Ed Hillary has gone. Already a legend, he now faces another challenge — that he will become lost among the excesses of eulogy, that the legend might become so conflated with myth that we no longer know who he really was.
On the day he died I heard two of his friends, both well known media personalities, reminiscing about him.
“The thing about Ed,” one said, “was that he had no negatives.”
Supererogatory statements like that diminish him by suggesting he did in fact have flaws which must be denied. The urge to laud those we love is understandable, but comforting ourselves should not be at the expense of accuracy; to overpraise Ed is essentially selfish because it denies others the chance to know the real person. In contrast, the tears on the cheek of Ed's friend, George Lowe, and his inability to say more than a few words, said far more about the effect Ed had on those who knew him.
I knew only the public persona. I never met him. I did hear him speak, once, many years ago when he toured New Zealand with the film of the then recently completed Sea to Sky expedition, the journey by jet boat up the Ganges. I'm afraid what I recollect most is his description of the snake he'd been given to hold. He described it as a horrible, slimy thing. One forgives someone like Ed Hillary for lapses like that, but what would one achieve by denying he said it? I certainly hope that when I cark it (I think Ed used that phrase, too) those I love will forgive rather than deny my saying I love snakes and think they're wonderful.
Ed Hillary accomplished marvellous things; he had remarkable personal qualities — physical and mental strength, determination, approachability, humour, the willingness to see a project to a successful conclusion, and many more. But he wasn't perfect. Now, when we feel his passing so keenly, I won't point out examples of where he might have been fallible; a little research in the public domain would give you an idea, and it's wrong to speculate about any known only to those who knew him. I'll say only that while it's fine at this time to overlook his failings and focus on the characteristics and achievements that so deservedly earned him his reputation, he was, nevertheless, human like the rest of us.
And he didn't conquer Everest. He and Tenzing Norgay were the first to reach the summit and return safely; moreover, they accomplished the feat not alone but as representatives of a large, well organised expedition. Neither man would have summited without the other, nor without the huge, multinational operation that put them within reach of the summit. That being said, whether the expedition could have put anyone other than Hillary and Tenzing on the summit might be arguable but it's improbable. They were clearly the strongest pair and worked together particularly well; the chances of success for any other pair would have been far less. Yes, they stood first on Chomolungma's summit, but not solely through their own efforts. And what exactly was conquered?
If you believe mountains are more than ice and rock and extreme cold, if you believe a mountain might recognise you and respond to you, then Chomolungma could have killed Hillary and Tenzing as easily as it might shrug an avalanche from its shoulders. That it didn't, suggests it allowed them the summit; perhaps it rewarded them for their determination and tenacity. On the other hand, if you believe mountains are nothing more than the products of geological and climatic processes, in what possible sense might you consider a mountain conquered?
No, if anything was conquered, it was human frailty. Chomolungma wasn't conquered; nor, unfortunately, was the human ego that insists on thinking it was.
And please stop referring to him as “the greatest New Zealander”, whether or not you qualify it with “arguably” or with the meaningless phrase, “of our time”. Greatness should not be competitive; to make it so lessens the achievements of other great New Zealanders. Call him great and leave it at that .
Ed Hillary's death isn't the tragedy some have claimed. He was in failing health for some time and many who knew him had been anticipating the inevitable. No one, I believe, thought he needed to prove anything more. His death isn't a tragedy, it's an invitation to remember, reflect, and celebrate. A degree of sadness is natural, but to call his death a tragedy devalues that word in the same way excessive eulogies diminish his memory. I don't want him canonised. Nor, as his own words make clear, would he.
1.“cark it” is New Zealand vernacular for “die”. This usage differs from the usual dictionary definition of “cark”, which generally suggests it means “to be worried, uneasy, or alarmed”. Mind you, I'm sure that's how most of us would feel if faced with the imminent prospect of carking it.
2. For me, his main claim to greatness was what he did for the people of the Khumbu region of Nepal; schools, hospitals, water supply systems, etc. As for his mountaineering accomplishments, yes, that summit was special under those circumstances, but what I most admire was that he not only did it, he survived. In general, the mountaineers I most admire are those who didn't die doing what they professed to love.
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Prayer flags on the Annapurna Sanctuary trail, Nepal.
2. One of the locals at Sinuwa, on the Annapurna Sanctuary trail.
3. Evening silhouette, loc. cit.
Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor