Thursday 18 July 2019

Man who conquered Everest yet remained a modest hero

On May 29, 1953, in a world still living in the shadow of the horrors of World War II, Edmund Hillary -- who died yesterday aged 88 -- and Sherpa Tenzing scaled new heights in humanity's relentless pursuit of new achievements.

They were, of course, the first men in the world to stand on Everest's summit. From that moment of glory, Hillary's career opened out into a lifetime of adventure and of widening interest.

He remained seemingly untouched by any of the fame that accrued to him. His own laconic summary of his active life as merely a "constant battle against boredom" only gave part of the picture and was typical of his innate modesty and of his dislike of cant.

Edmund Percival Hillary was born at Auckland, New Zealand, in 1919 into an old-established farming family.

His mother, who had been a teacher, insisted on him remaining at Auckland Grammar School until he was 18, but after an unproductive two years at university he was allowed to come home to the open air life he loved, to work on the family bee farm.

Physically he developed his great strength after a slow start as a small and shy child. In the Second World War he served with the Royal New Zealand Air Force from 1944 to the end of hostilities.

Hillary was an experienced climber in both the New Zealand and European Alps when, in 1951, he and his friend, George Lowe, with two others, embarked on an expedition to the Garwhal Himalaya.

The party returned to base to receive an invitation for two of them to join Eric Shipton's Everest reconnaissance, then on its way out to the Himalayas from England.

Hillary and Earle Riddiford were the lucky ones, and in the following year Hillary and Lowe accompanied Shipton's Cho Oyu expedition and were picked as members of his team for the 1953 assault on Everest.

Later, Colonel John Hunt replaced Shipton as leader, a decision justified by the skill with which Hunt handled his large team of the world's most expert climbers. Hunt from the first regarded Hillary as a "very strong contender" for the summit.

He was, Hunt recorded, "quite exceptionally strong and abounding in a restless energy, possessed of a thrusting mind which swept aside all unproved obstacles".

After the return, only 500ft short of the summit, of Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing went into action and reached the summit at 11.30am on May 29, 1953. They spent just 15 minutes there, during which Hillary took Tenzing's photograph, before descending.

Hillary's achievement was crowned by much public acclaim, but also by an exceptionally happy marriage that year to Louise Mary Rose of Auckland.

They had a son and two daughters. Lady Hillary was an accomplished violinist and a woman of great vitality and goodness. Her death in 1975 in an aeroplane accident with their younger daughter, Belinda, hit her husband very hard.

Hillary's success on Everest established him overnight as an acknowledged leader in the competitive field of high-altitude mountaineering.

In 1954 he led a New Zealand Alpine Club expedition to the Barun Valley east of Everest. His gallant rescue of a comrade left him with broken ribs and an acute attack of pneumonia, but he was soon fit enough again to take part in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1955-58) led by Vivian Fuchs.

Hillary's dash to the pole, driving the last 70 miles non-stop and with only 12 miles of petrol in hand, is one of the classics of polar adventure.

But the charge that he risked the success of the whole project by going ahead with so little safety margin has never been entirely refuted.

In 1960, Hillary was back in the Everest region with an ambitious programme: hewas to search for the yeti or abominable snowman, carry out physiological research and climb some mountains.

The Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition of 1960-61 was perhaps too unwieldy to be a thorough success, and Hillary suffered a stroke and had to return temporarily to base. Out of it, however, developed the projects which were to become the abiding interest of his later years.

Everest lies in the homeland of the Sherpas, the hardy mountain people of the Sola Khumbu who had been porters, guides, hosts and friends to generations of British climbers.

It seemed they wanted a school, and it instantly struck Hillary that "here was an ideal way to repay the Sherpas for the help and pleasure they had given me".

The first school was built forthwith, and afterwards Hillary came back to the Sola Khumbu in 1963, 1964, 1965 and 1966, bringing his family and friends to help, taking part not only in fund-raising but also in the actual physical labour, aided by singing Sherpas, of constructing schools, hospitals, an airfield and a bridge.

It was a tragedy indeed that Louise and Belinda Hillary were subsequently killed on one of their visits to the Sola Khumba.

Although one of New Zealand's most famous sons, Hillary took little part in public life. Instead he worked effectively over the years as director of Field Educational Enterprises of Australasia and as consultant of sports equipment to the American firm Sears Roebuck.

He was president of the New Zealand Volunteer Service Abroad and interested himself in such diverse causes as family planning and race relations.

Hillary had little grace of manner, being gruff and casual with strangers, but he came into his own in the field. Here the "ebullient, restless Hillary", as George Lowe described him, retained basically the same spirit of adventure and (there is no other word for it) fun, long after he became famous.

A prolific author, Hillary published many books about his adventures. They included High Adventure (1955), his account of the assault on Everest, and its precursors; (with George Lowe); East of Everest (1956), which described the 1954 New Zealand Alpine Club Himalayan Expedition to the Barun Valley; (with Sir Vivian Fuchs) The Crossing of Antarctica (1958); No Latitude for Error (1961); (with Desmond Doig) High in the Thin Cold Air (1963); Schoolhouse in the Clouds (1965), and his autobiography Nothing Venture, Nothing Win (1975).

In 1989 Hillary married June Mulgrew, widow of Peter Mulgrew, an old friend and fellow explorer who died in an air crash on Mount Erebus in Antarctica. Hillary's son Peter has become a notable mountaineer (climbing Everest twice) and explorer in his own right.

Edmund Hillary is survived by his wife, and by his son and elder daughter, Sarah, of his first marriage. (© The Times, London)

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