clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How New Zealand made Edmund Hillary, the man who conquered Everest

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND: WHERE THE WRITER FINDS A LOVELY CITY BUILT ON VOLCANOES, PUBLICLY LISTED PHONE NUMBERS, AND MANY SIGNS TELLING HIM WHERE NOT TO LOOK FOR A LEGENDARY MOUNTAINEER’S HOME

New Zealand’s largest city is all built on a huge volcanic field that was active as recently as 550 years ago or so and could theoretically blow up one day and be buried in a hellstorm of magma and rock.

For the moment it’s beyond fine. The harbor is dotted with green islands and tour boats and is crossed by a wide-arched bridge tourists may bungee jump off for a fee. There is a bar district around the water where, on an extremely long and unusually perfect summer night, people sit on enormous white pillows lined up along the waterfront drinking wine and talking to each other. It seems like an insane luxury that no one seems to be looking at their phones, but it’s happening nonetheless.

I ended up in boat-drunk summery Auckland because I wanted to figure out, 10 years after Sir Edmund Hillary’s death, how the first person to climb Mount Everest ever happened. I promise that is not as insane a question as it sounds, particularly when you put him in context.

For instance, there are sports people whose astronomical talents justified everything ever written about them who ended up in the right place at the right time: Pele bubbling up from soccer-mad Brazil; Michael Jordan being born in basketball-mad North Carolina; Usain Bolt coming from Jamaica at a time when the island’s track program is dominating the world and was a perfect vehicle for his nearly perfect talent.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi both landed in soccer hotbeds and fell into the cradle of moneyed, highly organized talent development programs; Tiger Woods came from modest means, but his talent was nurtured ruthlessly by a father bent on forging him into golf greatness.

In other words, sports gods are usually born gods, but it helps if they land in the right place, with the right parents and mentors, all at the right time.

Sir Edmund Hillary, though — nothing about him outwardly makes sense. He came from Auckland, as far away as a person could come, geographically speaking. Unlike a lot of adventurers and gentleman sportspeople of his time, he was not wealthy. He became a passable athlete eventually, but he started out in school described by his gym teachers as scrawny and weak. He had no obvious and immediate gift for self-promotion. His default mode was shyness — so much so that his future mother-in-law proposed to his first wife, Louise, for him.

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary
Getty Images

Yet there Hillary is, grinning from the pages of my 1961 edition of the World Book that, as a child, I read cover to cover instead of paying attention to my teachers. For my entire childhood, that was the image of adventure, daring, and what today would be considered a deranged level of self-deprecation and humility.

That picture of Tenzing Norgay — the second man atop Everest and Hillary’s Nepali climbing partner — with one leg in a huge snow boot cocked up on the ice, being captured by someone behind the camera who somehow did not care about taking a selfie at the top. Hillary left the summit without getting a photo of himself.

Hillary also doubled down on what would be an easy meal ticket all by itself — being the man who climbed Everest — and became much more than a mountaineer. He became an Antarctic explorer, a Yeti hunter (briefly and unsuccessfully), a humanitarian who built schools and hospitals for the Sherpas who got him to the top of Everest, an explorer-for-hire, a filmmaker and author, and a diplomat.

Someone could argue there were more important figures in sport, but then again, how can someone argue with a mountain climber whose face ended up on his country’s money while he was still alive and who has a mountain range on Pluto named for him?

I wanted to see what Hillary’s seriously large legacy was in New Zealand and figure out if he was something beyond exceptional, or if the place itself had a lot to do with a humble beekeeper becoming a giant figure in mountaineering and beyond.


I started in Auckland because Peter Hillary suggested I start there. I found his number with one internet search, and Edmund Hillary’s son — an accomplished mountaineer, adventurer, and philanthropist himself — answered the phone after his wife handed it to him.

This level of accessibility is a real thing in New Zealand. Rugby legend Sonny Bill Williams walks down the street mostly unbothered in Auckland. A quick question from an Australian radio reporter in October 2017 regarding the pronunciation of the new prime minister’s name found its way to a Jacinda Ardern. She informed the reporter that yes, the accent on the PM’s name fell on the first syllable, as in AH-dern. The new prime minister, who picked up the call when it came through at her desk, was happy to answer the question herself.

