Summit of Everest Sir Edmund Hillary (1919-2008)

News of Sir Edmund Hillary’s death on 11 January 2008 quickly spread through the world media as did many condolences and tributes paid to ’a great man’. New Zealand’s Prime Minister characterised ’Sir Ed’ as the quintessential kiwi, a Maori word originating from the mid-nineteenth century and informally used for a New Zealander. Leading the official tribute at his State Funeral, she described him as a great inspiration and wonderful role model for generations.
From his home base in Auckland, ’Sir Ed’ ventured far and wide with pioneering Alpine mountain and polar explorations and has left an important philanthropic legacy in Nepal.
Beekeeper to World Explorer Sir Edmund’s autobiography Nothing Venture, Nothing Win, was published in 1975. It contributes to a long bibliography and extensive reference library available in an era where exploration, travel, tourism and the internet have shrunk our world into a near global village.
He suffered personal tragedy in 1975 when his wife Louise and daughter Belinda, at sixteen, were killed in a small plane crash on take-off near Kathmandu. He married the widow of a close friend who was killed in a plane crash in Antarctica.Their home base remained in Auckland.
Widely honoured in New Zealand and around the world, he has been the subject of a major Television New Zealand documentary, several books and is consistently lauded in the world’s media. Public places, streets, schools and organisations around New Zealand and the world are named after him; and since 1990 he has been the only New Zealander to appear on a bank note during his life time.
Summit of Everest Named after Sir George Everest (1790-1866), British surveyor general of India, Mount Everest, on the border between Nepal and Tibet, is in the highest peak of the vast Himalayan range rising between the Ganges basin and the Tibetan plateau. At a height of 8,848 m. or 29,028 ft. Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world.
On 29 May 1953, two members of the British expedition led by Colonel John Hunt, mountaineer and explorer Sir Edmund (Percival) Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. They were decorated and celebrated around the world but typically a modest ’Sir Ed’attributed success to the efforts of the expedition team which had permitted him and his companion to reach the summit where others, before them, had failed.
An iconic quotation chronicled in the annals of climbing was said by Sir Edmund Hillary to an Everest expedition member, George Lowe. Waiting on the South Col with a thermos, Lowe called « How did you do? » « Well George, we’ve knocked the bastard off! »
Tenzing Norgay (1914-86) later became a director at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling. Sir Edmund Hillary was appointed New Zealand High Commissioner to India, Nepal and Bangladesh, serving in New Delhi between 1984 and 1988. He attended the funeral ceremony of his mountaineer companion, Tenzing Norgay.
Sir Edmund Hillary (1919-2008) Born on 20 July 1919 into an old established farming family, his paternal grandmother was Irish. His mother was a school teacher who tried to foster Edmund’s education. He grew up in Auckland as a shy and awkward boy who didn’t mix well and was happy taking long walks and roaming in the hills of his home area where he often dreamed of travel and adventure.
He discontinued his studies to work with his father as a beekeeper. This summer job allowed him time to climb mountains in the winter. All his life he described himself as an ’apiarist’ and remained in partnership with his brother in the business. He never liked to be known as a hero, preferring to be called « Ed » and considering himself an ordinary beekeeper.
In 1951, with fellow climbers, he embarked on an expedition to the Gharwhal Himalaya. By then he had become an experienced climber in both the New Zealand and European Alps. Known as a living legend and the world’s greatest living explorer, this ’colossus of Everest’ continued to inspire awe among other mountaineers. Climbing Everest could have been the pinnacle of his career, but Sir Edmund Hillary continued to go on expeditions always breaking new ground.
In 1958 following the footsteps of Sir Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912), in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition he led an expedition riding tractors across the Antarctica to reach the South Pole, a world’s first by motorised vehicle. As role model, he was known to admire Sir Ernest Henry Shackelton (1874-1922) as a tough man and very good leader.
In the fifties and sixties he made another half dozen Himalayan ascents. In 1960 he embarked on a much publicised expedition to find the mysterious Abominable Snowman or yeti, a ’little man-like animal’, said to live in the highest part of the Himalayas.
In 1968 he drove jet boats up the violent rapids of Nepalese rivers. In 1977 he journeyed by jet boat to the source of the Ganges river and in 1979 he published From the Ocean to the Sky, an account of his expedition from the mouth of the Ganges to its source in the Himalayas.
Legacy in Nepal ’Sir Ed’ became a tireless fundraiser and worker for education and health projects in Nepal. Starting with building of a three-roomed school, he established the Himalayan Trust Foundation that expanded and developed to help the Nepalese construct clinics, hospitals and more schools. He also raised funds to build bridges and two airfields. Over the next decades his fundraising helped to set up almost thirty schools, two hospitals and a dozen medical clinics under his supervision. This work led to his appointment as the New Zealand High Commissioner in 1984.
He became interested in environmental and humanitarian causes making immense contributions to the social and economic development for the mountain people of Nepal. A ’giant of a man’ over six feet tall, the Nepalese call him Burra – Sahib ’big in stature, big in heart’. In 2003 he was granted honorary citizenship of Nepal on the fiftieth anniversary of his greatest climb.
In his words … « 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 in the mountain. »
Death and State Funeral Sir Edmund Hillary died from heart failure on 11 January 2008 aged 88. His State Funeral in Auckland cathedral was held on 22 January 2008. Flags were at half mast on government and public buildings and at Scott Base. The funeral ceremony was transmitted to many countries and beamed live to Scott Base in Antarctica in poignant tribute to his last visit in 2007.
His casket was draped in the national flag and public respect was paid by Maoris and Sherpas including the son of Tenzing Norgay. As one of the great twentieth century adventurers ’Sir Ed’ is mourned in New Zealand and Nepal and by legions of his admirers around the world.
Ita Marguet
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in preparation of this article. It follows a published text on Story of Antarctica: Explorers Scott and Shackleton (Ita Marguet, Dec. 2007).