Man for the ages wore celebrity with humility

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2008, 12:00am

In an age before globalisation, Sir Edmund Hillary belonged to the world. A humble New Zealand bee-keeper, he climbed with a Nepalese man, Tenzing Norgay, on a British expedition in 1953 to conquer Mount Everest, the highest mountain on Earth. The feat was billed as a coronation gift for a young Queen Elizabeth; Sherpa Tenzing buried biscuits and chocolate in the snow of the 8,848-metre summit as Buddhist offerings.

Announcing the death yesterday of her nation's most famous son, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark recalled that Hillary represented the best of the country's traditional virtues - humility, integrity, determination and teamwork. But as millions across the world mourn him this weekend, it is clear that Hillary's virtues resonate far beyond the shores of his small southern nation.

What you saw was what you got with Hillary, who returned to his expedition's base camp with the victorious words: 'Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.' Later he was more expansive, telling one interviewer: 'The whole world lay around us like a giant relief map ... I am a lucky man. I have had a dream and it has come true, and that is not a thing that happens often to men.'

Over the decades, he did not seek or bask in celebrity but used his fame to raise millions for the Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust, building schools, hospitals, airfields and providing water for impoverished Nepalese Sherpas. He also served as New Zealand's ambassador to India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

He stayed well above politics, but spoke with a moral authority on environmental issues and the need for politicians to improve people's quality of life. A new generation of mountaineers also faced his wrath. In recent years, Hillary had expressed concerns at the risk-over-responsibility approach to climbing today and the circus of modern Everest, where inexperienced climbers pay tens of thousands to guides to lead them to the summit, sometimes with fatal costs.

In an age of garish, bloated and sometimes venal celebrity, Sir Edmund Hillary's passing is a reminder of the more worthy aspects of fame, particularly the value of character.