Sir Edmund Hillary: Kiwi Legend: 1919-2008

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009

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Sir Edmund Hillary always said he was just an ordinary Kiwi, but nobody ever believed him. Anthony Hubbard surveys the life of a modest hero who embodied the virtues that New Zealanders like to think of as their own.

Edmund Hillary used to laugh about the names they called him. There was something inside the great mountaineer that refused to swallow the adulation of the world. So even after decades of international praise, he remained unsophisticated and uncorrupted. Fame didn't spoil him as it has spoiled so many others.

In an interview with the Sunday Star-Times in 2003, Hillary laughed about the cascade of compliments coming his way during the 50th anniversary of his conquest of Everest. "What's the term they use?" he asked. "No, not the hero, the ah... I always forget the name." He called out to his wife upstairs. "June, what am I?" Lady Hillary came down and said, matter of fact: "An icon."

"An icon!" he laughed. "I'm certainly not an icon at home." "No man", she replied, "is an icon to his wife."

This exchange says much about Hillary, and also about his wife. There was no big-headed nonsense in their household. All the obituarists have hailed his Kiwi modesty, of course, but plenty of other famous Kiwis have failed the modesty test and many New Zealanders do still require their heroes to be modest. One or two with international reputations are impossible creatures, vain and prickly.

So how did he manage it? For there is no doubt that he did. He had a slow drawl till the day he died, an unreconstructed accent that to some ears sounded like a hick's. Some younger people talk about him as though he was just a slow old duffer. They mistake the manner for the man.

Perhaps part of the secret lay in Hillary's difficult childhood. His father Percy was badly wounded at Gallipoli and came home shell-shocked. Nowadays we might say he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. In any case, he was constantly hauling Edmund off for a thrashing in the woodshed, often for trifling offences. Hillary told this newspaper the story he had told it a thousand times before about the grapes. "My father had grown some very good grapes along the side of the house and there was one particularly good bunch that was just coming ripe. One morning they had disappeared and he automatically thought of me, and I denied it so over to the woolshed, and I got a really good thumping that day."

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Another time his father had given tennis racquets to Hillary and his brother Rex for Christmas. "He didn't often give us presents, and they were pretty crumby old tennis racquets but to me, a tennis racquet! And then Rex and I started playing tennis out on the lawn, banging the ball around in rather violent fashion. And he came over and he was really mad and he grabbed our tennis racquets and he smashed them both over a fence post."

Hillary said the battles with his father had made him stronger. But perhaps the memory of these and other formative experiences kept him humble or even insecure. He was a lonely boy with few friends. For much of his life, he said, he thought of himself as ugly and rustic-looking. And the fact is he was not handsome, with his ox-bow jaw, his hatchet face and his tombstone teeth.

Then there was the famous story about the bullying gym-teacher at Auckland Grammar. He was "a real brute of a chap, really. All the new kids had to come along for him to check out and he was very very critical of me. He said I had rounded shoulders and a bowed back and just about everything was wrong with me that was possible.

"He was so positive about what a drip I was and he put me in the no-hopers' group and I really have never really forgotten about that. I still have that same feeling."

I still have that same feeling. Hillary said it with real indignation, 70 years after it happened. It was as though he still felt the sense of worthlessness that had humiliated him as a boy, and also the sting, the determination to fight back.

The way he told it, mountaineering liberated him from this tangle of bad feelings. At 16, he went to his first mountain, Ruapehu. He found he had a natural talent. The mountains freed him from boredom, loneliness, and some of the self-doubt. As a lad he had read books about adventurers like Shackleton. Now he discovered he could be one too.

His generation was also taught to be modest. There was no sin greater than "skiting", a word that has now almost disappeared from New Zealand speech.

His account of the ascent of Everest he was later to say it wasn't a conquest, "the mountain had relented" was full of hilarious understatement. "There were moments, you know, I fell down the odd crevasse which wasn't very pleasant. And the odd avalanche came shooting by and great chunks of ice would come tumbling down and sweep across our track. These were frightening, certainly, but it all sort of happened so quickly that I don't remember sort of having a great sense of disaster."

He insisted he was still "a somewhat fearful person."

Hillary remained that very New Zealand kind of hero: the unsophisticated person whose lack of flash concealed an amazing talent. Burt Munro, immortalised recently in Roger Donaldson's film The World's Fastest Indian, was another of the type. The Southlander spent years modifying a 1920 Indian motorcycle in his back shed before setting a world speed record with it on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. Munro was a slow-talking gauche sort of fellow and his motorbike looked a joke. You underestimated him at your peril.

New Zealanders like the type because it personifies the can-do, number-8 wire approach on which we pride ourselves. This is a myth shared by other former colonies, where versatility was an essential part of survival in a strange new country. It also allows us to pull one over the former mother country.

Hillary's famous "we've knocked the bastard off" was a perfect Kiwi-ism, unthinkable in the mouths of the British members of the 1953 Everest expedition. Would the very posh Sir John Hunt, expedition leader, have ever said such a thing? Not a chance, mate. Mind you, Edmund's mother, a very proper person, was also startled to hear about her son's remark.

