For many people, perhaps the most famous New Zealander was Sir Edmund Hillary, the first to climb Mount Everest in 1953 alongside Tenzing Norgay from Nepal.
Although Edmund passed away in 2008 his presence still looms large in New Zealand culture: a prominent walking trail carries his name, his statue faces their tallest mountain, Mount Cook, and his face adorns the $5 note.
When visiting the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre near Mount Cook it was striking to learn more of his life. Scaling Everest in his early thirties thrust the quiet Hillary and Norgay into the international spotlight, which they were neither truly ready nor prepared for.
Edmund followed up his ascent of Everest with an expedition to the South Pole and then later – once he was no longer in the shape to sustain climbing at high altitude, he got heavily involved in building schools and hospitals in the rural areas of Nepal he visited as a climber. In a documentary he spoke about how his life went on to bring him other opportunities that he wouldn’t other wise have been able to do. They may not have been as exciting as his climbing feats, but at a different stage in his life they still motivated him.
‘People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.’
Sadly, the middle part of Sir Edmund’s life was hit by tragedy, when his wife and sixteen year old daughter were killed in a plane crash in Nepal on the way to visit him. From the documentary it was very clear this trauma was perhaps the greatest challenge for him to overcome and showed a real human side to such an iconic figure.
Hilary did though gradually get through this difficult period, throwing further amounts of his extinguishable energy into his work in Nepal and raising awareness of this country’s situation. He remarried later in life and appeared a settled and contented man in his older age, at least as portrayed in the documentary, which serves as an excellent introduction to another of his famous quotes.
‘It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves’