Sir Edmund Hillary: Down to earth

By Andrew Laxon

A new book on Sir Edmund Hillary promises the first uncensored glimpse into his personal life and the tensions that divided his family.

Sir Edmund Hillary. Photo / Jane Ussher
Sir Edmund Hillary. Photo / Jane Ussher

Four years after the death of Sir Edmund Hillary, his children are still wondering how their father's legend came to be overtaken by a public family feud with their step-mother.

The long-running row erupted into High Court action and front-page headlines in 2010 when Sir Ed's second wife, Lady June, tried to sell his treasured Rolex watches without Peter and Sarah Hillary's consent.

The scars from that battle are still healing, judging from interviews in a new book about Sir Ed and his family to be published on Monday.

"I would really like to see a repair," says Sarah Hillary in the book After Everest: Inside the private world of Edmund Hillary by journalist and author Paul Little. "It would be nice to talk to her when things have calmed down."

"It was all so unnecessary," agrees her brother Peter. "I am glad it is over and everyone can get on with their lives - that's what we should do and I know that's what our father would want us to do."

The unseemly bickering will hardly affect the status of Ed (as the book calls him), a genuine national hero who climbed Everest at the age of 23 and spent the rest of his life working to improve the living conditions of the Sherpa people in Nepal. But it has dominated public perceptions of New Zealand's most famous family since the nation came together to mourn the 88-year-old's death in a State funeral in January 2008.

And as Peter Hillary implies, his father, who hated any public display of emotion, would have been horrified at the public name-calling that broke out among his family after his death.

First a fight with Auckland Museum over who owned Ed's personal papers required the intervention of Prime Minister John Key and a year's mediation to resolve. Then there was the battle over Ed's Rolex watches, which Lady June tried to sell to raise money for the Himalayan Trust.

A furious Peter and Sarah responded with a legal challenge, blocking the sale of the watches, which a court agreed belonged to them. The story coincided with the sacking of their friend and ally, Mike Gill, from the Himalayan Trust board, led at the time by Lady June and locked in a power struggle between the two sides of the family.

Peter and Sarah Hillary told Little's co-writer Carolyne Meng-Yee that they wanted to heal the rift, a sentiment they repeated this week to the Weekend Herald. Others quoted in the book are less optimistic.

"I don't know if there ever would be a truce," says television broadcaster Mark Sainsbury, who became a close friend of Ed and June after travelling to Nepal with him for episodes of the Holmes show. "I can see it from Peter Hillary's point of view as well - suddenly feeling displaced. It's probably always not going to work. But [June's friends] were angry because they said the whole point of selling was for the trust and never for June Hillary, but she got painted as the greedy widow."

Former Auckland mayor and governor-general Cath Tizard, an old friend of the couple, felt the same.

"I know June and Peter Hillary never got on, but the bitterness that seems to have arisen is very sad. She, I think, has tried to be discreet about it all; but she's the one who's got the blame publicly for all this."

The story is typical of the book, the umpteenth to be written about Hillary's life but the first to be published since his death. It brims with gossipy anecdotes and personal details that other biographers knew but felt they had to leave out, as Ed would have considered them inappropriate. Little says Hillary kept a very tight rein over what was written about him during his life, writing or co-writing 16 books himself and ensuring his biographers portrayed the vision he wanted.

The result, he claims, is that the world knows a lot about what Hillary did but very little about the man himself, including his inner struggles and contradictions.

Although the book plays up this uncensored angle, it's not a hatchet job. Little lavishes much more praise than criticism on Hillary and strives to be even-handed in presenting the less flattering comments about him and other family members. But, as he admits, taking on a national icon with a warts-and-all approach is risky, as the whole country feels it has a stake in the outcome

"Everybody owned Ed. He's a character that's big enough to stand a rounded portrait, which is what I think it is."

The story begins with familiar details of Hillary's youth - born in Tuakau to a pacifist beekeeping father with a violent temper, facing down a sadistic cane-wielding teacher at Auckland Grammar, discovering his love of mountaineering as a schoolboy on a visit to Tongariro National Park - and races through his early climbing success to his inclusion on the 1953 British attempt on the world's highest peak, Mt Everest.

Little writes that Hillary was the best climber in the group but he had to be pushy to prove it, as the British would have preferred to send their men to the top. He and lead Sherpa Tenzing Norgay finally got their chance and at 11.30am on May 29, 1953 they stood on the summit.

In scenes that have become part of national folklore, Hillary photographed Norgay but not the other way round. He said later that Norgay had never used a camera and he didn't think it was a good time to learn. He left the flags of India, Britain, Nepal and the United Nations (but not New Zealand), took a few stones as souvenirs and paused to relieve himself before starting the descent.

Back at camp, he greeted fellow New Zealand climber George Lowe with the famous words: "Well George, we knocked the bastard off." News of the climb was transmitted to Britain just in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and relayed round the world. Hillary was instantly knighted and as the triumphant expedition returned, he and Norgay were surrounded by hero-worshipping crowds. His new life as Conqueror of Everest had begun.

For the next eight years Hillary continued to seek out death-defying adventures, with varying levels of success. He led a Himalayan expedition the following year, in which a climber became trapped in a crevasse - another member of the group, Norm Hardie, is scathing in his criticism of Hillary's misguided rescue attempt - and Hillary himself had to be carried out with broken ribs and malaria.

