Jan 10, 2008

Loss of a Great Explorer

Sir Edmund Hillary dies today in Auckland, New Zealand.

Reposted from stuff.co.nz

Obituary: a Kiwi colossus

LIFE OF ACHIEVEMENTS: After conquering Everest, Sir Ed devoted the rest of his life to fundraising to improve the health, education and environment of the Sherpa people of Nepal.

New Zealand's greatest hero, Sir Edmund Hillary, is dead.

The tall, gangly beekeeper seized world headlines when he and Tensing Norgay, on May 29, 1953, became the first to scale the summit of Mount Everest.

He was 88 when he died.

Sir Ed – as all New Zealanders knew him - never forgot that he reached the summit with Tensing and he devoted the rest of his life to fundraising to improve the health, education and environment of the Sherpa people of Nepal.

When he first started that work he personally built many of the schools and hospitals in the Himalayas with his own hands.

Born in Auckland on July 20, 1919, he started his working life as a beekeeper.

During World War II he served in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, spending much of his time at the Laucala Bay base in Fiji.

Back in New Zealand he began climbing in South Island's Kaikoura Ranges and the Southern Alps.

Three Himalayan expeditions followed and in 1953 Sir Ed, then 33, was selected to join John Hunt's British Expedition to take on Everest.

Sir Ed was renowned for his fitness. His lung capacity was measured at seven litres as compared to five litres for an average man.

On Everest the first assault team that tried to reach the summit was driven back by altitude sickness. Sir Ed and Tensing were next.

Hunt wrote later of watching Sir Ed and Tensing return: "[As] they came into view, I could see they were dragging their feet and looking down in the dumps. My heart sank. Suddenly, at 20 metres, they began to show signs of animation.... Ed Hillary pointed his axe to the top.

"'We've knocked the bastard off,' he shouted, and I wept and collapsed into his arms."

For several days the news was withheld to be released the day Queen Elizabeth II was crowned.

Sir Ed maintained he and Tensing – who died in 1986 - reached the summit together, but he was over the years repeatedly asked who got there first. He never said directly, but much later Tensing, known as the "Tiger of the Snows", said Hillary led the couple on to the summit.

In his first book, High Adventure, Hillary's simple style told of his feelings on the peak: "Awe, wonder, humility, pride, exaltation - these surely ought to be the confused emotions of the first men to stand on the highest peak on earth, after so many others had failed.

"But my dominant reactions were relief and surprise. Relief because the long grind was over and the unattainable had been attained. And surprise because it had happened to me, old Ed Hillary, the beekeeper, once the star pupil of Tuakau District School, but no great shakes at Auckland Grammar and a no-hoper at university - first to the top of Everest! I just didn't believe it."

Before Sir Ed made it out of the Himalayas, the Queen, to his embarrassment, knighted him.

Back in New Zealand he married Mary Rose, and they later had three children, Belinda, Sarah and Peter. In 1990 Peter Hillary scaled Everest and was able, in a live radio broadcast from the peak, to talk to his father here.

Sir Ed Hillary continued a life of climbing and adventure, including involvement in 1958 of a British trans-Antarctic expedition lead by Sir Vivien Fuchs. Hillary's job was to use three small tractors to lay a supply trail for Fuchs' party but in a controversial decision he raced to the pole himself and reached it before Fuchs.

In the early 1960s the Hillary family began building schools and hospitals for the Sherpas, beginning with re-roofing a monastery and research and treatment of goitre among the Sherpas. Before the Hillary schools, the Sherpas were illiterate.

By 1965 Hillary had raised funds for the building and equipping of seven schools. He also built bridges and an airstrip. His work extracted a terrible price when, in April 1975 an aircrash at Katmandu airport killed his wife and youngest daughter, Belinda, 16.

In New Zealand he played a key role in founding Volunteer Service Aboard, which sends New Zealanders to work in Third World countries.

In 1977 Hillary organised his Ocean to Sky expedition from the mouth of the Ganges to the Himalayas on small jet boats. The trip by Hillary, already extraordinarily popular in India and Nepal, assumed great religious significance on the subcontinent.

This allowed New Zealand to repair its savaged diplomatic relations with India after Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon had several angry exchanges with then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi which saw Wellington close its high commission in New Delhi.

In October 1984 new Prime Minister David Lange named Hillary high commissioner to India.

When he returned to settle in New Zealand, Hillary continued fundraising, and became a special ambassador for UNICEF to promote Nepalese aid.

He was also outspoken about the environmental damage in the Himalayas, calling for the Nepalese to close Everest to climbers for several years.

In December 1989, he married June Mulgrew, widow of fellow climber and explorer Peter Mulgrew, who had been killed in 1979 when an Air New Zealand sightseeing aircraft crashed into Mount Erebus in Antarctica.

Hillary was a simple, tolerant man who, in 1992, said he found Buddhism an appealing, open religion which he tended to prefer over his Anglican upbringing.

He said he wondered whether there was a god.

"I have the vague feeling ... that the world is so complex and so remarkable in many ways that there must be some sort of intelligence behind it all but as to whether that intelligence is the slightest bit interested in a little person away down on earth, I have my considerable doubts."

His death removes a towering mountain from the New Zealand landscape.