It is, at all times, a relentlessly down-to-earth place. And before the relentlessly down-to-earth Edmund Hillary became famous, he was born, raised, and went to school in Auckland. He was a good, but not spectacular, student, and he tramped around the hills to the west of the city as a young man who didn’t really know what he was going to do with himself. After he became famous, he bought a house overlooking the harbor with some of the money he got from books and lectures about summiting Everest.

He decided to put a pool in because, according to Peter Hillary, putting in a pool meant having a project.

“He loved anyone who had any sort of project. One of my enduring memories is his study with a foolscap pen and pencil, whether it was business, the Ganges expedition, or a trip he was planning to take us on.

“He decided to build this massive extended veranda area out over the harbor areas of Auckland with these high-density supports and struts himself. It was the most gorgeous location.”

Hillary did the design himself. He did much of the construction, too, with help from friends until an outsized cantilevered deck stretched out from the house. Then, because he was Edmund Hillary, he decided to put an aluminum-sided above-ground pool on top of it and fill it with water for his children and their friends.

There was one oversight.

“There was no guard rail. It was one of the most dangerous swimming pools ever built because the land sloped down and away from the deck. It was about 25 feet above the edge of the property.”

I paused when he was telling this story to ask: Did anyone ever fall off it?

“We occasionally lost a kid over the side, but they tend to bounce.”

That is a theme here. Most of Hillary’s projects involved intense planning — to a point. But in the moment, improvisation ruled when it had to. On Everest, Hillary had to thaw out his boots over open flame when they froze up. On the Antarctic expedition in 1957-58, Hillary and his team of New Zealanders were originally told to lay supplies for British scientist Vivian Fuchs’ expedition and then head back. Hillary headed for the South Pole anyway, because:

I continued as though the exchange of messages had never occurred ... It was becoming clear to me that a supporting role was not my particular strength. Once we had done all that was asked of us — and a good bit more — I could see no reason why we shouldn’t be organising a few interesting challenges for ourselves.

They made it to the South Pole driving four tractors, and then they met the expedition leader later.

His base for all that adventure was Auckland, a city on the edge of the world. The Hillary family — with three young children, no less — would take early jet-age planes on multiple trips around the world, traveling from New Zealand to Chicago to Nepal to London.

They would inevitably come back to Auckland, a sprawling city that can feel like a British suburb until you notice the Maori and other Polynesian residents, the odd vegetation, or that Santa Claus in the Christmas displays in the windows of Smith and Caughey department stores hanging out with pirates and wearing shorts and jandals for the holiday.

Sir Edmund Hillary and others near an upturned airplane on a snowcapped mountaintop in Antarctica, 1950s
Photo by Express/Getty Images

Auckland by location, more than anything else, begs people to get outside. One of the thousand things Hillary’s name is on is a lung-busting, four-day trek along the West Coast. It sits in the hills where he trained for expeditions and tramped as a member of local tramping clubs (still accepting members, btw) and gradually started to find his purpose in life when he noticed that, more than almost anyone else, Edmund Hillary did not seem to get tired no matter how bad the terrain might be.

The Hillary Trail runs right along the front of another Hillary house — or, more properly, his “bach” — one of New Zealand’s beach houses often built with whatever happened to be laying around at the moment. I wanted to see the house for selfish reasons. Because it was his, because it represented so much of what was cool about New Zealand in general, because it sat in the middle of the most stunning slice of Pacific Rim scenery, all green hills running to the sea and waves breaking on black volcanic basalt. There are cows in the green hills over the Tasman Sea on the west coast of New Zealand that live rent-free in a nicer place than I ever will, and there is nothing I can do about it.

The entrance to the Hillary Trail on the segment by Hillary’s beach house was blocked off with tape. Across it, there was a sign explaining that the area was closed for preservation of the native Kauri trees along the path.

Not being a native, I obeyed it. That wasn’t the only sign, though. New Zealand is covered in extremely explicit and abundant signage. Driving down the road there might be a sign warning drivers to pull over and take a break if they are even the least bit tired. Then, half a mile later, there will be another reminder: Did you see that last sign, the one where we warned you about being tired? You might want to think about that a bit, if you would, please.