From 1955 to 1958 he joined forces with British scientist Dr Vivian Fuchs on an expedition to cross the Antarctic. Hillary was supposed to be Fuchs' deputy and his mission was simply to take supplies halfway to the South Pole and leave them there for Fuchs and his party. But after a series of poor decisions by the overbearing Fuchs, Hillary went for the Pole himself. It was a huge gamble, which involved ignoring Fuchs' orders and the reservations of his own team. He almost ran out of fuel for his convoy of Massey Ferguson tractors and had to beg the Americans at McMurdo Sound to fly in extra supplies.

New Zealanders loved it but the British press were not so amused. When Hillary reached the Pole, the Queen asked expedition organisers if she should send congratulations to her brave Kiwi knight.

"Under no circumstances," came the thunderous reply.

Hillary's last classic adventure was a Himalayan expedition in 1960-61, billed as a combination of mountaineering, scientific research and a hunt for the yeti (the increasingly media-savvy Hillary apparently threw this in to grab the sponsors). The expedition was hardly a success in climbing terms - Hillary was invalided out with altitude sickness and a small stroke and his friend Peter Mulgrew lost both his legs and almost died. But it inspired Hillary to help the locals build a school during his time there. One project followed another and led to the formation of his life's greatest achievement, the Himalayan Trust, which has worked to improve the lives of local people ever since.

Fellow mountaineer and humanitarian Graeme Dingle says Hillary avoided the usual approach at the time, which was to ask a New Zealand company to build a school. Instead he asked the Sherpas what they needed and literally gave them the tools to do the job, making them equal partners.

In the meantime, Hillary married his first wife, Louise - he admits he was too cowardly to propose and got his future mother-in-law to ask for him - and had three children. Peter and Sarah were strongwilled, like their dad; Belinda had a sunny personality, like her mother. Peter describes his mother and younger sister as the glue that bonded the family together.

In 1975 Louise and Belinda were killed in a plane crash in Nepal. The tragedy had a deep and lasting impact on Hillary, who by his own admission turned in on himself and failed to cope with his grief. He repeatedly said the accident had robbed him of the two people he loved most of all, apparently insensitive to the hurt this would have caused Peter and Sarah.

The book calls this "his most unheroic moment". Hillary later acknowledged, "I sometimes ignored the fact that my children were equally affected by this great disaster."

Always inclined to melancholy without an adventure to keep him busy, Hillary succumbed to depression for years, taking several scotches and sleeping pills to get to sleep each night.

He emerged with the help of his old friend June Mulgrew, whose husband Peter had died in the 1979 Erebus tragedy while standing in for Hillary as an Antarctic tour guide on the Air New Zealand flight. The two became closer over the years and would eventually marry in 1985.

But there was always tension, particularly between June and Peter. Writer and cartoonist Tom Scott, another old friend of Ed and June, thinks June's biggest problem was that she wasn't Louise.

"She said several times, 'I get older every year - bits fall off. Louise is forever 44'," remembers Scott. "Louise got more sainted with every passing year."

Long before the watches debacle, June and Peter clashed over the future of the Himalayan Trust, which had grown to include a huge list of projects and fundraising branches in six countries. Peter and his allies wanted to extend and modernise the trust's work, while June and her supporters thought it was important to stay true to the trust's small-scale, locally run philosophy.

The book says the power struggle swirled around the elderly Hillary, who avoided confronting the issue and the family rift behind it. The arguments became increasingly bitter after his death, highlighted in an ABC Foreign Correspondent programme, which showed Peter and June seated together at a local ceremony, centimetres apart but refusing to make eye contact or exchange a word.

"It's fairly obvious today there is something of a rift between you and Peter Hillary," reporter Eric Campbell suggests to June.

"I don't want to discuss that," June replies. Then she adds; "No. Peter Hillary has created a rift between him and me."

For his part, Peter takes the ABC cameras to a nearby village that misses out on tourism dollars and much of the trust's good work. The poverty is extreme, unlike the area around the trust's home base.

Later that year June and her family members and supporters resigned from the trust, to be replaced by Sarah Hillary and the reformers. In the book the two camps interpret this changing of the guard in predictably different ways.

"June and the other trustees could see the writing on the wall," says Graeme Dingle. "There was no future. The trust had to be reinvented and to do that it needed some modern ideas."

"The whole thing is incredibly sad," says former board member Murray Jones, who firmly believes Hillary wanted June to run the trust. "Like many people in the Himalayan Trust, I have been torn to pieces because of my loyalties to Ed and I don't want any more to do with it."

When the Weekend Herald rang Peter Hillary this week, he was boarding a plane for another journey to Nepal to work for the Hillary Himalayan Trust. True to his father's style, he gave an unsolicited email plug for its good work and a reminder of its expanded focus. "With Ed Hillary as our inspiration, we are working to provide assistance to even more villagers around the foot of Everest."

Both Peter and Sarah Hillary have not yet seen the book and are worried about how it will portray them and their family.

Sarah said they agreed to some interviews but pulled out after they became concerned at the "shallow and irrelevant" questions. She mentioned one example of a rumour that she said was not only offensive but wrong and was glad to hear it did not appear in the book.

Little says he and Meng-Yee heard a lot of scuttlebutt from the rival camps that they chose to leave out because it was a "distortion of reality".

For him, it was important to portray Ed as a real, imperfect human being, who achieved greatness in spite of his flaws.

"I was really impressed with him as a 20th century figure, as someone making his way through a new kind of world where you're having to deal with this image that's been created and you're living a lot of your life in public."

In spite of all this pressure, says Little, he kept doing amazing things and will always be the hero that New Zealand needed.

"It was fantastic for New Zealand to have someone who was a world figure and is still a world figure. [He's] probably referred to more often in popular culture than any other New Zealander who's ever lived and probably will be for quite some time."

- NZ Herald

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