Energetic, well-ordered account

Sir Edmund Hillary. Photos: ODT Files
Sir Edmund Hillary. Photos: ODT Files

For the first-time Hillary biography reader, this is an energetic and deeply revealing story of the best-known New Zealander of all time.

Michael Gill
Potton & Burton


This will not be the last Hillary biography, but it will be one of the best. 

Hillary wrote eight books of biography and his first wife, Louise, wrote three. Dozens of other books have told parts of the Hillary story, especially the ascent of Everest and the drama of the rivalries during the trans-Antarctic Expedition.

However, it would be wrong to assume that because so much has already been written, the Hillary story is too well known to warrant another version. I have read none of the previous books about Hillary and I’m sure there are many others who must make that admission. Those who have read the earlier works will inevitably find themselves making comparisons with Michael Gill’s version of events, but such comparisons probably won’t diminish the pleasures of reading this take on the Hillary story.

For the first-time Hillary biography reader, this book is an energetic, well-ordered and, at times, deeply revealing story of the best-known New Zealander of all time.

Gill spent some months ploughing through the Hillary archives, which had not been available to earlier writers, and draws on his own personal contact with Ed Hillary, which began in 1959 when the author was a medical student in Dunedin. The archives allow him to tell of the pre-1959 years with more personal details, many of which were glossed over by Hillary in his books.

Ed Hillary (left) and Tenzing Norgay prepare to leave basecamp. Photo: Rupert Taylor-Price
Ed Hillary (left) and Tenzing Norgay prepare to leave basecamp. Photo: Rupert Taylor-Price
From 1959 to the mid-’70s, the story is especially strong as Gill is drawing on his own experiences. His closeness to the Hillarys gives a clear window on the special relationship between Edmund and Louise Hillary and his observations on Hillary’s depression after his wife and daughter perished in a plane crash in Nepal add yet another dimension to a many-faceted man.

Even the early part of the story reveals aspects of Ed Hillary which are surprising. His enthusiasm for the philosophy of radiant living in the 1940s led to a successful stint as a broadcaster handling the "Young Citizen’s Session" on radio station 1ZB (an Auckland broadcast rather that the national one which Gill suggests) and speaking effectively at public meetings. Strong Ed Hillary may have been, but he was certainly not silent.

Hillary’s string of mountaineering adventures take up just the space they should for the non-specialist reader. The Fuchs/Hillary contretemps during the crossing of Antarctica is well summarised and some almost-forgotten parts of the Hillary story are revived. The great yeti hunt and time spent in America working for World Books. We even learn of a novel written by Ed Hillary which came very close to publication. The manuscript still exists and may yet tempt a publisher.

Hillary’s life provided more than one achievement and river expeditions, work with the villages in Nepal and his High Commissioner role are just some of the many parts of the Hillary legacy which help to swell the book to more than 500 pages.

The illustrations appear to be digitally reproduced (a system still grappling to do justice to pictures), which helps keep the price of such a large book at a reasonable level and the index is top flight. It is a disappointment when a fine book is marred by a handful of minor errors. An extra check would have saved this book from NZBC when NZBS is meant and from NZTV instead of NZBC and from Foreign Office instead of Foreign Affairs.

Edmund Hillary: A Biography is Michael Gill’s tribute to his hero, and while the hero’s flaws are not ignored and the achievements are put in their context, Gill’s Dunedin flatmate said it all when he heard of the invitation to join a Hillary expedition, "You lucky bastard!".

The international cast of mountaineers and explorers, John Hunt, Vivian Fuchs, Irvine and Mallory in the early chapters, and the analysis of the personalities who made up the 1953 conquest of Everest team provide the non-mountaineering reader just enough to understand why men risk their lives, simply "because it’s there".

Michael Gill probably knew Ed Hillary as well as most and it comes as no surprise to find that his biography turns to John Mulgan’s Report on Experience to find the words which describe Ed Hillary as the quintessential New Zealander. Mulgan’s New Zealanders were the soldiers in the western desert.

"They were quiet and shrewd and sceptical. They had confidence in themselves."

Gill might have made the point even more strongly by continuing the quotation.

"Everything that was good from that small, remote country had gone into them, sunshine and strength, good sense, patience and the versatility of practical men. And they marched into history."

Such was Ed Hillary, who perhaps climbed rather than marched into history, and whose story has been movingly told in this biography.

- Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.


Win a copy

The ODT has five copies of Edmund Hillary A Biography, by Michael Gill, to give away courtesy of Potton & Burton. For your chance to win a copy, email playtime@odt.co.nz with your name and postal address in the body of the email and ‘‘Hillary’’ in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, October 24.


Winners of last week’s giveaway, The Golden House by Salman Rushdie, courtesy of Penguin Random House NZ: Janice McDonald, of Milton, Trish Giblin, of Dunedin, Chris Kaan, of Halfway Bush, Lena Tan, of Opoho, and Lindsay Sweeney, of Wanaka.

Tenzing Norgay and Ed Hillary relax after conquering Everest. Photo: Rupert Taylor-Price
Tenzing Norgay and Ed Hillary relax after conquering Everest. Photo: Rupert Taylor-Price

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