Radio PSAs warn against the dangers of frying drunk. Don’t laugh. Apparently, in a country with no danger of gun violence, it’s a priority to warn against getting hammered, putting on an entire greasy pan full of sausages, and then passing out on the couch while they burn an apartment block to the ground. Mention this to a Kiwi, and they will get a thoughtful and concerned look on their face like someone who isn’t from a hellworld where people eat Tide pods and toddlers kill people with poorly kept firearms. No, it’s a real problem.

There are signs posted with detail — so, so much explanatory detail. Someone decided early in the history of the country that an entire country needed citations, footnotes, and expandable hyperlinked comments. That is why every statue has a note on it detailing the sculptor, every tree in sanctioned arboretums (noted by, yes, more properly denoted signs) has a sign with its species on it, and every possible warning that can be given about an outdoor situation is given on signs in parks and beaches.

It can feel like developing a slow-creeping form of schizophrenia. See: The sign on the ancient elevator in my hotel in Auckland that reads, PLEASE CLOSE BOTH DOORS AND TREAT ME GENTLY I AM OVER 70, makes me, for a span of two days, develop a caring emotional relationship with a creaking, erratic old Otis elevator. I was proud of it for making it up three stories; I got the tiniest bit angry when I saw a tenant slam the old mesh door shut with a bang. She’s 70, you bastard, no one treats Ilsa like that.

Ilsa wasn’t the only non-human thing I gave a name. I named a seagull the size of a pitbull Dave at Karekare Beach — a wide, misty volcanic beach on the coast west of Auckland not far from where I wanted to go. Dave needed a name in case he decided to interrogate me because figures of authority like being addressed by their proper names.

Dave the giant seagull let me pass. Karekare Beach looks familiar for one reason and one reason only: It is the beach from the opening of Jane Campion’s The Piano. The rest is completely alien. There are massive ferns, more ferns, backup ferns for the backup ferns, odd conifers and clusters of the pohutukawa, aka the vermillion-bloomed New Zealand Christmas Tree, cabbage trees, and the occasional wide-windowed house spotted between plants on sloping hillsides diving right into blackish volcanic sand beaches.

There is another sign here: “POWERFUL CURRENTS: SWIMMING ALONE HERE IS DANGEROUS!!! DO NOT SWIM HERE ALONE!!!” And right past that sign, on the far, far edge of a city built on a ring of volcanoes, walks a lone morning swimmer in a bikini, toweling off and heading to the parking lot.

It all seems very safe and also sort of not safe at all.

OHAKUNE/RUAPEHU, OR WHERE THERE IS A PERFECTLY GOOD STARTER MOUNTAIN FOR ASPIRING MOUNTAINEERING LEGENDS WITHIN DRIVING DISTANCE OF HOME

I drive south out of Auckland toward Tongariro National Park. The highway south runs past volcanic cones and down through the steaming earth and geysers at Rotorua. The town has public gardens with roses the size of a human head and a Tudor-style spa built next to the dead geothermal lake with a bowling green straight out of a British period piece.

The New York Times just added Rotorua as one of 2018’s “Places to Visit.” It didn’t mention the sulfurous fartstink surrounding anything within shouting distance of the lake once. It also didn’t mention the signs reading, “WARNING: THERMAL POOLS AND ACTIVITY!”, usually right next to where pioneering and evidently very, very cold New Zealanders used to climb right into the bubbling, murky water.

There’s more steaming ground past that, and farmland, and then the road runs right to Mordor.

The first mountain Edmund Hillary really fell in love with is not Mount Doom, aka Mount Ngauruhoe, the spot Peter Jackson chose as the home of Sauron in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy. That is next door, relatively speaking, and is part of a three-peak circuit called the Tongariro Alpine Circuit, which includes Ngauruhoe, Tongariro, and Hillary’s first mountain, Ruapehu.*

*The record for running between all three belongs to Kiwi mountain runner and “self-employed builder” James Coubrough. He ran the mountainous 20km trek with 3,500 feet in vertical gain in a lung-busting 1:48 in 2011. Lately Coubrough also competes in something called the “Crazyman,” a 56K race featuring a kayak run, a mountain bike segment, and run. No, there is no one in New Zealand who is not secretly an expert in an arcane sport or outdoor activity.

