When Ed Hillary, a lean, hatchet-faced beekeeper from Pukekohe, fought off exhaustion to haul himself up the last few metres of ice and rock and step triumphantly onto the snow-capped summit of Everest, he had the entire world at his feet. Almost 9 km up, in the thin, chilled air of the jet stream, he was higher than anyone had ever climbed. As high as it was possible to go without leaving the earth.
It was 11.30 am on 29 May, 1953.
Seconds later Tenzing Norgay joined Hillary on the summit and, forgoing the New Zealander’s outstretched hand, threw his arms about his climbing companion. There, fore-square on the roof of the world, the two men embraced one another. Then, peeling off his mitts and outer gloves, Hillary took up his Kodak in silk-gloved hands and snapped shots of his friend holding an ice-axe strung with flags: Nepalese, Indian, United Nations, the Union Jack—it was, after all, a British expedition. Characteristically, Hillary had forgotten to pack a New Zealand flag. Nor did he think to pose for the camera himself. Like the knighthood that soon followed, such gestures meant little. Instead, he took shots down each of the major ridges as proof of the climb. Then, having buried small tokens in the snow, the two adventurers nibbled mint cake. Hillary glanced at his watch—fifteen minutes among the gods.
Time to start back. Down to a world forever changed.
With typical modesty, Hillary brushed off the feat, saying that he had merely been in the right place at the right time. There was more to it than that, of course. In 1951 Hillary had been climbing in the Himalayas with friends when he met British climber Eric Shipton. Impressed by Hillary’s abilities, Shipton invited him and fellow New Zealander George Lowe to join a British attempt on Everest.
Hillary was not a technical climber. He did not have a finely-tuned scientific approach to the act of ascension. What he did have—and in abundance—was impressive horsepower, stamina and, above all, what expedition leader John Hunt called an “unflinching resolve”.
In this era of packaged mountaineering and “assisted” ascents it is worth remembering the difficulties faced by Hunt’s 1953 expedition. True, Hillary and Tenzing breathed “English air” (bottled oxygen) and had the latest kit— lightweight high-altitude boots, nylon rope and down-filled jackets. But they also lugged impressive loads. On the lower slopes, Hillary got about with more than 27 kg on his back—one of the heaviest loads ever carried on Everest. On the final ascent from the narrow ledge they called Camp IX, he hefted 18 kg. These days, climbers strap on less than half that.
Then there was the ascent itself. Today, Everest is festooned with fixed ropes and 60 or more aluminium ladders. Hillary and Tenzing worked in a far less cluttered and less user-friendly environment. Hillary’s greatest achievement on the 1953 ascent, and one which every subsequent climber on the once-formidable southern route has given silent thanks for, was his defeat of what is now known as the Hillary Step — a great 12mhigh wall of smooth rock blocking the final approach to the summit. Hillary overcame it with brute strength and unflinching determination, wedging his body in a crack between ice and rock and working his way upwards.
Many years ago I asked Hillary about the attempt on Everest and whether he had any intimation that he might be the one to lead the final push. To write himself into history. Hunt, who desperately wanted to lend a hand had been forced down to lower slopes by high-altitude exhaustion after heroically hauling supplies to 8336m. The expedition’s initial two-man assault team had turned back from the South Summit, defeated by faulty gear, bad weather and physical exhaustion.
So the finger fell on Hillary.
Months of climbing in the Himalayas had left him fighting fit and thoroughly acclimatised. He was, he told me, faster at altitude than any other member of the party. We were in the living room of his Remuera home—an unpretentious but comfortable house built decades earlier with royalties from High Adventure, his 1955 telling of the Everest story. Hillary leaned forward in his chair and fixed me with steady eyes. “There was no way that I wasn’t going up that mountain”.
Behind the mischievous smile, I caught a flicker of unflinching resolve. That, and a trademark competitive spirit.
Hillary’s spirit of competition was to take memorable shape just four years later in another headline grabbing escapade in frozen surroundings—what the international press were delighted to pitch as a race to the South Pole.
For Hillary, 1953 was a hard act to follow. Having unexpectedly found a channel for his sense of adventure years earlier during a 10-day school skiing trip that sold him on “snow and mountain and all the rest of it”, he had climbed extensively in the Southern Alps, Europe and Nepal. Everest got him plastered across front pages everywhere to embellish the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. “All this and Everest too!” the papers roared. A hemisphere away in Wellington, acting Prime Minister Keith Holyoake interrupted the loyal Dominion’s own coronation ceremony to announce the news, which was greeted with tumultuous applause. Hillary had done more than climb a mountain. He had been the bearer of a unique gift from one nation to another; from the farthest outpost of Empire to its heart.
More than that, he had begun—however unselfconsciously—to embody the virtues, the qualities, the values that fellow New Zealanders admired and embraced. The conqueror of Everest was rough-hewn, straight-talking, sincere, loyal. Not given to pretense. Speaking through acts not words. Dependable. Courageous. Practical. Iron-willed. Later he would also prove to be a devoted family man with a wry sense of humour, and an unswerving friend to those in need. He would also reveal a startling vulnerability. And the knowledge that he was a man of flesh and bone, battered by the same slings and arrows we all face, was to fix him even more securely in the national psyche.
