For Sir Edmund Hillary’s grandson Alexander, the gradual realisation of the enormity of his grandfather’s profile began when he was old enough to recognise his face on New Zealand’s $5 note.
“That’s when I realised that Ed was a figure of national importance,” the 26-year-old told the audience this week at the Ryman Healthcare village named after his grandfather.
But he said Sir Ed and Tenzing Norgay had no idea of the significance of their achievement when they reached the summit of Mt Everest on 29th May 1953.
With the news of their Everest success arriving on the day of the Queen’s coronation, it was viewed as her ‘coronation gift’ and Ed discovered he had been appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire on his return to Kathmandu, following which his life irrevocably changed.
He said: “They both recall their ignorance when they reached the top, of the significance of their accomplishment and I find this very, very interesting.
“When they were on the summit they didn’t realise what this accomplishment would mean for the world and particularly for New Zealand.”
Alexander showed a picture of Sir Ed and Tenzing Norgay at the bottom of base camp after summitting, their exhaustion evident.
Alexander wowed the audience with tales of his own mountaineering experiences.
“What makes me endlessly proud of Ed and Tenzing when I look at this photo, is that the climb was not about the glory of the accomplishment, it was about pushing boundaries of what was possible – for mountaineering and for humanity,” he said.
Using many photos and video clips to illustrate his talk, Alexander went on to tell the audience how he has now ticked off an impressive number of mountains himself, although Covid put paid to a planned attempt at Everest in 2020, so that is still on the ‘to do’ list.
While he says his father, Peter Hillary, was careful not to push mountaineering onto his children, it has become a passion for him as well, although people’s assumptions about his family could often be quite unrealistic.
“Growing up a Hillary people often expect extraordinary and often ridiculous things. I recall before I was even a teenager being asked if I’d climbed Mt Everest yet!”
One of the most emotional climbs was at the age of 23 with his brother George in 2019 when they climbed the peak of Ama Dablam in the eastern Himalayan range of Nepal.
It is a beautiful mountain, which he has admired since first laying eyes on it at the age of 12, but it is a technical climb and one that neither Sir Ed, nor his father Peter had managed to summit.
“There’s rock, there’s ice, then there’s altitude and exposure. Ama Dablam means mother locket, and dablam refers to this monstrous hanging glacier, a huge hunk of ice, you don’t get this in the mountains very often, a glacier 2000m up in the air.
“When we got to the summit, we were tired, we were stressed, our altitude-muddled brains were trying to grapple with the climb, and we were making a documentary film at the same time.
“We just collapsed on our knees and sobbed, hugging each other. It was quite a moving moment as it was a pretty emotional accomplishment for us Hillarys, as it was only the third generation that my brother and I were able to get to the top.
“It made me think about the previous generations like Sir Ed who’d achieved a similar feat but in an altogether different way – I knew the mountain was possible, but they were forging a path into the unknown and that’s pretty incredible.”
As well as continuing the mountaineering legacy, Alexander is passionate about maintaining the decades-long connection with the Nepalese people with the work of the Himalayan Trust that his grandfather put in place.
Alexander with his mother Yvonne spent time with residents after his presentation.
With the devastating earthquake in 2015, the many schools, hospitals and infrastructure that the Trust has funded and built have needed repair, with some expansion of their work moving lower down the valley, but Alexander says the focus will remain with the Solu-Khumbu region of Nepal where the Sherpa people predominantly reside.
“We’ve just finished building a public library and liaising with our Nepalese partners in Nepal, and that’s thanks to the support of people like yourselves and organisations like Ryman Healthcare.
“The Trust has become a fixture of generations of people and those are relationships that the Trust and I intend to keep vigorously alive.
“In many ways I think Ed embodied a lot of great Kiwi values, that of resourcefulness, of compassion and kindness. He was driven in what he thought was the right thing to do, showing responsibility but also not without playfulness.
“As his grandson and a New Zealander, I see his example as something that is important and relevant to who we want to be as a country and people today.”