12 January 2008

Ed Hillary's new challenge

Prayer flags, Annapurna Sanctuary Trail
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 EdRock breaker, Sinuwa 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 [1](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 Evening silhouette, Annapurna Sanctuary TrailTenzing 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 [2].

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


zhoen said...

He was one of those giants that I had thought already long gone. Big stories like his seem to belong to an earlier age, not in a world of cheap electronics and dilettante mountaineers.

Emma said...

Overpraising people who've shuffled off [thanks for introducing me to "cark it", by the by] is more than selfish; it's a fundamental disservice to that person and those who knew him/her. I've never understood this human need to initiate the dead into sainthood the moment the transition is made. Is it not more honorable to be truthful in our eulogizing? Certainly we all exist at varying levels and ends of the continuum of flaws, but it seems to me that celebrating the merits and achievements of a man who had his "negatives" like the rest of us would stand as more than a testament to him; it would stand as a testament to what one flawed human being is capable of achieving. Sorry, a bit long-winded and pompous perhaps, it's a long-standing beef I have with humanity. :0)

Snail said...

His flaws make him human. Editing them out simply turns him into a caricature, diminishing him, his achievements and those of others. Reaching the summit of Everest is evidence of determination but building schools, hospitals, bridges and pipelines for the villagers is evidence of humanity.

"I like to think that I am a very ordinary New Zealander, not terribly bright perhaps but determined and practical in what I do."

Ruahines said...

Well written Pete. I too was most impacted by the honesty and obvious grief of George Lowe, someone who was his friend. I consider Lowe to be a Kiwi hero as well, and without his sterling work on Everest would they even have been in a position to get anyone up top?
I was talking with a friend last evening about Ed, saying that the one part of his book I remember most is after his wife and daughter were killed. He went into a depression for awhile, booze and pills to sleep, and it took a long time for him to be able to externalize that pain and even then very stoically. He wrote of having dinner with a friend overseas and after dinner procuring a bottle of scotch and draining it. Only then was he able to talk about his grief, and wrote, "Then the dam burst - we drank and talked and I'm ashamed to say we even wept a little."
He certainly was human, and he always fully acknowledged his flaws as a father and a man. Even someone like Ed could struggle with the concept of grief and tears equating to weakness. But rather than make me want to jump on that as a flaw in him, it only made me respect him more - that at least he was aware of it.
Well written Pete, as always you leave me with much to contemplate.

Beth said...

Thank you for writing this, Pete; well said.

Avus said...

A good antidote to all sugary obituaries, Pete. Your last paragraph says it all really.

herhimnbryn said...

Thankyou Pete,thankyou.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen: true — he does seem to belong to another age; an age before the word "adventure" lost most of its true meaning.

Emma, your comment's neither long-winded nor pompous; I strongly agree with those thoughts. Somehow it really is more encouraging to hope to emulate someone who was recognisably human — it seems much more achievable.

Snail: "Reaching the summit of Everest is evidence of determination but building schools, hospitals, bridges and pipelines for the villagers is evidence of humanity.
Beautifully phrased; spot on.

Robb: thanks for those thoughts. I agree, and I find it sad that this is likely to be the first time most kiwis have ever heard of George Lowe. Similarly, Norman Hardie has never had the recognition he deserves outside climbing circles — how many of us know he was one of the summitteers on the first expedition to climb Kanchenjunga, the world's 3rd highest mountain and a considerably more difficult prospect than Everest?

Beth: thanks; glad you appreciated it.

Avus: actually, it has been pleasing to see a fair number of carefully considered comments doing the rounds. For example, our Prime Minister referred to him as "the best known" rather than the "greatest" New Zealander. Plenty of sugary stuff around, but my hope is that when the initial excesses die down we'll be left with the memory of the man, not the myth.

HHnB: Thanks :^)

Gustav said...

Excellent tribute Pete.

I agree that no human can conquer a mountain.

Ironically the only thing that can conquer a mountain is water....millions of years of rain and snow will eventually leave their mark on Everest as it has done to other mighty peaks over the last billion years.

What Ed did do was overcome his own fears and doubts.

The fear of failing and of potentially taking the lives of others with you is daunting.

Yet Ed perservered and its that follow through and perserverance that I revere in him and other people I learn from and admire.

Perhaps his legacy for us all is to challenge ourselves and not become muddled in mediocrity.

Take a few risks and stick with it and work hard at what you love to do....

isabelita said...

Well, there's an old saw about not speaking ill of the dead, but that's not quite what I'm after here in response.
No doubt Mr. Hillary wasn't perfect, but he sure as fuck achieved a lot more in life than say, the current President and VP of my country, the screwed up USA.
When those two cark it, I'll be glad to speak ill of them, they've done NOTHING good in either of their miserable existences.
The whole deal of "conquering" very high peaks is so strange. A friend of mine, a woman in her early 40's, leads fund-raising expeditions up such mountains as Amma Dablam. She loves the high, cold redoubts, and contributing to local needs.
The view,also, is beyond breathtaking...

pohanginapete said...

Isabelita, I have friends from the US who feel dispossessed, almost homeless, because of the actions of those two. And my friends here have friends who feel similarly, yet still live in the US. I feel for them, and always try to remember not to generalise when I speak of the US, knowing how strongly so many US citizens oppose the actions of George Bush and his pals.

An excellent book which sheds some light on the "conquering" attitude is Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind. Well worth reading.

Thanks for the thoughts. Hang in there.

pohanginapete said...

Gustav, thanks for those thoughts. I think if I had to point to one characteristic of Ed Hillary's that dominated my perceptions of him, it would indeed be that determination; the "stickability" that meant he saw his challenges through to successful outcomes. But — I have to admit it — perhaps there's a touch of envy there :^)

Adagio said...

Somewhat belatedly, I want to say: I was surprised at how much Ed Hilary's death moved me.

pohanginapete said...

Adagio, I think your feeling was shared by many, even those who were expecting it soon. Somehow, he seemed to represent more than simply his own accomplishments. Among much else, he's mourned because, as Zhoen pointed out, he belonged to a large degree in an age where accomplishments like his seemed more profound. Perhaps there's nostalgia among the emotions, but there's a lot more besides.

I found myself similarly affected by Hone Tuwhare's death, too.

Adagio said...

I think Ed Hillary was just 'always there'.