Obituary: Sir Edmund Hillary: 1919-2008

Mountaineer, adventurer, philanthropist.
Born: Auckland, July 20, 1919.
Died: Auckland, January 11, 2008.

Edmund Hillary was habitually known as the greatest living New Zealander, but he always rejected the term. "I like to think I'm a very ordinary New Zealander," he said at parliament at a celebratory dinner to mark the 50th anniversary of his conquest of Everest.

When Edmund Percival Hillary he always insisted on being called plain "Ed" and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the pinnacle of Mt Everest in 1953, he became one of the most famous men in the world.

But he always kept his large feet planted firmly on the ground.

"I was just an enthusiastic mountaineer of modest abilities who was willing to work quite hard and had the necessary imagination and determination," Hillary said.

"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."

Hillary also stood on the South and North Poles Everest is often referred to as "the Third Pole" but his name and reputation will forever be linked inextricably with the world's highest mountain.

Yet as Jan Morris, who covered the successful assault on Everest for the London Times, has noted, Hillary's gracious reputation has been built on "decency, kindness and a stylish simplicity".

That stylish simplicity won Hillary a worldwide following that saw him regarded in awe as an ambassador for the Sherpas throughout the United States and Europe and, in a tiny nation that reserves most of its adulation for sporting stars, awarded near mythical status.

But he always spoke of the ascent in an almost off-hand way. On his return to New Zealand in August 1953, he told the Auckland Star he thought about three things when he reached the top.

"Relief that we'd finally reached the top; pleasure that we'd got there and considerable interest in getting down."

When a British television crew attempted to prove that British climber George Leigh Mallory had beaten Hillary to the summit in 1924, Hillary responded that the ascent was only half the job.

"It's one thing to get to the top of a mountain. But it isn't really a complete job until you get safely to the bottom."

And when he did get safely down to camp he made the remark to fellow Kiwi and Hastings schoolteacher George Lowe that will forever be his most famous quote: "Well George, we've knocked the bastard off."

Hillary told the Sunday Star-Times the remark had got him into trouble with his mother, Gertrude, after Lowe "the rotten so-and-so" revealed the quote to a BBC interviewer.

"When I got home to New Zealand my mother said to me `Edmund, you didn't say those dreadful words, did you?' And I had to admit I had said them."

The man who "knocked the bastard off" was born in 1919, the son of Gallipoli veteran Percival Hillary, a part-time beekeeper and editor of the Tuakau District News. When he had a falling out with the paper's board, Hillary senior took up beekeeping full-time, an occupation he would hand down to his son.

Hillary was educated at Auckland Grammar School, where a school gym instructor told him his appearance was "appalling".

"At the time I was terrified by the strangeness of this huge new school and my confidence was really knocked by this instructor who made it clear that, in his eyes, I was under-sized and scrawny," he told the Sunday News on the 40th anniversary of the Everest triumph.

"He reckoned that my shoulders were too rounded and that my ribs jutted out in a peculiar way. In fact, he convinced me I was a physical freak." It was a lambasting he would always remember.

"I've never managed to shake off that feeling of inferiority even though logic tells me it's really not justified. It's not about what I can achieve, it's simply about the way I look."

He had a famously difficult relationship with his father. While Edmund attributed the numerous thrashings he got to his own rebelliousness, others said Percy was difficult and even unbalanced. Journalist Pat Booth, author of an unauthorised biography of Hillary, said in 2003 that Percy Hillary "was badly wounded at Gallipoli and I think he never recovered mentally".

It was a school trip in 1935 that ignited Hillary's interest in the high peaks. On a visit to Mt Ruapehu, the schoolboy was fascinated by the sight of snow. Although never a natural athlete, he soon found that his tall frame was ideal for tramping and mountaineering.

By the outbreak of World War II, Hillary had followed his father's career of beekeeping, but he joined the air force and for two years served as a navigator on Catalina flying boats before a crash saw him discharged.

The man who before the war had told a friend "Some day I'm going to climb Everest" used his time back in Civvy St to further his climbing experience. He joined the New Zealand Alpine Club and was involved in the first ascent of Mt Cook's southern ridge. He spent summer and winter in the Southern Alps so he could combine rock and ice climbing.