Ruapehu was a plot point for Hillary in more than one sense. As a young, relatively aimless college student and later dropout, Hillary didn’t appear to have any gift for self-promotion. He developed one, though, and ended up being an excellent promoter of his own work, charities, and books, TV, and films.

Particularly in his autobiographies and stories about Everest, he told his stories consistently and with an eye for giving the readers what they wanted early, and often. He usually led with the hits — the Everest trip, right up front. If that’s what you wanted to read, well, you got it.

But if someone wanted an origin story, well, he had that, too. His first trip to the mountains came at the age of 16 on a school trip to Ruapehu:

As our bus carried us steadily upwards... its headlights sparked into life a fairyland of glistening snow and stunted pines and frozen streams....I was in a strange and exciting new world...for ten glorious days we skied and played...

He didn’t talk much about other, later trips to Ruapehu, on long weekends away from Auckland with his friends after he started getting a reputation as a mountaineer, and before Everest. Those trips usually included appearances by Louise Mary Rose, a member of Auckland’s tramping club, and a viola player good enough to get a scholarship offer from the University of Sydney.

Edmund Hillary with his first wife, Louise Mary Rose
Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

She was at Ruapehu in 1951 when Ed Hillary and fellow Kiwi climbing legend George Lowe made an appearance, speaking “Hindustani” to each other at dinner and told her they would take her climbing. In 1952, she, Hillary, and Lowe were at Ruapehu again, this time with Hillary and Lowe fresh off a thrilling expedition to the still-unclimbed Himalayan peak of Cho Oyu.

Lowe and Hillary risked an attempt on the huge mountain even though much of it sat in Chinese territory. They did this partially because they wanted to prove themselves for a future attempt on Everest, but also because — in their own thinking — as New Zealanders they wouldn’t be as much of a trophy for Chinese soldiers patrolling the area.

Hillary also believed that at altitude he could outrun any Chinese soldier on Cho Oyu. This carried over to other expeditions, too. On a recon trip around Everest, Hillary scrambled around the Tibetan side of the mountain without fear because he did not believe Chinese soldiers went above 16,000 feet or so. This is all to say this: that marauding Chinese soldiers with guns were considered a minor threat in the calculus of mountaineering. That alone should tell you how dangerous the rest of it was.

The two rock stars had a bad climb that weekend on Ruapehu in 1952. Lowe hurt his hands showing off for tourists up on the mountain, while Hillary dislocated his knee. Louise Mary Rose writes in one of her letters from the period about Ed being in considerable pain but going straight to bed that night. He did something first though: Ed loaned Louise his down jacket.

Three months after Hillary climbed Everest, Louise and Ed got married. They had three kids, 22 years of marriage, and a partnership that started the Hillary Foundation’s work in Nepal building schools and hospitals.


Ruapehu isn’t huge. At just over 9,000 feet, it looks more like a Scottish peak, broad and low, rising up from the patchy earth tones and forest surrounding it like a sagging meringue on a pie. That’s what it looks like in photos, at least. Walking out both mornings in the resort town of Ohakune, there’s nothing to see but a broad earthy brown base, ending in a thick gauze of gray clouds that didn’t move for two days.

There is a volcanic crater lake up there — one that until pretty recently people used as a giant natural hot tub, at least until seismic activity intensified and folks realized that swimming in a volcano’s simmering crater lake might not be the best idea. The natural dam containing the lake can break. In 1953, the same year Hillary summited Everest, a mudslide from the lake destroyed a rail bridge. A train rode right off the tracks and into the mud below, killing 151 people in what to that date was the worst disaster in the country’s history.

There is an elaborate system of sensors and alarms now to give those down the mountain a heads up. When a siren goes off midday in Ohakune — a long, keening wail of an old school air raid siren, the kind you hear in films about the Battle of Britain, to be exact — I walk into a hotel and ask a clerk if that’s something I should be worried about.

“Nah, that’s fine.”

