Radiant living: a hero rediscovered, Julia Millen

Edmund Hillary: A Biography
Michael Gill
Potton and Burton, $60.00,
ISBN 9780947503383


1953: Edmund Hillary, Everest conqueror (with Tenzing Norgay), is knighted by newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth II. From the time he climbed his first peak in the Southern Alps, it had taken 13 years of steep uphill slog to become a world hero. 

Like many New Zealanders, I have Ed Hillary memories. At a fund-raising lecture I attended in Christchurch, Tenzing chuckled as he described the night before the Everest summit. He and Hillary debated whether to keep their boots on. Problem! Hillary’s giant footwear wouldn’t fit inside his sleeping bag. Tenzing kept his boots on. At 4 a.m. when they were packing up, Hillary’s frozen boots had to be thawed out over the primus.

Hillary’s adventurous life is the subject of numerous books, several written by him and his first wife, Louise. Now, Mike Gill, long-time friend of the Hillary family and younger member of Himalayan and other expeditions, has produced this massive 540-page biography. His motivation came while researching material about aid work in Nepal. In the Auckland Museum, Gill perused the extensive Hillary archive and found various gems, like Hillary’s unpublished novel, and information about his involvement with Radiant Living. Gill then gained access to private correspondence held by Peter and Sarah Hillary, including some charming love letters exchanged by Hillary and Louise.

Edmund Percival Hillary was born in 1919 in Remuera, Auckland, son of a journalist (and Gallipoli veteran) and a schoolteacher, and grew up on a small, mixed farm in Tuakau. After matriculation from Auckland Grammar School, in 1936, he proceeded to university, where he failed all his subjects but enjoyed trips with the university tramping club. Hillary then worked in his father’s beekeeping business and, during the late 1930s, became involved with Radiant Living: a holistic, quasi-religious cult. As Gill writes: “A strong thread of moral seriousness ran through the Hillary family, much of it not answered by traditional Christianity.” For three years, Hillary was a teacher of Radiant Living and broadcast a weekly “Young Citizens” session on Sunday radio. At the outbreak of WWII, he volunteered for the Air Force but, when called up, declared himself a conscientious objector. Rather than being imprisoned, as happened to his younger brother, Hillary was classified with the “reserve” occupation of beekeeping. Then, in 1944, he joined the Air Force, and served as a navigator in the Solomon Islands.

In the post-war years, Hillary grabbed every opportunity to escape from beekeeping and headed for the mountains. My own modest connection with him came when I rashly went on a climbing trip in the Southern Alps and, in the Sealy Range, scrambled over a “bump” named Mount Ollivier. I was astonished to discover that, 20 years earlier, Ollivier had been Hillary’s “first real mountain”. For him, climbing was “freedom and exhilaration”; I just wanted to get down onto solid ground.

Mentored by the great Harry Ayres, in the Southern Alps Hillary cut steps tirelessly in frozen snow or ice, and thrived on long hard days in difficult conditions and bad weather. Though unaware at the time, it was “excellent training for the Himalayas”. His big chance came in 1951. He was recruited to join George Lowe and other Kiwis on a Himalayan expedition led by Earl Riddiford. Despite “sky’s the limit” ambition, in the Garhwal ranges Hillary was bitter at not being part of the successful summit team on Mukut Parbat. The Kiwi climbers all suffered from altitude sickness and became emaciated. Their Sherpa said: “Big mountains eat flesh.” The aftermath was, as it turned out, momentous. Legendary British explorer, Eric Shipton, invited Riddiford and Hillary to take part in an Everest reconnaissance, approaching from Nepal.

