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The indelible legacy of Sir Edmund Hillary KG ONZ KBE 1919-2008

Sir Edmund Hillary served as the New Zealand High Commissioner to India & Bangladesh and Ambassador to Nepal 1985-1990.

• First to climb Mount Everest with his climbing partner Tenzing Norgay as part of the British Expedition led by Col John Hunt in 1953
• First to drive vehicles across Antarctica to the South Pole 1958
• Built 42 schools, hospitals, water systems and airfields in the Mount Everest region of Nepal
• Diplomat, mountaineer, explorer, adventurer, philanthropist, filmmaker and author

National hero and ‘the greatest New Zealander’, Sir Edmund Hillary served for five years as New Zealand High Commissioner to India from 1985, an inspired appointment to re-establish diplomatic relations with the people of South Asia who held him in high esteem as a mountaineer, explorer, philanthropist and revered friend. A special desk was built for his spacious office in a sprawling white Lutyens bungalow, before the New Zealand High Commission moved to its current more compact compound, purpose built by Miles Warren of Christchurch architects Warren & Mahoney in 1992.

If you are standing in the Residence, imagine the crescent curve of the highest mountain range on earth stretching away to the west and east across the northern plains, rising northeast to the crescendo heights of Mount Everest, known as Sagarmatha in Nepal, Chomolungma in Tibet. Recently remeasured, the peak towers 8,848.86 metres (29,031.69 feet) above sea level and was first climbed by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on 29 May 1953. With that last summit step they hurtled into history, breaking altitude and endurance barriers, venturing beyond the known limits of human physiological capability to the highest point on earth.

Sir Edmund Percival Hillary KG ONZ KBE lived the rest of his life in the reflection of this single achievement, as the gracious kind-hearted Sir Ed, Knight of the Garter, the shy self-effacing approachable Kiwi whose home number was listed in the Auckland telephone book. From a humble beekeeper, Ed had to reinvent himself as the conqueror of the world’s highest mountain, the news of which brightened a war-weary Britain on the morning of the young Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. ‘It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves’ he wrote.

Hillary’s books are eloquent, even poetic, sharing his love of challenge and stories of adventure to Himalayan ranges, yeti hunts and polar wilderness. He was the first person to reach the three poles of the Arctic, Antarctic and the summit of Everest. In 1977 his Ocean to Sky jetboat expedition, a daring 1,500-mile spiritual journey up the entire length of India’s Ganges River from the ocean to its snowy source high in the Himalaya, captured the imagination of millions and became an award-winning film. His son Peter said: ‘In some places we estimated more people thronged the riverbank to glimpse my father than inhabited the whole of New Zealand’.

Since 1992 Sir Ed’s distinctive profile squints into the distance on New Zealand’s five-dollar bill, but his reaction to the recognition was typically humorous and unassuming: ‘I thought you had to be dead or royal to get onto a banknote!’

But if Everest defined Sir Ed, he preferred to be remembered for ‘giving back’, dedicating his life and investing his time in the people whom he found struggling for survival in the shadow of Sagarmatha, and without whose help he could not have reached the top. The story goes that Sir Ed started the Himalayan Trust in 1960 after asking the Sherpas how he could help. The much-quoted reply was:

‘Our children have eyes but they are blind and cannot see. We would like you to open their eyes by building a school in our village.’

With his own hands and family helpers, Sir Ed constructed the tin-clad shed that in 1961 became the first classroom of Khumjung School, now preserved as the ‘schoolhouse in the clouds’ museum to showcase the Hillary legacy. More do-it-yourself Kiwi buildings followed to house the region’s first medical clinics at Kunde and Phaplu. To support the schools and hospitals, Sir Ed built Lukla airstrip in 1964 on a steep hillside at 2,860 metres, mobilising a chorus line of Sherpa and Sherpani dancers to flatten and compact the earth with their stomping steps. Sir Ed was surprised and rather alarmed by the tourism influx that was unwittingly unleashed by the new airport.

Sir-Edmund Hillary and Thukten Phillip Sherpa

From these beginnings, personally hauling timber and hammering nails on annual visits between global fundraising forays, Sir Ed’s Himalayan Trust grew, enabling the entrepreneurial spirit of the Sherpas to emerge and thrive, their innate highland hospitality well suited for tourism. When Sagarmatha National Park was established, New Zealanders served as technical advisors, whilst university scholarships trained future generations of Nepalis to become conservation leaders and park wardens. Over the decades, millions have benefited from the schools, hospitals, clinics, water supplies, nurseries, airfields and other facilities that the Himalayan Trust has contributed throughout Solukhumbu, and tens of thousands of Nepalis have received direct scholarships and subsidies.

As New Zealand High Commissioner Sir Ed’s diplomatic duties took him travelling throughout the subcontinent, and he was able to broaden his practical influence to spheres of trade and development. New Zealand wool supplied Nepal’s thriving hand-made carpet industry, and earthquake scientists worked with local engineers on seismology, building codes and disaster preparation. Under his leadership, New Zealand’s South Asian profile was consolidated and his groundwork enabled the relationship to flourish.

Amongst the Sherpas of Solukhumbu, Sir Ed is deeply respected and revered as burra sahib, the great man, and was lauded under mounds of white kata ceremonial scarves wherever he went in Nepal. When the historic Tengboche monastery burned to the ground in 1989, blamed on an electrical fault, Sir Ed’s Himalayan Trust contributed to its rebuild. Amongst his many accolades, Sir Ed was ordained as a Buddhist monk in Salleri monastery, he received Nepal’s highest medal from King Birendra and India’s second highest civilian award the Padma Vibhusan. At the Everest golden jubilee celebrations in 2003, he was conferred with honorary Nepali citizenship, recognising his historic ascent as ‘one of mankind’s finest achievements’.

Sir Edmund Hillary was honoured with a state funeral in Auckland cathedral and a thanksgiving service at St Georges Chapel at Windsor Castle hosted by the Queen. During his lifetime, he never sought personal glory, and tended to resist tributes in his memory. The New Zealand High Commission is located in Sir Edmund Hillary Marg in New Delhi, which he inaugurated in a rare concession to India. A statue was erected at Khumjung School during the Everest 50th anniversary , and only after his death was Lukla renamed Tenzing-Hillary Airport. High above the Sherpa villages of Khumbu three memorial chortens were consecrated for Sir Ed, his first wife Louise and daughter Belinda on a steep ridge, forever contemplating the Everest massif.

Lisa Choegyal


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