There is a pause.

“What is it? The siren.”

“Oh, that! That’s just the volunteer fire department.”

“I thought it was the volcano warning or something.”

“Oh no that’s different. I think? I think that’s different.”

It’s a fierce little starter mountain, really, one situated four hours south of Auckland. Even a future legend needs a starter mountain, an incubator just big enough to inspire ambition, but small enough to handle. Someplace free and close enough to start big things on a little scale, if someone were looking to do that. Someplace that’s still got enough real danger, whether you like it or not.

Or maybe someplace that, in the summer, is small enough to run down the street in a Borat mankini at 11 in the morning, unharried by the authorities. That is what a college-aged man chose to do while I was there, running past me with a skimboard tied to his ankle and clattering behind him, his blond hair floating in the warm breeze. Like seemingly everyone else in New Zealand, he was outside.

CHRISTCHURCH, THE PLACE TO THINK ABOUT DISASTERS BOTH RECENT AND LONG GONE, AND ALSO TO PURCHASE A HAT

I flew to Christchurch and bought a hat. I had to buy one: Not only was it unusually sunny, but there still isn’t a whole lot of shade downtown. Christchurch is a city where it feels like all of the places someone might seek shelter from a summer sun disappeared all at once, replaced by stacks of shipping containers, construction sites, and — yes — very thorough signage explaining how all this will be upright again one day.

Hillary was from Auckland, but his legacy is scattered through the second-largest city in New Zealand, too. Christchurch is the gateway to Mount Cook, where Hillary learned alpine mountaineering and made his name as a climber. The Hillary Institute for Leadership is headquartered here. So is the International Antarctic Centre, the hub for the New Zealand, Italian, and American programs — programs Hillary helped establish and worked with during his stint as an arctic explorer. Seeing the sign at the airport reading, “ANTARCTIC CENTER” is beyond jarring because in Christchurch, Antarctica isn’t something abstract from a map. It is, from there, an almost local stop.

A good bit of the heart of Christchurch disappeared on Feb. 22, 2011, when an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale hit 6 miles outside the city center. This followed a 7.1 the previous year outside of Christchurch, a quake that loosened up a lot of the stone buildings put up by Christchurch’s Anglican founders. The 2011 quake finished the job, bringing down the Canterbury Television building, collapsing the spire on Christchurch Cathedral, and killing 185 people in all. In the aftermath, almost a fifth of its population left the city.

By the most optimistic estimates, it will take Christchurch 50 years to recover. That recovery is happening, and recovery also remains an agonizingly slow process. Almost seven years later, there are gaping holes in the city — city blocks that exist only in theory demarcated by chain link fences and orange construction markers. The first to leave Christchurch — the young and the Maori, mostly — have seemingly come back for the construction and service jobs here. It feels young and still as half-built as the old building facades held up by ziggurats made of shipping containers.

Christchurch is a place to think about being lucky and then not being lucky. Sir Edmund Hillary ended up lucky in a lot of ways. He was born at exactly the right time, in exactly the right place, and ended up in a lot of other right places at the right time as a result. He knew it, too. In his own words: “Nothing can replace courage, a resounding motivation and that little bit of luck.”

The only inaccurate bit in that statement might be the word “little.”

Before he ever became a mountaineer, Hillary survived a boat accident in Fiji during World War II that threw him back-first onto a hot engine, resulting in extensive second-degree burns across his back and face. He led some of the first climbs through unscouted Himalayan ranges at high altitude without suffering major injury, and that’s just as well. If hurt, there was no hospital to treat him for 100 miles in any direction. The first one in the Khumbu region around Everest would be the one he helped build.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay enjoy a snack
Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Hillary survived a serious attack of altitude sickness on Makalu in 1954. (Ironically, after summiting Everest, Hillary would have trouble with altitude for the rest of his life, effectively ending his career as a serious mountaineer.) The incident was so serious The Times of London panicked when news of Hillary’s sickness got to the newsroom. They had no obituary ready in case he died.