At this stage in his narrative, Gill devotes three chapters to early British efforts to climb the world’s highest peak, including speculation about the outcome of Mallory’s and Irvine’s fatal 1924 attempt. The British climbing elite were traditionally “gentlemen”: chaps who had been to the right schools, had the right accents and attitudes. On scientific questions relating to high altitude climbing, British diehards considered the use of oxygen ungentlemanly and unsporting. Despite apparent acceptance of Hillary’s and Tenzing’s first ascent of Everest, in recent decades British mountaineers have spent much effort and money finding evidence and trying to prove that Mallory and Irvine (both “gentlemen”) had succeeded in their ascent, and died on the descent. Hillary, when asked to comment, said words to the effect that climbing a mountain meant not only going to the summit, but getting down in one piece.

Plans for a major British attempt on Everest accelerated after the Swiss almost succeeded in 1952. John Hunt, rather than Shipton, was chosen as leader and invited both Hillary and Lowe to join what became almost a military campaign. Massive resources and funding were allocated for specially designed equipment, supplies and logistical support. Controversial was the acceptance of scientific research on the physiological effects of altitude and the need for oxygen, not only for climbing, but also when sleeping. Gill’s meticulous description of Hillary’s and Tenzing’s epic climb includes extensive coverage of physiological matters. The outcome is history. A colonial beekeeper and a Tibetan Sherpa had “knocked the bastard off”.

My family was among the huge crowd gathered in parliament grounds, Wellington, on 3 June 1953, celebrating the Queen’s coronation. Suddenly, we heard an explosion of cheering. We kids asked Mum what was happening. Smiling, she said something that we didn’t understand. Only later we realised the significance of those cheers: a great moment in mountaineering and New Zealand history. At primary school we were taken to see The Conquest of Everest.

Having achieved your life’s ambition at 34, received world-wide accolades and a knighthood, what do you do with the rest of your life? For Hillary, the answer was another “campaign” – marriage to Louise Rose, 22, a talented viola player and daughter of an Auckland lawyer. Hillary later said that marriage was “the most sensible action I have ever taken”. Gill could have added that Lowe also married: his bride, Susan, was the daughter of Sir John Hunt. The newlywed Hillarys were in demand for world-wide lecture tours, interrupted by the arrival of their first baby, Peter, and, for Ed, writing his Everest memoir. High Adventure (1955) was so successful that it financed the couple’s new Remuera home.

In many ways, Hillary achieved greatness in the aftermath of Everest. There were other notable mountain climbs – and disasters – and, over the years, he experienced serious altitude sickness at progressively lower levels. Controversy surrounding his Antarctic crossing as part of the British expedition, where he beat the leader Vivian Fuchs to the South Pole, did no harm to his reputation. There were more books, documentaries and films. But it was the way Ed and Louise – and later June Hillary – were able to capitalise on his fame that is the most important legacy. Over the years, Hillary retained an enduring respect and affection for the Sherpas and the Nepalese people. Through the auspices of the Himalayan Trust, the relentless and exhausting Hillary fundraising campaigns enabled the building of hospitals, schools and other amenities in Nepal.

Gill notes that, at times, Hillary failed to give credit to others for their work, as in the case of Griffith Pugh, physiologist on the Everest expedition and in the “yeti” search and “Silver Hut” scientific episodes. The author also includes new information about the pilot involved in the fatal Himalayan plane crash, which makes his account of the deaths of Louise, and the Hillarys’ younger daughter Belinda, especially poignant.

The biography includes a wealth of fascinating personal details, is well-produced, documented, and illustrated lavishly with black-and-white and coloured photographs: aerial views show routes to the Everest summit. Perplexing is the absence of maps and running chapter headers, while information usually printed on the verso of the title page appears at the end of the book. An epilogue provides insights into Hillary’s character and life as a whole, but some of this material seems unnecessary.

Sir Edmund Hillary died in Auckland in January 2008, aged 89, and was given a state funeral. Gill’s biography is the most comprehensive to date. It won’t be the last.

Julia Millen is a director of Writes Hill Press and the biographer of Ronald Hugh Morrieson and Guthrie Wilson. In 1970 she spent 6 weeks working in Antarctica. 

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