News that one of my boytime heroes , Everest conquerer Sir Edmund Hillary had passed away at the age of 88, was very sad, but brought back joyous memories of a truly great mountaineer and explorer. His death, due to heart failure, in an Auckland hospital on January 11th, was announced to the world by N Z Prime Minister Helen Clark.
On the morning of June 2, 1953, the day that the present Queen Elizabeth II was to be crowned at Westminster Abbey and ride down the Royal Mall in a golden carriage to Buckingham Palace, it was announced that the New Zealander, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay of Nepal had reached the summit of the 29,000 foot Himalayan peak.The two had conqured the peak on May 29th, but the news was held back until Coronation Day. They were part of a 14 man British team led by John, later Sir John Hunt. The kiwi from Tukau in North Island was a bee keeper and was added to the 9th British Everest Expedition team after joining them in a training climb the year before. He took a photo of the sherpa atop the mountain, but the Nepalese climber didn't know how to use the camera so there is no photo of Hillary on the summit. 'Well George, we finally knocked the bastard off' was his comment to fellow kiwi team member George Lowe on returning to camp.
I frequently drive in the North Wales Snowdonia National Park and past the site near Capel Currig where a lot of the training was done and think about this historic feat, that along with the first man on the moon and the first team to the South Pole were 'giant steps for mankind' in the 20th Century.They lived at the Pen-Y-Gwryd Hotel with its natural pool, www.pyg.co.uk, still favoured by climbers today. New Zealand, at the bottom of the globe, became famous for its mountaineering son, who later drove a tractor to the South Pole, climbed 10 more Himalyan peaks, and became an inspiration for many, including his son Peter Hillary. As part of the 50th anniversary of the historic ascent, Peter and Jamling Tenzing Norkay, sons of the famous climbers, stood on the peak of Everest together in April 2003.
However, it was not only his exploring that should be remembered about the great man. The sherpas of Nepal benefited from his work in establishing over 70 schools, and hospitals in their mountain kingdom. For four and a half years Hillary was the New Zealand High Commissioner (Ambassador) to India,Nepal and Bangladesh and with his wife Louise they threw themselves into their work and established the Himalayan Trust. Tragically Louise and one of his two daughters, 16 year old Belinda were killed in an plane crash in 1975 after taking off from Katmandu Airport. In 1985 he flew in a twin engined ski plane with first man on the moon Neil Armstrong and landed at the North Pole.
There will shortly be a state funeral for the legendary kiwi in the capital, Wellington. in 1992 the NZ $5.00 note was printed with Hillary on it, the first living New Zealander to have that honour.