On Friday, Dec. 16, 1960, Hillary was late to O’Hare Airport in Chicago and missed his connecting flight to New York. TWA 266 left on time without him, flew to New York City, and collided with an off-course United Airlines DC-8 midair before crashing into Park Slope. One hundred thirty-four people, including every passenger on both flights and six people on the ground, died.

There’s one more. In 1979, Hillary and his radio man and close friend, Peter Mulgrew, had a side gig narrating Air New Zealand aerial tours of Mount Erebus on Antarctica. Hillary was booked to narrate the Nov. 28 flight, but he had another commitment and had to cancel. Mulgrew subbed in for Hillary on Flight 901 and died when the plane crashed into Erebus at cruising speed, killing Mulgrew and everyone on board.

Edmund Hillary missed two flights that would have killed him. A third — a flight from Kathmandu to Lukla in 1975 — took two people he could never replace. Heading to join Edmund in the construction of a school in the town of Phaphlu, Hillary’s wife Louise and his youngest daughter, 15-year-old Belinda, were killed when their plane crashed shortly after takeoff.

The pilot was a New Zealander named Peter Shand. Louise Hillary knew him: She and Ed had dinner with him nine days before the crash, and in her letters she describes him as disorganized. He worked for Nepal Airways despite having a long record of inattention to detail and sloppy performance. On the day he died, along with 40 percent of the Hillary family, he had taken off in a plane with a control rod still locked in an aileron — effectively rendering the plane incapable of banking.

Hillary arrived shortly after the crash in a helicopter and saw the bodies himself. For the next four years, Hillary retreated into drinking, benzodiazepines, and silence to deal with the dark depression that followed the crash. He kept going as well as he could, but according to family, friends, and those who knew him, when he lost his wife and younger daughter in a single blow, Hillary would never be the same person he was before 1975.

MOUNT COOK, THE PERFECT INCUBATOR FOR MOUNTAINEERS, WHERE THE WRITER DECIDES AN ENTIRE COUNTRY IS FULL OF ACCIDENTAL ASTRONAUTS

Leaving Christchurch and heading up toward the tallest mountain in New Zealand is simple: Go west until Pocket England ends and Pocket Montana begins. If the scenery turns into Pocket Norway, then the car has gone too far south; if everything starts looking like Mini-Oregon, turn around and head west until big mountains reappear. If there are vast, Big Sky-looking valleys, a slew of blue lakes that get bluer the closer they get to their source glaciers, and brown plateaus perfectly suited for a downhill Orc charge pop up, stop.

The weather said it would be clear and fine at Mount Cook, so it was not. The weather turns without warning around Mount Cook, mostly because it is a mountain, but also because it is a mountain on an island with a maximum width of 250 miles. The weather can run right off the water and turn a clear day into blizzard conditions with what is often frightening speed.

On this day the top is obscured by clouds. A spitting, sporadic rain hits on the drive up to the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center, the museum and education center tucked away into Mount Cook Village. I buy a poncho at the gift shop — because I will not be prepared for anything, ever — and some coffee at the cafeteria. The window panes there are dotted with a line of chevrons; on further inspection, each is a little, long-jawed Edmund Hillary head in profile.

In the museum dedicated to Hillary and the history of Mount Cook, there are a few things worth noting. There is a tractor from the Antarctic expedition, some of Hillary’s mountaineering gear, and a lot of photos of his expeditions. Some early newspaper ads for Mount Cook on the wall deliver an underwhelming but honest pitch for a vacation destination: “MOUNT COOK: IT’S FINE.”

Mount Cook sits in a national park about the size of the city limits of Durham, N.C. In that postage stamp-sized chunk of land, there are 20 peaks over 3,000 meters. Forty percent of the park is covered by glaciers — real, gnarly glaciers, the kind of ice a lot of mountaineers don’t get many chances to navigate. Someone looking to learn to climb big mountains with snow, ice, and mixed terrain has a custom-built sandbox just waiting here.

Edmund Hillary does not discover the mountains without visiting Ruapehu, but he doesn’t learn how to survive in them without Mount Cook and the surrounding area. On weekends off during his Air Force training during World War II, he hiked miles in both directions to get to climbing peaks — usually alone, and often with very little understanding of what he was doing.

