11 January 2008

Sir Edmund Hillary -- 1919-2008.

I grew up in small town New Zealand. Although I had my trials and tribulations, Taupo in the 60's and 70's was a great place to grow up. There was a more or less constant skirmish going on in our neighbourhood between the Pakeha kids and the Maori kids - which I look back on as being more to do with social conditions than race. We were the targets for their anger. But apart from that you could wander the streets without fear. If child abuse, rape, and murder were happening then as kids we were blissfully unaware of it. We walked to school and played in the street - something that no one seems to do anymore, at least in England.

Out the back of Taupo is a lump of a mountain, partially covered in forest. Tauhara hovers at the edges, a shy presence that looks over the town, but does not loom even though the foot hills are only a few minutes drive away. In those days one could climb it - the walk being difficult but rewarding. These days local Maori prefer people not to walk on the mountain, which is a shame. From the top one can see for many miles in every direction. At the far end of the lake, perhaps 100 kilometres away are the triplet of volcanoes, two of which - Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu - have erupted in my lifetime. The third, Tongariro, like Tauhara, is dormant. Maori legend has it that they are were a tribe of mountain beings who lived and loved in the area long before humans arrived. Standing on the lake front, the view to the west is obscured by high hills. To the east one can catch a glimpse of the Kaimanawa ranges - often with snow on their peaks in winter. We knew that our lake - 26 miles across - was, and is, in the caldera of a much larger volcano which last erupted around the time of Christ devastating much of the North Island along the way.

Later I moved to Auckland which is a city of a million plus people sprawling over a huge area. To navigate one triangulates using one or more of the many small volcanic hills scattered around. Most of the 63 volcanic vents in the area are just holes in the ground, some filled with water, but several rise high enough to be features of the landscape, and to offer spectacular 360 degree views of the city.

One other mountain looms large in my childhood memories: Everest. This is because in 1953 - 13 years before I was born - a great ox of a man called Ed finally reached the summit of the highest mountain in the world. Ed was a Kiwi, of course. There aren't many real heros in New Zealand history, and in those days we would not have considered Maori heros like Te Whiti o Rongomai one of ours. Ed was our hero. A genuine world class hero. In those days nothing much local was world class, and we probably still suffer from an inferiority complex. But Ed. He was our man. Tenzin Norgey was always acknowledged as having been with him , but in our minds it was Ed who did it, Tenzin kind of helped him along. (I think now that we didn't really give Tenzin enough credit and that a kind of naive racism was at work). To the rest of the world Ed became "Sir Edmund". But that was much too grand for us, and for him, and so he was always just Ed Hillary - nothing much needed to be said because this guy was the first to climb Everest, and after that... well we don't (or didn't) like to to get too carried away with praise and celebration. But everyone knew, and we were proud as can be of Ed. Ed was the fulfilment of the myth of the New Zealand Man, perhaps another reason why we tended to overlook Tenzin. Although most New Zealanders won't have read a book called "Man Alone" by John Mulgan, it somehow came to define a romantic ideal which all of our fore-fathers aspired to. It was about one man pitted against society, and then pitted against nature. He was rugged, self-reliant, and not bound by social conventions. Our version of the Hollywood cowboy I suppose only a lot less glamorous! Ed on Everest was the apotheosis of the "man alone" myth - although obviously he was never alone. Myths are funny like that.

Ed was renowned for his modesty - a true humility which meant that he was uncomfortable of people making a fuss about his achievements. This quality is highly admired in the New Zealand man. And so we loved him all the more. Returning to base camp he reported said, laconically "well... we finally knocked the bastard off". In truth Ed was neither the best climber on the team, nor the first choice for the ascent. But when the first team turned back, Ed got his chance. My image of him is an a large and very strong man, with a huge heart. He was never going to give up, was absolutely driven. He just ploughed straight up there. Of course this is a romantic view. But he was big and strong and determined. I think this almost caused a disaster in Antarctica where he drove his team to a dangerous exhaustion - it was difficult to keep up with Ed.

Much of what I know is the kind of thing that one absorbs from popular culture, from primary school projects, and from watching TV. Ed was often on TV. After Everest he carried on climbing and lead some expeditions, but it was his work with the Sherpas that maintained his profile. After all having climbed the biggest mountain, there isn't much kudos in climbing a smaller one. However Ed began to go out to Nepal and started trying to raise the quality of life for the Sherpas. He built schools and hospitals, often with his own hands. And it was for this also that we loved him. New Zealanders love the under-dog, I suppose because of that old inferiority thing. And then best way to sort anything out is to get stuck in and build something, eh. Someone said on the radio this morning, that he went to Nepal 120 times! In 1985 the government acknowledged his defacto role and appointed him High Commissioner to India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. He was active in New Zealand as well. Always helping people.

There is a Maori proverb that goes something like:
If you are going to bow down;
Let it be to a mighty mountain.
Ed was a mountain of a man. I never met him or anything, but in New Zealand anyone famous is one of your mates, even one of the family. Ed was not just one of us, but the best of us. He embodied all the virtues a New Zealand man should have, and as far as I know none of the vices. The rest of the world will probably remember him as the first man to reach the summit of Everest - if the news coverage of his death here in England is anything to go by - but back home he will always be more than that. He was an icon. There are very few people who are so virtuous that you naturally admire them, want to follow them, be like them. Ed was like that. He was good in the down-home sense of the word. Honourable, generous, kind, humble. These are the virtues I pursue as a Buddhist of course. Ed was my first exemplar of these virtues. I know that high up in the Himalayas - the abode of snows - that the Buddhist Sherpas will be chanting mantras, doing puja, and praying for his fortunate rebirth. For one who has lived so well, I think there need be no anxiety about his future; if I am anxious at all it is because one of the great spirits of our age has left the world, and for all the good he did, the world seems a darker place than ever and we need men like him all the more.

Kia ora, kia kaha, Ed. Haera ra. Farewell. We'll miss you.

vajrasattva mantra for Sir Edmund Hillary

image of Ed by Graeme Mulholland via Wikipedia.
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