Hillary: a life beyond fame

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Vaughan Yarwood

At the opening of an exhibition celebrating the achievements of one of New Zealand’s best loved sons, Auckland Museum director Rodney Wilson called it “a big exhibition for a big man and a big life.”

No one glancing about the offerings of “Sir Ed­mund Hillary: Everest and Beyond” could disagree. The show gathers in its net objects as diverse as the cardboard pots used to package “Hillary’s Honey” (Sir Edmund’s 1950 passport, also on display, announces his occupation as “apiarist”), a replica Sherpa schoolhouse, one of the tractors Hillary drove to the

South Pole, cabinets of med­als and awards, and, inevi­tably, a large pile of clobber the 33-year-old Aucklander lugged up to the summit of Mt Everest with Tenzing Norgay on that memorable day, May 29, 1953.

On display are a pair of massively oversized climbing boots, a couple of oxygen cylinders on their cumber­some frame (“oxygen assault equipment” the unit is called on the battered cover of an accompanying manual), a pack, mask and nylon climb­ing rope, Hillary’s bulky down-filled jacket and iconic blue-and-white-striped sunhat, high-altitude ration packs, the diminu­tive Kodak Retina 2 camera with which Hillary froze for posterity mountaineer­ing’s supreme moment of achievement: three shots of

Norgay, then four looking north, south, west and east down the main ridges. And, in solitary splendour, the beautifully crafted Claudius Simond ice axe, surprisingly light and well-balanced in the hand, which Hillary used on all his climbs from 1951 onwards. He has parted with the axe, one of his most treasured possessions, just twice in the past half century.

The exhibition also makes room for one of the three modified Mas­sey Ferguson farm tractors Hillary used to lay food and fuel depots for Englishman Vivian Fuch’s Common­wealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition before himself famously making a dash for the South Pole. One of the tractors was left in Antarctica. Another is in the

Canterbury Museum. This, the third, from the Museum of Transport, Techno­logy and Social History’s collection, was driven with throaty engine noise into the Auckland Museum exhibi­tion on its rubber tracks, and looks, with its worn paint and roofless canvas cab, as if it has just left the ice.

It has often been observed of Hillary that anyone else might have been content to construct some enduring fame around the ascent of the world’s highest moun­tain, and, having earned a knighthood, perhaps while away the years writing memoirs and undertaking gentlemanly climbs on lesser slopes.

Not Hillary. Indeed, the things that give his life its reach are the activities that followed Everest—in particular, his humanitarian work in Solukhumbu. Hav­ing taken the good-natured, hardworking Sherpas to his heart during many climbs in their backyard mountains, he sought to give something back to their struggling communities.

What they most longed for was schools. So, with his usual resourcefulness, Hil­lary founded the Himalayan Trust, a fundraising body dedicated to the health and education of the Sherpas and the protection of the land they lived in. The first school, at Khumjung, was opened in 1961 and since then the trust has overseen the building of some 30 schools, more than 20 medi­cal clinics, two hospitals, two airfields and several im­pressive suspension bridges, along with the restoration of Buddhist monasteries.

Visitors to the exhibi­tion can step inside a replica schoolhouse in which are displayed drawings and mes­sages from Sherpa children. One, signed by Choki Nima Sherpa and the Monju School family, declares to Hillary: “You are the No. 1 mountain hero.” Another, from Chaunrikharka High School, reads: “Congratula­tions Sir Edmund for introducing Nepal to the word.”

At the door of the school-­house stands a used oxygen cylinder, pressed into service as a class bell—an indica­tion of the local talent for recycling.

Nearby is a replica of the Sherpa kitchen in Khunde where Hillary planned many of his projects, its shelves crowded with real pots and utensils, many from the col­lection of Diane McKinnon. She and her husband, John, formed the first medical team in the Himalayas in 1966, and the couple, who now run a trekking business from Nelson, have returned to Nepal almost every year since.

Having spent time in the Khumbu myself, while re­searching a story on Hillary (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 53), I can vouch for the authen­tic atmosphere of both the kitchen and the nearby Bud­dhist gompa (temple) with its rich tones and devotional intimacy.

These, along with pro­jected photographs, carved mani (stones) and other objects, do much to evoke a landscape largely unchanged since the days of Hillary’s 1953 expedition.

Other delights lie in wait for the curious, such as the exquisite book of Buddhist teachings presented to commemorate the event. Hillary by the head lama of Tengboche monastery and the medal given him by the Nepalese Drivers’ Associa­tion. Such gifts speak of the high regard in which the former Papakura beekeeper and mountaineering legend is now held.

Space is also made for mention of Hillary’s poign­ant jetboat pilgrimage up the Ganges following the death of his wife and daughter in an aircraft accident in 1975, and it is a tribute to the vision of curator Alexa Johnston that the mountain does not overshadow the man.

After the exhibition closes in Auckland on February 28, 2003, it will travel to the National Geographic Society’s Explorers’ Hall, in Washington, for the 50th anniversary of the Everest climb, and is then earmarked for a season in Japan.

Sir Edmund plans to spend the anniversary with friends in Kathmandu before flying to London to commemorate
the event.

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