After the war, he learned alpine technique from Harry Ayres in the mountains of the South Island, and he made the first climb of the South Ridge of Mount Cook in 1948. He prepped for the 1953 Everest expedition with fellow Kiwi George Lowe here and used the nearby Tasman glacier to test the tractors for the 1955 Antarctic expedition.

Mount Cook/Aoraki trained Hillary but also helped make mountaineers like Freda Du Faur, George Lowe, Graeme Dingle, Peter Mulgrew, Russell Brice, and Peter Hillary. It’s another little perfect incubator nestled into New Zealand, a place where if someone wanted to, say, become an alpine badass — or at least a competent weekend warrior — they could, all within striking distance of home and a decent cup of coffee bought with a Hillary fiver.

Or failing that and not wanting to become unstoppable, glacier-hopping alpinists, they can hike with their kids up to the glacier overlooks and yell at them when they peer over the edge of the overlooks. They are not sheer cliffs, but steep piles of glacial moraine, rock and dirt. The kid I’m thinking about had his head way out over the edge despite his mother yelling at him, “YOU ARE SCARING ME” from down the trail. A small part of me wanted to turn and tell her that it would probably be fine if he fell and rolled down the slope. Kids bounce.


If he’s not the guy on the $5 bill, then Hillary is to younger New Zealanders a kind of standard bearer for Kiwi-ness: humble, down-to-earth, and dedicated to serving others. Some, but not all, know Hillary for a bit more than that — i.e., for enduring two of the worst things that can happen and pushing on despite disaster.

That he pushed on is accurate in a lot of ways. He took one last adventure with the Ocean-To-Sky expedition in 1977, taking Kiwi-built jet boats as far as they could go up the Ganges River before heading to the mountain source of the river on foot. He served as New Zealand’s high commissioner to India and Bangladesh in 1980s, adding diplomat to his resume despite having no formal training. (Hillary also formally served as the ambassador to Nepal, though informally he’d already had the job for years.)

Hillary continued with his Himalayan Foundation work, making his last visit to Nepal when he was 87 years old. When he arrived at the airport, he could check in as a returning citizen or as a New Zealander — the country had already given him honorary citizenship in 2003.

The widower eventually remarried, too. June Mulgrew lost her husband, Peter, on that Air New Zealand flight to Mount Erebus that Hillary was originally booked on. June and Edmund married in 1989 and stayed together until Hillary’s death a decade ago.

He read adventure books. He worked at home on the Hillary Foundation, his nonprofit devoted to giving young people in New Zealand the same outdoor experiences that had changed his entire life. He traveled, gave lectures, and went to the North Pole in a plane with Neil Armstrong just to say he’d done it. He never stopped trying new things, even after he’d become someone with an entire encyclopedia entry’s worth of things named after him.

Peter Hillary considers that his father’s ultimate talent. “My father’s real gift was one of reinvention. He never stopped, even when he was doing something he wasn’t familiar with.”

Portrait of Sir Edmund Hillary
Getty Images

Hillary could do that in part because he had to: His entire professional life was one of hustling from one expedition to the next, from one project to the next. He had to figure out how to get a department store in Chicago to pay for a Himalayan expedition (answer: turn it into a Yeti hunt, which it did), or get funding for schools in Nepal, or how to keep all of this afloat while still doing the things he loved.

Hillary could also reinvent himself because being from New Zealand made it a necessity. Without the weight of budgets, established institutions to completely sponsor what he wanted to do, he often had to make do with what he had and improvise the rest.

The “number 8 wire” mentality was named after the standard fencing wire used by New Zealand farmers for years. It originally meant getting things done with scrap parts, with recyclables, with whatever is on hand. The tractor or boat might be held together with wire — like, literally so — but it got everyone where they needed to go.

The number 8 wire mentality is both a necessity and a tradition across the board for New Zealand and for a lot of its most recognizable figures and teams.

Before he ever made a Lord of the Rings movie, Peter Jackson shot Bad Taste over four years on weekends and nights, played two roles himself, and spent only $25,000 total to make the film. Bruce McLaren learned to build and drive cars by hanging out in his dad’s garage in Auckland. When he didn’t like how a particular piece of bodywork on a car worked at speed, he sometimes used a pair of garden shears to cut the offending piece off before taking the car back on the track to see how it worked. Peter Blake mortgaged his own house to help finance New Zealand’s entry in the 1995 America’s Cup — the Cup where in a shocking upset New Zealand beat the United States 5-0.