His 1958 journey from Scott base to the South Pole as part of the Commonwealth expedition led by British explorer Sir Vivian Fuchs had some of the same Kiwi allure. What could be more New Zealand than driving a tractor across Antarctica? Hillary was in charge of the supply team and wasn't supposed to go all the way to the pole, but he decided to go there anyway. Once again it was one-up for the Kiwis.

When Hillary came down Mt Everest he instantly became a world celebrity. And once again there was the familiar can-do approach to the problem. Asked to do a lecture in France, Hillary gave it in schoolboy French. Presented to kings and presidents, he was unawed. He explained that he was basically a shy person, but "on the other hand, being a New Zealander, I find it very easy to deal in a friendly fashion with the great in the world". In that sense, he had "never felt a sense of inferiority". At a special ceremony at parliament in 2003 to celebrate the 50th anniversary, Hillary had to take his lunch on a podium in the Beehive banquet area, alongside Helen Clark and one or two other luminaries. He cut a slightly awkward figure, elevated above a roomful of VIPs, and for much of the time ate in a slightly glum silence. Banter wasn't, perhaps, his strong suit.

And of course he had to sit while everybody praised him. Later, he said: "I appreciate the gesture but I don't necessarily believe it. I've got a pretty good idea of what my abilities are, the sort of person I am and so I don't permit really all this hullabaloo to affect me."

Hillary combined two other New Zealand values: great physical prowess and a concern for the underdog. He climbed Everest and he spent much of the rest of his life trying to help the desperately poor Sherpa.

At parliament in 2003, Hillary said proudly: "We built 27 schools, two hospitals and 12 medical centres for the Sherpa people."

Hillary insisted on a certain old-fashioned courtesy towards the people he helped. Mountaineer Graeme Dingle was once taking shots of a mountaineering group around the campfire in Nepal, "including some lovely Sherpani women". Dingle said: "What can I say to make them laugh?" And someone said: "Say Likpartolo."

Dingle recalls that he shouted it out "and all the Sherpanis laughed like anything, because I had said in Nepali, `My penis won't rest'. But Ed was not at all happy about that."

Hillary was also furious when Dingle painted a sign for a new Sherpa hospital they had built: the Hillary Kunde Hospital. Later, it was repainted without the mountaineer's name.

Hillary could be brutally honest, Dingle said. "He will sometimes fix you with this very scary look and tell you exactly what he thinks, even though he must realise it's going to hurt like hell."

Hillary always said he was just an ordinary Kiwi, but nobody believed him. Hillary was the genuine humble Kiwi hero, Dingle said, and that was why "we love him. Yes, we do. He's in the fortunate or unfortunate position of embodying the things that we like to think of ourselves as. They're not true, very often they're a myth.

"But they're things like the big rugged character who can do anything, who is humble in spite of amazing achievements, who can pick up a claw hammer and build a castle, and work the land and be independent and look mighty powers in the eyes and say, `Bugger off, we're New Zealanders, we make our own decisions'." We may not live up to these virtues, he says, but we aspire to them. Hillary embodied these aspirations: he was, says Dingle, a mirror of the best of us.

The admiration many felt for Hillary survived some fierce political spats. In the late 1960s he criticised the National government for its international aid effort. The then finance minister, Robert Muldoon later to become prime minister gave a waspish response, along the lines of "Sir Edmund knows as much about management of the economy as I know about mountaineering."

Hillary attacked Muldoon again in 1975 the politician was now leader of the opposition when he signed up to Citizens For Rowling, an anti-Muldoon campaign by a group of prominent New Zealanders. The Citizens provoked a furious counter-attack from National supporters, who accused them of elitism and arrogance: "How dare this tiny bunch of snobs tell us how to vote!"

Some of the blogs have recalled this spat in the last two days and criticised Hillary's "siding with Labour". After all, didn't the Lange Labour government later appoint Hillary High Commissioner to India?

But most people were prepared to forgive Hillary for his political adventures. Somehow, he remained above the usual party fracas.

So far, he has managed to avoid the fate of most heroes: to have been cut down in due course by revisionist journalists or historians. This might still happen, of course, but part of the reason it hasn't is that Hillary himself was his fiercest critic.

He felt ashamed, he said in 2003, of the way he behaved when his mother was on her deathbed.

She was the source of warmth and affection in the family he says, yet when he visited her in hospital during her final illness, "we chatted away but I was a very restless person and after a while I get tired of chatting.

"She immediately recognised that and she said, `Edmund, you've been here long enough. You must go home and have some dinner'.

"I sort of had a twinge of conscience but in the end I got up and kissed her goodnight and headed off. And during the night she died. I headed off too quickly. I never really forgave myself for that. Haven't still."

He also criticised his parenting of his three children. "I wasn't a demonstrative parent," he told the Sunday Star-Times. "I really should feel ashamed of myself. I wasn't [demonstrative], except for Belinda. I had great affection for her."

