Sir Edmund Percival Hillary KG, ONZ, KBE 1919 – 2008

The best-known New Zealander of the 20th century, Sir Edmund Hillary, died at the age of 88 this morning, Friday 11th January 2008.

Best known for conquering the planet’s highest mountain Mt. Everest in 1953, Sir Ed, as he was known to New Zealanders, held a special place in the nation’s heart. He was a diplomat, philanthropist, adventurer, innovator, but most importantly one of us.

It is difficult to be unaffected by fame, especially for those who achieve a great deal of good during their lives, but Sir Ed had that special ability to turn his fame into a tool which allowed him to achieve more while, at his core, he hardly changed. His laconic way of speaking and matter-of-fact attitude to his achievements made him a universally-loved Kiwi.

A physically strong man, Sir Ed’s greatest attribute was his ability to relate to people at all levels of society, cutting through barriers and building a spirit of co-operation. He was a natural leader. This allowed him to avoid political strife while speaking his mind, carry off cheeky endeavours, build things that were thought impossible and harness any resulting glory for the benefit of his projects.

Following his successful ascent of Everest, after which Sir Ed laconically said, “Well, we knocked the bastard off,” his interest turned to Antarctica. By co-operating with the United States, Ed Hillary established New Zealand’s Scott Base in Antactica in 1957.

In the lead-up to the International Geophysical Year, the base was to feature in the British Trans-Antarctic expedition of 1957-58. Ed Hillary and his team of famous mountaineers and explorers were to lay supply bases from the coast toward the South Pole, facilitating the return of Sir Vivian Fuchs’ team from the South Pole. The United States had maintained a base through air support at the geographic South Pole since 1956, but the overland route had not been trodden since 1912.

Fuchs was delayed and Hillary’s team was well-advanced in their laying of supply bases using modified tractors, so Ed decided to push on for the pole and, on the 4th of January 1958, they reached there becoming the first overland explorers to reach the South Pole since Capt. Robert Falcon Scott in 1912. Understandably some controversy arose over this opportunistic act, but Sir Ed and his team survived the ordeal and were reconciled with the Brits.

Sir Ed had a soft spot for Nepal, and is deeply respected there for his philanthropic work in establishing schools, hospitals, water supplies, bridges and many other essential pieces of infrastructure. But it wasn’t done by remote control, he was there with the chippies, labourers and sparkies wielding a hammer too.

He had a high profile in nearby India before he became New Zealand’s High Commissioner at New Delhi in 1985. It is said that he was universally respected and adored in the area, and was able to open many doors for aid organisations and promote business opportunities for both countries. Indeed, those of us who were here in New Zealand during Sir Ed’s 5 years leading the High Commission will remember the number of “good news” stories that featured in the improved relations between the two countries.

It has been difficult for New Zealand to recognise what many consider to be a quintessential Kiwi. Hillary tended to want to channel any recognition of his achievements toward boosting one of his projects. One that we did get away with, though, was getting his face onto the currency – the only New Zealander to feature on our currency while still alive. But I secretly suspect that the Reserve Bank had to pay a royalty or somesuch to help add a wing to a hospital or re-roof a temple in Nepal in return.

Even the base that he established in Antarctica was prevented from using his name. When it was proposed to rename Scott Base to Hillary Base to celebrate the 50 years of work that had been conducted there, Sir Ed was adamant it had been named for Sir Robert Falcon Scott, and so it should remain.

Hillary’s love for the environment caused him to be outspoken at times. He has criticised the pollution of the environs of Everest, whalers, promoters of tourism infrastructure in Antarctica and many others. But such was his mana, that people listened and took his views on-board.

There are many images and film clips of Sir Ed Hillary going about his business during his long and successful life. The sight of Sir Ed bowing to a Nepalese youngster who is adding a white scarf to the pile growing on his shoulders is one that comes to mind. Sir Ed’s eyes are twinkling, and he’s laughing with pleasure.

My favourite is the film clip of Sir Ed, for once dressed in his full regalia as a Garter Knight, parading with The Queen at Windsor Castle some time after his appointment in 1995. He is beaming from ear to ear, chatting with Her Majesty and at ease with the world despite it being a moment of pomp and ceremony which he tended to avoid. He really could relate at all levels.

Sir Edmund Hillary was the epitome of a Good Man.

One Response to “Sir Edmund Percival Hillary KG, ONZ, KBE 1919 – 2008”

  1. Dorothy says:

    Thank you Ken. This darling man will be sadly missed. I don’t think we will ever see his like again.

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