By Tim Watkin (THE GUARDIAN, 12/01/08):
Sir Edmund Hillary was a mountain of a man. His physical presence was formidable, his spirit even more so. His face was as long and craggy as the Lhotse face he climbed on his way to the summit of Mount Everest, and his smile as bright as sun reflected off snow. When he conquered the world's highest mountain with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in May 1953, Hillary - and a new Queen - offered hope to the crumbling post-war British empire. For New Zealanders, and indeed for the Nepalese, he was and remains unmatched.
Countries will sometimes have a person who embodies the best of their national character. For New Zealanders, Sir Ed, as he was known by all, was that person. While he always insisted he was an average bloke, not terribly smart and technically not a great mountaineer, he showed what could be achieved by sheer guts and common sense.
I spent time with Sir Ed and his wife, Lady June, in 2003, on the 50th anniversary of his feat. I also followed him around Nepal, a country he spent much of his life serving, and whose adoration of the man was palpable. Hillary's true heroism was shown not on the summit 55 years ago, but years later in the Himalayan foothills, when he raised money to build schools, clinics, hospitals, bridges and airfields.
It began by a campfire on a glacier in 1960, when he asked some Sherpa mates how he could help a people he admired deeply. Educate our children, they replied. So he started work on a single school - but, as he told it, "people came from villages miles and miles away, days away, and kept coming with petitions saying, 'Can you help us build a school or medical clinic?'" Since 1965 Hillary's Himalayan Trust has been doing that, and much more. Students from Hillary schools have gone on to gain PhDs, pilot jumbo jets and run companies.
Hillary shrugged it off as "a bit of help", as he shrugged off any praise. He saw "Hillary the great" as an impostor. When I asked how he dealt with the adulation, Sir Ed replied: "I say thank you very much and carry on doing the next thing." As his great climbing mate George Lowe put it: "Icon, well that's a four-letter word to him."
These days we are surrounded by self-appointed, 15-minute heroes. Sir Ed and Tenzing Norgay - and all the team who were so essential to the success of Sir John Hunt's 1953 mission - were the real thing: humans testing their limits to the fullest. (They always insisted they hadn't "conquered" Everest, that it had merely relented.)
Today we're left wondering how to measure the quality of the man and the nature of heroism. Is it that he didn't reveal he got to the top first until well after Tenzing's death, always insisting that it was a team effort? That he saw his success not as an end, but a beginning? That he saw it not as an opportunity for himself, but for others? That his details remained listed under H in the Auckland phone book (he lived in the same house most of his adult life), and every week he politely endured calls and visits from people just wanting to meet him? That he argued for the environment long before it was top of the pops?
Perhaps we glimpse the mark of the man in the genuine surprise at all the fuss when he came down the mountain, that the first thing he thought of was not royal banquets and high-paying endorsements, but that he could no longer walk round his home town of Papakura in ripped clothes. "I remember thinking to myself," he said, "you know, I'll have to buy myself a new pair of overalls." Or perhaps it is revealed in the fact that his life's greatest reward was his great Sherpa friendships.
The death of Sir Ed seems to mark the passing of a particular kind of champion. He was that rarest of men: a hero who deserved the title.