Returning to New Zealand from the Himalayas freshly knighted, Hillary married Louise Mary Rose, leaving the chapel under an archway of ice axes. They were to have three children, Peter, Sarah and Belinda, and, thanks to his high-profile career, embarked on what was to be a fluid and unpredictable life.
Just two years later, in 1955, Hillary was drawn into the vortex of yet another British project, Vivian Fuchs’ Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Supporting the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in which scientists from 12 nations would turn their attention to the Antarctic, the expedition intended to examine the little-known continent in detail while making the first Antarctic crossing. The idea was simple enough—Fuchs would set up camp on the rim of the Weddell Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula, and the following year would set off for the South Pole with Sno-Cats and other high-tech machines, assisted where possible by aircraft. Hillary, meanwhile, would lead a New Zealand contingent whose job was to lay a trail of supply depots to within a few hundred kilometres of the Pole from the Ross Sea at the opposite end of the Continent where he was to establish a base. He was also to find a suitable tractor route down off the polar plateau to that base. Abandoning surplus vehicles as they went, Fuchs and his Brits would make for the permanent American station at the Pole, itself another IGY project, then draw on Hillary’s fuel lifeline to complete their crossing.
It was an eminently workable plan but one that, perhaps inevitably, Hillary was to subvert. Never a mere order taker, he soon realised that having five scientists attached to his own party as part of the IGY not only meant that the planned base would need to be considerably enlarged but also that he now had the opportunity to undertake the first detailed exploration of the Ross Dependency, a vast Antarctic territory administered by New Zealand. This slice of the continent was a massive playground for energetic men—440,000 sq km of land and 330,000 sq km of ice shelf—and Hillary’s men were nothing if not energetic.
Hillary himself proved to be a good organiser. He had a fondness for drawing up detailed plans, never for a moment hesitating when they needed to be altered or even abandoned—all that required, after all, was another sheet of paper. What he did bridle against was the unrelenting pressure to raise funds. Scott and Shackleton had been similarly cursed, but to Hillary’s way of thinking it was a part of the Great Tradition that could well be dispensed with.
In later years such fundraising was to make huge demands on his time. A close friend, Mike Gill, quotes a World Book Encyclopedia executive’s later encounter with “this guy Hillary who’d climbed Everest and got a knighthood for it”. The Americans knew Hillary wouldn’t work for nothing, and would probably come armed with a retinue of lawyers and accountants, but they figured they could tough it out.
“Then in comes this tall guy, by himself, with his hair all over the place and carrying an old briefcase held together with string. Well, that threw us right from the start. And then when… we asked how much he would like for himself he says: ‘Well, on an expedition we usually don’t take any money for ourselves.’ We didn’t know whether he meant it. For a bit we thought he might just be the coolest cat we’d ever met. Then, we began to feel sorry for him. We felt we had to help this guy—force him to take the money. Up till then I’d never been able to understand why he hadn’t made a million bucks out of Everest.”
Lack of funds ironically helped elevate Hillary’s exploits on the ice to the status of myth. Instead of Fuchs’ powerful Sno-cats, which were the last word in polar travel, Hillary’s finances extended only to Massey Ferguson tractors. Fitted with tracks and further modified with improvised canvas cabs and welded tow bars they nevertheless continued to loudly proclaim their farm origins. They were the perfect rig for an archetypal New Zealander.
Hillary duly set up shop for New Zealand in the Antarctic by building Scott Base on Ross Island and laid depots for Fuchs using the tractors—never part of the official game plan. Several teams then undertook ambitious survey expeditions on sledges—one, covering 2687 km and lasting five months, was the longest single traverse ever made on the continent.
Eventually Hillary found himself on the plateau facing the distant Pole, his support obligations fulfilled, and chafing—patience was not his strong suit—at news of the distant Fuchs who was beleaguered by rough ice and weeks behind schedule. There was fuel in hand. Hillary and four mates decided to press south. They drove on doggedly through blizzards and whiteouts, flagging crevasse fields for the return journey and dumping supplies as petrol ran low.
On 4 January 1958, after crossing more than 2000 km of ice and snow and with just half a drum of fuel to spare, they reached their goal, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. They had become the first people ever to drive to the Pole.
On arrival Hillary took a last look at his improvised transport—“three tractors, tilted over like hip-shot horses”—then with his hosts he went indoors. The obliging Americans screened a western.
The Antarctic achievements of the New Zealand team under Hillary were impressive. Not only did they give outstanding support to Fuchs and his party, they established a permanent New Zealand presence on the ice and there began a programme of scientific research that continues to this day. They also explored, surveyed and geologised across a vast tract of territory from Mawson Glacier in the north to the Queen Alexander Range in the south. To the delight of those back home, they also stamped an indelible impression of New Zealand in the annals of Antarctic exploration. “This,” declared the inelegant yet utterly reliable Massey Fergusons, “is how we do things around here.”