Wednesday, 16 January 2008

H = Hillary

I grew up on the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand. On a clear day, from our home within sight and sound of the Pacific Ocean, we could see Mt Cook - now also known as Aoraki, its Maori name – peeking through a gap in the mountain ranges from the Island’s west coast. It was always a thrill to see Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, capped with snow winter and summer. On the edge of the plains and the ocean it seemed an impossible idea that men (and women) would climb it.

We learned about Mt Cook at school. It was 12,349 ft high. These days children learn the height in metres, but I have no idea what it is. A few years ago the top fell off Mt Cook, so now it’s not even 12,349 ft high anymore. My knowledge is obsolete.

Even though I could see Aoraki Mt Cook almost daily until I left home at 17, I didn’t get up close until I was 19. After they retired, my parents spent a lot more time in the MacKenzie country, the area surrounding Mt Cook. My dad loved the wide open spaces, and in his little Lada four-wheel drive he explored river valleys and camped out fishing. Now that he’s gone, my mum doesn’t get up there any more. So, at Christmas, we decided to take her for a drive. It was a beautiful day, and when we were half-way – at Tekapo - we decided on impulse to head for Mt Cook.

On arrival, we saw the new Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre which had been opened only days earlier. There was a statue of Sir Ed out front. I remember thinking that he would be in his 80s now, and that soon he wouldn’t be here anymore. New Zealand would go on without Sir Ed to keep us honest. It pained me and I was surprised at that, at the emotion I felt all of a sudden. Little did I know that we had just a few short weeks left to appreciate him.

I grew up in a country enormously proud of Sir Ed. Tiny New Zealand, tucked away on the edge of the world, had produced a man who had climbed the highest peak on the planet, thousands of miles away, before anyone else. It made us feel as if we had a place in the world. That we belonged. That we mattered.

Not that we focussed solely on Sir Ed’s accomplishments. In my experience, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing were always spoken of together, never individually, when it came to the Everest climb. Sir Ed would have never had it any other way. Likewise, he was as proud of the humanitarian work he did in Nepal as in his exploits at Everest, and later at the North and South Poles.

New Zealand was a better place with Sir Ed in it.

Let’s face it. The world was a better place with Sir Ed in it.


  1. Fantastic tribute. Coverage of his death here—at least the clips I heard on the radio, him speaking—made him sound like a great guy. As well as a great man.

    The visuals and description you include of Aoraki Mt Cook make me so envious and wanderlusty. Traveling to New Zealand is a dream for so many Americans I know—including me.

  2. What a fabulous photo too. I'm trying to wrap my head around the top of a mountain falling off. Is it flat at the new top now?

    Is Mount Cook the one with a little privy on top of it? (When we were down in NZ we went flight sightseeing and saw it.) And if so, did it fall off with the top?

  3. PS Have you ever read Into Thin Air? The whole culture around the Mt. Everest climb is quite mind-boggling.

  4. Discovering this blog of yours, I feel as though I have stumbled across a lovely treasure.

    I'm loving your A to Z!

  5. IB: Come on down! (If I say it enough will you do it?)

    Helen: I'll try and find a photo of the top before it fell off. The photo there was taken by me on 28 December 2007 - it was steeper before. Nope, Mt Cook doesn't have a privy on top (not that I've ever been to the top but my sister has been close.)

    I've never read Thin Air but will look out for it now.

    Aslo - thanks and ditto my feelings about your blog.

  6. Mali: Tim has been so excited that I know someone in NZ that he can barely contain himself. So, let's see, what stands in our way? The usual: Money. Time. And how goddawful sick I can get traveling, which means I need more recovery time there! But boy, it would be great to be there and to meet you!

    NZ has become a major fly-fishing destination, as I'm sure you're aware. It all just looks so beautiful to me.

  7. you may have read this, but it's beautiful:

    ALEXANDER HILLARY'S two grandfathers died six weeks apart. The first to go was Bert, who lived just down the street and came to dinner most evenings. The family laid him out at home and Alexander, 11, was able to sit and talk quietly with him. It was a private business.

    This week his other grandfather, Ed Hillary, lay in state in an Auckland cathedral and thousands of people trooped past to say goodbye. The boy struggled at times to reconcile his private feelings with the public ownership of the great man's farewell.

    "There's just too many people," he says, pale and a little dark under the eyes.

    The boy's personal tributes to the old men are a clue to the relationship he had with each. For Bert, he wrote a long, gentle poem. For Ed, he constructed a shrine on the family coffee table: a cross made from ice axes bearing the famous Hillary autograph, photographs and souvenirs. He also strung Tibetan prayer flags between the house and the driveway. Next morning there were photographs of them in the newspaper. Alexander is one of Peter Hillary's four children. They're used to reporters at the door, cameras clicking about them like crickets. Aged seven to 18, they stood last Monday on the forecourt of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, big-eyed as the hearse pulled up.

    "You felt you wanted to have him to yourself but you couldn't," says Amelia, the eldest child from Peter's first marriage.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.