Remembering Sir Edmund Hillary

Posted on: February 13, 2008


Hundreds of guests view Sir Edmund Hillary’s service screened live in the adjacent cathedral. [Photo] Mark Watson

Editor's Note: Much-loved mountaineering icon Sir Edmund Hillary passed in Auckland City Hospital at 9 a.m. local time, January 11, 2008. (Read the January 10, 2008 NewsWire for a comprehensive obituary.) His memorial service in Auckland, New Zealand, was attended by thousands, including John Henzell and Mark Watson, who were kind enough to share their thoughts and photos for this Feature.

Members of the NZAC present a climbers’ guard of honor as Sir Edmund Hillary’s funeral procession leaves St. Mary’s Cathedral. [Photo] Mark Watson

For some, the old-style wooden ice axes they held were museum pieces more suited to decorating a living room wall than scaling a peak in the Southern Alps.

For others, the axes were their own, with their history shown in the dents and scratches from when they had been wielded decades earlier.

Forty Kiwi mountaineers raised their axes as one to form the New Zealand Alpine Club's honor guard when Sir Edmund Hillary's coffin emerged from the state funeral at an Auckland church.

For many of them, he wasn't Sir Edmund. He was just Ed, their friend and colleague in the back country. One had hoisted his ice axe at Sir Ed's wedding to Louise Rose in 1953. Several of them had followed his bootprints to the summit of Everest.

In the midst of a funeral for a man who was a national hero, the honor guard was designed to reflect the breadth of New Zealand mountaineering.

The youngest, 21-year-old Michael Ellis, had only just flown in from Nepal when he took up his place. His great grandfather, Roland Ellis, had helped put Hillary on the Everest team by offering Eric Shipton assistance from the New Zealand Alpine Club expedition in the Himalaya in 1951. The Ellis family firm, Fairydown, made the sleeping bags that kept him warm on Everest a few years later and then in the Antarctic.

The honor guard was a small triumph for the spirit of mountaineering in a day which brimmed with security. The diplomatic protection squad was not enthralled by the idea of forty people wielding deadly weapons around most of New Zealand's most powerful people but acquiesced.

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Hugh Logan, a climber long before he rose and then descended the heights of bureaucracy, had the thankless task of trying to herd them into a cohesive group. Most do not like being organized and some probably don't own ties but Logan shepherded them into two straight lines.

"It's going to be like a probe line in an avalanche," he said, seizing on a way to get the point through.

Standing side by side were veteran mountain guide Gottlieb Braun-Elwert and his daughter Carla, whose ascent of Aoraki-Mount Cook nine years ago at age 14 remains the youngest by a woman.

Carla remembers well the time Sir Ed came to visit the family home while in the area to open the new stone hut in the McCauley.

"He had this huge hand like a big paw," she said. "He had this amazing presence. It blew me away. Even though most of his mountaineering achievements happened before my time, he's still a hero for people of our age."

When she heard she had been chosen to be in the honor guard, she cried.

Others represented multiple generations. Ed Cotter had been on the NZAC expedition in 1951. His son, Guy Cotter, went on to make repeated ascents of Everest—first guiding for Rob Hall's company Adventure Consultants and then after taking over the company in 1996. Mike Perry was there. He was the first Kiwi to climb the mountain from the northern side. So was Lydia Bradey, whose ascent without oxygen was the first by a woman.

The day before had been the people's day to remember Sir Ed, with queues to see him steadily growing throughout the day and eventually reaching up to 2 kilometers in length and lasting into the early hours.

The state funeral had about as little pomp and ceremony as the occasion could allow. Speeches from children and grandchildren, some from his second marriage to June Mulgrew, demonstrated that this was also a private loss of a loved grandfather as well as of an iconic New Zealander who few of the general public had met but nearly all of whom thought they knew.

After the service and going through the silent honor guard of upraised ice axes, the flag-draped coffin was met with a rousing, boisterous and moving haka by teenagers from Otara's Hillary College, performing He Maunga Teitei (the Lofty Mountain).

The coffin was placed in a hearse and driven on to the streets of Parnell, where thousands had gathered in the teeming rain to bid Hillary farewell. Quietly and then steadily, applause broke out among the crowd as Hillary made his final journey.

—John Henzell, New Zealand

Members of the NZAC present a climbers’ guard of honor as Sir Edmund Hillary’s funeral procession leaves St. Mary’s Cathedral. [Photo] Mark Watson

St. Mary’s Church, Auckland, site of Sir Edmund Hillary’s funeral service. [Photo] Mark Watson

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