The All Blacks rugby team might be the greatest sporting instance of the number 8 wire mentality. New Zealand is outclassed in population and budget by its major competition in rugby. (The budget for the English national rugby team alone might be 10 times what New Zealand can claim for its squad.)

The team’s travel load just to make its games in international competition is mind bending. The All Blacks’ trainer, Nic Gill, estimated that in 2016 alone the All Blacks covered 155,000 miles through the air and crossed something like 75 time zones on the way.

Despite those obstacles, the All Blacks thrive. Since the creation of the IRB International Rugby Rankings in 2003, New Zealand’s most prized sports team has held the No. 1 ranking 85 percent of the time and is the current No. 1 team in the world.

Over a crackling connection by phone, hunkered over a phone/laptop/car battery arrangement in a Mount Cook parking lot that reeked of some serious number 8 wire engineering on my part, I asked Gill: how? How did they consistently punch above their weight, with fewer resources?

Gill summarized it as this: “We might not have the money, we might not have the resources, but tell you what, we’re gonna bloody put our best effort into it and take that as a challenge. You’re going to have a crack. And if you don’t win or you don’t make it, well, that’s all right, at you least you had a crack.”

Gill, by the way, has a crack at an Ironman at least once a year.


It’s been 10 years since Hillary, after a lifetime of near-misses, somehow managed to die of old age. After his body was cremated, most of his ashes were scattered in a private ceremony at sea in Auckland. Some of the ashes were kept for an attempt to scatter them atop Everest, but local lamas in the Khumbu region opposed it as “inauspicious.” A part of Hillary is presumably still sitting in Tengboche Monastery, waiting to be scattered at a park to be built in his honor in Nepal.

There are other bits of Hillary scattered all over the place. There is a rugby championship, The Hillary Shield, named after him; a mountain range on Pluto, the Hillary Montes, matching a complementary and equal Plutonian range named after Tenzing Norgay; and the Hillary Trail outside Auckland. There is a 25,000-foot unclimbed peak in Nepal named Hillary Peak, the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center, the Hillary Hut in Antarctica, the Hillary Foundation, and what was the Hillary Step on Everest.*

*The Hillary Step, a 40-foot cliff marking the last real obstacle to the summit of Everest, was affected or possibly collapsed by the massive 7.8 Gorkha earthquake of 2015. How affected is still a matter of some debate. The 10,000-foot drop to the right of the Hillary Step if a climber completely falls from it during the ascent of Everest, however, is still there.

At the center named for him, the statue of Hillary stares out toward the glaciers around Mount Cook. They used to cover the entire floor of the valleys leading up to the mountain. The Tasman Glacier has receded far up the valley now, leaving a luridly blue-green lake dotted with icebergs in its wake. I can look up from the overlook and see its path almost like the ice in motion: back, up, and away from the earth, in retreat from heat and rising water.

No one can be ready for what comes with that retreat. Even if the wealthy try to use New Zealand like some kind of life raft against the uncertainty of the rest of the world, they can’t buy the inheritance Hillary had. The legacy here isn’t one of ease or certainty — not at all, not even with the most famous New Zealander of all, someone whose legacy is as much of the place as it is of the man, and as much of the culture and his surroundings.

Sir Edmund Hillary was lucky. He grew into being a strong athlete, was inquisitive, and had a giving spirit, but he also wound up in exactly the right place to shape him into what he would be.

The only way people got to New Zealand in the first place was by sailing together, outmatched against the sea in open boats. Humanity may have to take to them again to survive. When they do, New Zealand stands a better chance than most of making it.

There will be no titles, just first names. They will have a crack. When they survive, the secret will be how they were raised on the edge of the shaking, boiling world, born 12 hours away from the rest of the globe and living in the last new world this earth had. Hillary may have gone the furthest of all of them yet, but they are by birth all accidental astronauts.

Illustrations by Tyson Whiting.