet 5 inches) would have made him unmissable.

I saw him speak at a fundraising dinner in Auckland. He recalled his time in India fondly, and said the biggest challenge was being “put on the spot” to do things without warning, such as the time when he was asked to judge the local mango competition. I asked him if the thought the world was running out of challenges, now that the big ones had all been “ticked off”. He didn’t think so, feeling that every new achievement just opens up the next challenge.

He devoted great energy to helping Nepal’s Sherpa people, building 17 schools and many clinics and hospitals through the Himalayan Trust which he established. He also persuaded the Nepalese government to declare Mount Everest a National Park, and persuaded the New Zealand government to help fund the park management.

Hillary was slated for appointment as New Zealand’s Governor-General, but he shunned this role, having never sought glory. The Government then glorified him by featuring him on the five dollar banknote. It’s a general principle to display only dead people on stamps and money, but the NZ Reserve Bank was confident that Hillary was a safe choice and would not “disgrace himself”, and indeed he did not let them down.

I recall a charity auction which took place in Auckland around 1987. Famous people had donated rough pencil sketches, and an enthusiastic group assembled. Much to the dismay of the professional auctioneer, many of the sketches did not sell. Of those that did sell, only those by extremely famous entertainers and sportspeople even recouped the cost of their frames.

And why was this? Everyone was hoarding their money, waiting to bid on Edmund Hillary’s donation, a simple outline of a mountain with a flag and a tent—plus the initials “EH”. The auctioneer held this one back until last, and everyone except the winning bidder went home with their money still in their pockets. If only this sketch had been auctioned first, the other sketches would have sold well and the fundraising would have been a success. I stopped bidding at NZ$700, and from memory I think Sir Edmund’s drawing sold for around NZ$1100.

Hillary’s life had its share of tragedy. His wife and youngest daughter were killed in a plane crash near Kathmandu in 1975, and he narrowly escaped an aviation death himself in 1979. He had planned to accompany a sightseeing flight to Antarctica as commentator, but had pulled out. Instead, his friend Peter Mulgrew went, and died when the Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed into Mt Erebus. Many years later, Hillary married Mulgrew’s widow.

Sir Edmund retired to Remuera, a suburb of his birth city Auckland. He died in 2008, at age 88, of a heart attack.

Always a straight talker, and not afraid to use the Great Antipodean Noun, Hillary had said to a team member upon returning from the conquest of Everest, “Well, George, we’ve knocked the bastard off“. And so after his death, Claire Harvey wrote this tribute in the New Zealand Herald:

“…And for New Zealanders, Sir Ed was everything a good bastard ought to be – modest and humorous, brave and compassionate, and just grouchy enough to remind us he never sought, nor particularly enjoyed, adulation…”

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