Hillary first climbed in the Himalayas in 1951 and the following year was invited to join a British Everest Committee training team. By 1953, he was an essential member of the British team led by Colonel John Hunt.

The timing of the final assault on Everest's 8846m summit was superb. Hillary and Tenzing carved their names into history at 11.30am on May 29, two days before Queen Elizabeth's coronation in London.

The news broke the day before the event and London's Daily Mail trumpeted: "No monarch ever rode to Coronation with such splendid tidings ringing round her realms."

Within days Hillary was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen's special Coronation Day Honours List.

Hillary didn't learn that he was a knight until the Hunt team arrived back in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu. It had been accepted on his behalf by the New Zealand Prime Minister, Sid Holland.

Years later, Hillary said he would have preferred to remain plain Mr Hillary. "If I'd had any choice, which normally I would have done, I'd have refused the knighthood.

"The usual routine is for you to say, discreetly, whether or not you'll accept it. Apart from the fact that I've never really approved of titles, I didn't feel I was KBE material. But it had gone too far and it was impossible, without being very rude, to turn it down."

Not that it didn't help in times to come. "In America they're keen on titles and my knighthood has opened a lot of doors for me there. That's been a great help with fund-raising."

After Everest there were fresh fields to conquer. In 1958, Hillary completed an overland tractor journey he called it "the worst journey in the world" in a special report for the Times from Scott Base to the South Pole. It was the first overland journey to the pole since the ill-fated Scott expedition in 1912.

In the United States there was the lucrative lecture circuit he commanded $1000 a pop more than 30 years ago and a consultancy with the giant mail-order firm Sears Roebuck on camping and outdoor equipment.

There was also his lifelong work for the Sherpas in Nepal, where his tireless efforts for the Himalayan Trust brought them schools, clinics and hospitals.

But this love of the mountains and their people also brought him tragedy. In March 1975, his wife, Lady Louise Hillary, 44, the daughter of an Auckland lawyer and former president of the NZ Alpine Club, was killed with their daughter, Belinda, 16, when their single-engine plane crashed shortly after taking off from Kathmandu airport.

Mother and daughter had been on their way to Phaphlu where Hillary had been supervising the construction of a hospital for Sherpas. To honour the pair they built an altar in the cookhouse at Phaphlu.

Hillary, who for some time blamed himself for the crash, could not bring himself to look at it. He fell into a deep depression, and said he was only rescued by it when he married his second wife, June Mulgrew. She was the widow of climber Peter Mulgrew, who died in the 1979 Mt Erebus disaster. The Mulgrew and Hillary families had been friends since 1956.

Back in New Zealand he would at times be involved in controversy. He once made a speech accusing politicians of lying too much. Prime Minister Rob Muldoon demanded an apology. It was not forthcoming.

In 1985, Labour Prime Minister David Lange appointed Hillary as High Commissioner to New Delhi, re-opening the post that had been closed by the Muldoon administration.

"I don't really regard myself as a diplomat in the professional sense, but I think it has worked out quite well because there's not much doubt in India they have a warm feeling towards me, which I reciprocate," he told the Auckland Star a year after his appointment, which ran for four years.

"Of course, virtually everybody who's been to school has had to put up with the misfortune of reading about me."

Hillary felt that some of the attention lavished on him by Indians peeved some of his fellow diplomats "and I don't really blame them".

A prolific author his 1975 autobiography Nothing Venture, Nothing Win won a Wattie Book Award the man the Nepalese called Burra-sahib, "big in stature, big in heart", became somewhat critical of the "rent-a-Sherpa" ascents of recent times.

"A lot of these things are a bit gimmicky," he told the Listener in 1989. "If they have a route prepared for them, and the camps are established, they more or less do a marathon, up and down so quickly so the effects of altitude are minimised. Remarkable efforts, but some seem not entirely authentic."

Now, more than 2000 people have climbed Everest.

But the man whose craggy features grace the New Zealand $5 note said he did not know if he particularly wanted 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."


Sunday Star Times