When his much-loved first wife, Louise, was killed along with his daughter Belinda in a plane crash near Kathmandu in 1975, Hillary told journalist Pat Booth that he had lost the two people he loved most in the world. It was, said Booth, a rather shocking remark, because he had two children, Peter and Sarah, still living.

He also had for some time a rocky relationship with Peter, who became a celebrated mountaineer in his own right. Booth suggested Hillary may have been a rather rigid and distant parent to him, just as his own father was a suggestion that Hillary rejected. "I don't think I was like my father at all. I'd prefer to think I wasn't anyway."

Hillary was shy with women and inclined to an old-fashioned gallantry. He was too scared to propose to Louise, and was delighted when his future mother-in-law offered to do it for him. "Oh I was a coward, my God I was a coward."

He made no secret of the fact that it was his second wife, June Mulgrew, who rescued him from the deep depression he fell into after the deaths of Louise and Belinda. June and Louise were the most important people in his life. "I was extremely lucky that I had two great wives. It sounds a bit funny to say that, but it's absolutely true."

Hillary told the newspaper that he had no religious faith and could never understand people who asked him if he prayed when he got into a tight spot in the mountains. He had got himself into the fix, he said, and he didn't expect anyone else to get him out.

"Besides, I didn't think there was an outside force that would help me." But death was not a frightening thing. "Well, I know it's going to happen. But I've had a pretty marvellous life in many ways. I can hardly complain!"

He had also got over his feeling that he was ugly. "Nowadays, I know that I'm not the best looking in the world but it doesn't worry me because I suppose for so many years people have told me what a marvellous person I was."

Asked whether this meant he was starting to believe the adulation after all, he laughed: "Well, I don't permit myself to believe [it]," he said.

"Oh yeah, I realised a little bit to my astonishment that I can give a lecture for a thousand people and there will be this tumultuous applause, so you know I have the feeling well, it can't be all that bad."

Hillary's place in New Zealand was probably unique: nobody else was as widely admired as he. And partly this must have been because people sensed a certain vulnerability about him, that he had had to fight to achieve what he did, and that he could remember himself as a a shy and uncertain boy.

This kind of leader inspires a fierce sort of loyalty. Dingle recalls that at the start of the Ocean to Sky expedition to the mountain source of the Ganges in 1977, Hillary told the team: "`We will drive till we sink the boats.' We were all covering our faces, thinking, oh, no...

"Later, when we left the boats behind we began walking and then climbing and a couple of us said, `Ed, the schedule is too ambitious, we won't acclimatise soon well enough.'

But he was determined to push on. The team simply had to follow, although we would have followed him anywhere."

Today, however, so long after the Everest climb and Hillary's other main achievements, many young New Zealanders probably have only a vague knowledge of him. For many, he is possibly just the man on the five-dollar note.

And the question arises: Would any future Kiwi hero find such a deep response among his fellow citizens? New Zealand today is a much more diversified, much less homogeneous society than it was in the 1950s. The cult of modesty has come under attack since the individualistic 1980s and 1990s, when self-seeking became if not a virtue then at least not an official vice.

Hillary himself didn't care much for that kind of attitude.

When it was reported that a team including Kiwi mountaineer Mark Inglis had left a dying climber on Everest, Hillary was outraged. He said he would have abandoned his own attempt on the mountain if he had found another climber in distress.

Nobody doubted his word.

THE LIFE OF SIR EDMUND HILLARY

July 20, 1919: Edmund Percival Hillary born in Auckland to Percival and Gertrude.

Education: Auckland Grammar School; two years at Auckland University.

1935: School trip to Mt Ruapehu ignites interest in mountaineering.

1936-43: Works as beekeeper.

1939: First major climb: Mt Olivier in the Southern Alps.

1944-45: Navigator in RNZAF for Catalina flying boats in the Pacific in World War II.

1949: Climbs in Austrian and Swiss Alps.

1951: NZ Gawhal Expedition in Himalayas; British Everest Reconnaissance.

1952: British Cho Oyu Expedition in Himalayas.

May 29, 1953: Summits Mt Everest with Sherpa Tenzing.

1953: Knight Commander OBE.

1953: Marries Louise Rose. Children: Peter, Sarah, Belinda.

1958: Uses tractor in first overland journey to South Pole since Robert Scott.

1961: Establishes the Himalaya Trust.

1967: First ascent Mt Herschel, Antarctica.

March 1975: Wife Louise and daughter Belinda die in accident in Kathmandu.

April 1985: Accompanies Neil Armstrong to the North Pole, first person to stand at both poles and atop Mt Everest.

1985-89: NZ High Commissioner to India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

1987: Inducted into Order of New Zealand.

1989: Marries June Mulgrew.

1995: Knight of the Order of the Garter.

2003: Returns to Nepal, 50th anniversary of Everest ascent.

January 2007: Returns to Antarctica for 50th anniversary of Scott Base establishment.

April 2007: Last trip to the Himalayas

May 2007: Ranked New Zealand's most trusted person in survey.

January 11, 2008: Dies in Auckland of heart attack, aged 88.

 

- Sunday Star Times

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