Page 7: Later career
Hillary, Edmund Percival
Beekeeper, mountaineer, philanthropist
This biography, written by Shaun Barnett, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
In 1985 Hillary joined astronaut Neil Armstrong on a flight to the North Pole, making him the first person to have reached both poles and the summit of Everest.
Ambassador to India
The same year, Prime Minister David Lange invited Hillary to become New Zealand’s ambassador to India, as part of the country’s effort to more closely align itself with Asia. Hillary relished the role. June Mulgrew joined him in New Delhi until he retired in 1989. That year the couple married on 21 December at Hillary’s Remuera home.
In 1987, Hillary was inducted into the Order of New Zealand, and then in 1995 received the British Commonwealth’s highest honour in becoming a Knight of the Garter. He also received honorary doctorates from universities around the world. In 2002, the Auckland War Memorial Museum displayed its ‘Sir Edmund Hillary: Everest and beyond’ exhibition, attracting thousands of people.
National and international figure
Despite failing health in later years, Hillary readily answered media requests for his views. He commented unfavourably on commercial climbs of Everest, especially regarding the 2006 death of a British climber who lay dying near the summit while others passed without offering help.
Some viewed Hillary’s comments as a sound reflection on the competitive and commercial nature of modern Everest climbs, but others saw them as the outdated views of a man lucky enough to have experienced the golden decade of Himalayan climbing.
Despite such occasional controversies, Hillary remained New Zealand’s most loved national figure. In 2003 the 50th anniversary of the Everest climb brought media fanfare. Magazines around the world, including National Geographic, ran articles on Hillary. Vanity Fair called him the world’s greatest living adventurer, and Time rated him and Tenzing among the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
Hillary’s image of Tenzing Norgay on the summit of Everest is one of the most memorable of the 20th century, but by no means the only proficient photograph that he made. His photograph of a tractor chugging over the Ross Ice Shelf, with Mt Erebus bathed in dawn light, is a classic of exploration photography. His pictures of wife Louise and of alpine flowers suggest a man who took delight in portraits and in details, as well as in grand landscapes.
Generosity and modesty
Hillary accepted with unfailing grace the responsibilities that his fame brought, including countless media appearances, book signings and requests to write forewords. Aside from his humanitarian work, another hallmark of his generosity was his mentoring of a new generation of climbers which included Graeme Dingle and Mike Gill.
Decades of hero-worship bemused him: ‘I have had much good fortune, a fair amount of success and a share of sorrow, too. Ever since I reached the summit of Everest … the media have classified me as a hero, but I have always recognised myself as being a person of modest abilities. My achievements have resulted from a goodly share of imagination and plenty of energy.’1
Hillary’s death on 11 January 2008 from heart failure at age 88 brought sorrow to New Zealanders. Commentators could recall no greater media attention since the 1974 death of Prime Minister Norman Kirk. Newspapers ran multi-page supplements on Hillary, and his funeral was televised. As his casket was carried from Auckland’s St Mary’s Church, Alpine Club members held aloft old-style wood-shafted ice-axes. After Hillary's death, his work in Nepal continued through the Himalayan Trust.