Sir Edmund Hillary – rest in peace


The man who conquered Everest has died. Sir Edmund Hillary was born 20 July 1919 and rose to international fame with his assault on Mt Everest in 1953.

Wellington (dpa) – Sir Edmund Hillary was honoured throughout the world as the first man, with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, to climb Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak at 8,848 metres, in 1953.

He died Friday at the age of 88. In his native land, he was the best-loved New Zealander of his generation and could have ruled the country for years had he chosen to enter politics. He was equally loved in Nepal where he reciprocated the affection the Sherpas had for him by setting up a Himalayan Trust which built two hospitals, 20-odd schools and a similar number of health clinics for them.

A man who confessed in his autobiography: “I was always too restless and life was a constant battle against boredom” also rode a tractor to the South Pole, drove jet boats up the Ganges and served his country as its top diplomat in India.

He remained restless and battling to the end, still travelling the world, lecturing and raising money for his beloved Sherpas in his late 80s and planning yet another trip to Kathmandu in 2006 to visit the schools and clinics he established.

Ed Hillary was once an unknown 33-year-old beekeeper whose mountaineering skills acquired on New Zealand’s Southern Alps qualified him to join a British expedition trying to conquer Mount Everest.

When he became the first man to stand on top of the world on May 29, 1953 – a few steps ahead of Tenzing, as both confirmed later in their autobiographies – he could have retired immediately to a lazy lifetime of fame and glory.

Made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire two months later by Queen Elizabeth, the world’s most famous mountaineer went on to receive a host of honours at home and abroad and to see his image engraved on one of his country’s banknotes – a tribute rarely accorded the living.

As Sir Edmund Hillary, he could have made celebrity appearances and wined and dined in luxury around the world for ever more.

But he chose to devote much of his life and energy to the Sherpa people, who live in one of the most remote and impoverished parts of Nepal and acted as guides and porters for the expedition.

After they had conquered the mountain, the New Zealander asked Tenzing what he could do for the Sherpas to repay their help. Their priorities were education and health care, he was told, and Hillary promised to get them.

He founded the Himalayan Trust and toured the world to speak of Everest, its neighbouring mountains on the roof of the world and the 100,000 Sherpas who live on them. He solicited funds to improve their lives.

Apart from the schools, hospitals and clinics, the trust has built bridges, roads and airstrips.

But the lanky Hillary, who towered over the tiny Sherpas, was no mere after dinner-speaking fund-raiser, and travelled to Nepal regularly to work personally on the projects his trust financed.

“He would be right there carrying stones, carrying cement, wielding a hammer, building right there beside them,” said American photographer Anne Keiser, who recorded his work there for two decades.

“He would never ask them to do anything he wouldn’t do himself,” she said. “Now a generation of Sherpas have been educated in Hillary’s schools.”

It was a commitment not without personal cost to Hillary. His wife Louise and 16-year-old daughter Belinda died in a plane crash near Kathmandu in early 1975 while flying to join him.

A biography published in 2005 revealed that the accident plunged him into a five-year depression which he countered with whisky and sleeping pills.

“God knows if I’ll have the courage to go on living,” he wrote to friends soon after.

He suffered altitude sickness and was flown out of the mountains with pulmonary oedema – fluid on the lungs – several times over the years, being particularly cross with himself in 2001, at the age of 81, when he had to be airlifted to hospital from “the very low altitude of 2,440 metres.”

Most of his schools and clinics are at more than 3,000 metres and he complained: “I used to have exceptional acclimatisation ability, but over the decades it has gone downhill.”

He had an earlier brush with death in 1998 when he developed pneumonia while acting as a guide and commentator on a cruise ship in the Antarctic – another regular means of raising funds for his Himalayan Trust.

“I enjoy a challenge,” he said, as he showed in January 1958 when he completed an overland 3,200-kilometre tractor trip to the South Pole, disobeying orders to wait short of the pole for the Englishman Vivian Fuchs, leader of the British Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, to catch up with him.

“I’m not very good at obeying orders,” he said at the time.

Other challenges included a 1960 Himalayan search for the mythical yeti, or “abominable snowman,” a geological and mountaineering expedition to Antarctica, in which he conquered a previously unclimbed peak, and a jet boat expedition up the Ganges River to its source in the Himalayas in 1977.

He took up a new challenge in 1985-89, serving as his country’s top diplomat in India, accompanied by June, the widow of fellow mountaineer Peter Mulgrew, who he later married.

Always self-effacing, Hillary once said: “I like to think that I am a very ordinary New Zealander, not very bright perhaps, but determined and practical in what I do.”

He was never afraid to speak his mind, lashing out in 2005 at the United States for building a 1,600-kilometre road across Antarctica and accusing Britain of neglecting the historic huts of Robert Falcon Scott – Scott of the Antarctic – who died on his way back from the South Pole in 1912, and fellow polar explorer Ernest Shackleton.

Long the most famous living New Zealander, Hillary is assured of immortality in his native land if only because of the phrase he uttered when he came down from Everest – “We knocked the bastard off.”

It shocked his mother, who disapproved of “those dreadful words”, but they have passed into the New Zealand lexicon and will always be associated with him.

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