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 My knowledge is obsolete.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.