Top of the world again

By Andrew Stone

A high-tech exhibition at Auckland Museum is set to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the climb that put New Zealand on the world map

Sir Edmund Hillary at the opening of Bakanje School 1970 in Nepal. Photo / Auckland Museum collection, Sarah Ivey
Sir Edmund Hillary at the opening of Bakanje School 1970 in Nepal. Photo / Auckland Museum collection, Sarah Ivey

For the next five months, in a small gallery at the Auckland Museum, Sir Edmund Hillary will once more climb the world's highest mountain.

An exhibition celebrating the 60th anniversary of Hillary's famous ascent is being given a high-tech twist with images of the climb projected on to a scale model of the Himalayan peak.

As the expedition slogs its way up the Khumbu icefall and Lhotse face to the 8848m summit, three projectors beamed on the car-sized model will create the mood of day and night, before Hillary and his Nepalese climbing companion, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, reach the roof of the world.

The climb and descent unfolds over just five minutes, short enough to hold the attention spans of the schoolchildren whose imagination the museum wants to inspire. Viewers will see a line push its way up from base camp to the summit, with scenes of the climbing party appearing on the snowy slopes.

The 1953 expedition, led by British climber John Hunt, took nearly two months to complete its goal as a conga line of sinewy porters hauled a staggering eight tonnes of climbing gear and boxed supplies up rocky paths under the towering presence of the peak known to Tibetans as Chomolungma or "Goddess Mother of the Skies" and in Nepal as Sagarmatha, the "head in the great blue sky".

To reinforce the sense of a mountain-top experience, high altitude sounds - the wind, the strain of the climb - will play in the background, interspersed with the ambience of Tibetan monks and Nepalese schoolchildren.

The recreated climb merges technical wizardry and snippets from George Lowe's landmark film of the British expedition, The Conquest Of Everest. New Zealander Lowe died last month aged 89, the last surviving member of the climbing team. (Of the wider expedition team, the writer Jan Morris, who as Times correspondent James Morris, dashed down Everest and sent a coded message to his newspaper to break the news, surives.)

For mountaineering purists, the museum will display images that Lowe and Royal Geographical Society expedition photographer Alfred Gregory captured, along with high altitude images Hillary took with his Kodak Retina, a camera he bought second-hand in 1935. He used the trusty 35mm for his singular May 29, 1953 photograph of a triumphant Tenzing on the summit, the Sherpa's flag-draped ice axe aloft in the thin, freezing air, his face hidden behind an oxygen mask.

Other touchstones of the epic climb will be displayed, including a little chunk of summit rock and Hillary's French Chamonix ice axe ("a few more whacks of the ice axe, a few very weary steps and we were on the summit," he wrote later.)

Medals and honours showered on Hillary have been taken out of storage, including a quirky nine-pointed polished star proudly issued by the Nepal Taxi Drivers' Association and awarded in 1953 to the "Burra Sahib" - an informal title meaning "Big in Heart", which the Sherpas bestowed on the giant New Zealander. A diary Hillary carried to the top of the world and filled with hard-to-read entries is on display too.

The page that marks the day when his life changed forever starts: "We had reached our objective. It was 11.30am. We were on top of Everest!"

Alongside Hillary's historic triumph the museum wants the show to remind visitors of the humanitarian footprint the South Auckland beekeeper left in Nepal.

This side of Hillary comes through in the sensitive collection of photographs he took of the Nepalese people and their Himalayan environment.

Rarely seen, these images come from the vast collection of unsorted photographs Hillary left to the museum and which, even now, five years after his death at the age of 88, is still being catalogued. Some Hillary took, others were shot by his companions.

There are close-up pictures of delicate Himalayan flowers, of cheerful villagers, of mighty snow-covered peaks and of Hillary the builder, pleased as punch beside stone-walled schools he was creating for a people he loved. Exhibition developer Janneen Love calls this the "good news side" of the show, with the balance being the "climbing side".

"We wanted a little exhibition that could," says Love. "We consider that Sir Ed is always going to be with us so we are trying to show the other side of the man."

The delightful online exhibition image - a proud Hillary with colourful flowers slung round his neck at the opening of a mountain school he helped build - was taken by his first wife Louise in 1970.

It serves as a reminder of the tragic dimensions to the Hillary story. Louise and the Hillarys' youngest daughter, Belinda, were killed in March 1975, when their small plane crashed on take-off at Kathmandu. They were headed to Phaphlu, where Hillary was helping build a hospital.

This mixture of ingredients - the achievement of the climb and the cultural connections which Hillary created and encouraged through his Himalayan Trust - are the themes that underlie the new exhibition, From The Summit - Hillary's Enduring Legacy.

Says Robin Rawstorne, 3D designer of the exhibition: "What you'll feel like is a bird flying in the sky with the mountain beneath you ... you'll get the cloud formations and the weather systems at play. The central idea is to engage the younger viewers with the climb. We've got to compress that into five minutes and make it exciting for them. We've tried to bring a bit of drama back to the story."

British-trained Rawstorne, whose credits include the 2011 Rugby World Cup opening ceremony, worked with Ponsonby-based Perceptual Engineering for the audio visuals and West Auckland firm Cutting Innovations, whose state-of-the-art multi-axis machine carved out the museum's Everest from polystyrene. He thinks the exhibition could be cranked up to embrace more smart technology, giving museum visitors an interactive experience. "I think it can develop and grow."

Sarah Hillary, Sir Ed's daughter and Auckland Art Gallery principal conservator, helped with the project by cleaning a thangka painting of Tengboche monastery, which for many years hung on the wall of her father's Remuera home office and which features among the exhibits.

For the Hillary family, the exhibition is a clear sign that relations with the museum, which inherited Sir Ed's papers, diaries, maps and photographs, have turned a corner. Sarah and her brother Peter headed to court in a dispute over use of the material but the row was revolved after intervention by Prime Minister John Key.

Sarah Hillary said this week the family was thrilled by the way exhibition had been put together and felt it would be a success.

"We're delighted about it. It's great."

History of adventure

What: From the Summit - Hillary's Enduring Legacy

Where: Auckland War Memorial Museum. Admission free.

When: Friday, April 19 to September 29.

- NZ Herald

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