Author interview: Michael Gill; Edmund Hillary – A Biography

February 26, 2019 6 min read

Ed celebrated his 50th birthday with a Grand Traverse of the summit ridge of Aoraki–Mt Cook. Hillary Museum collection.

Earning worldwide fame in 1953 alongside Sherpa Tenzing Norgay as the first mountaineers to reach the summit of Mount Everest, Edmund Hillary got his first taste of adventure on a school trip to Mount Ruapehu in New Zealand. He joined the New Zealand Royal Airforce in 1944 and began mountaineering, ascending New Zealand's tallest peaks. In 1950 he toured Europe and climbed peaks in the Alps before joining the first all-New Zealand expedition to the Himalaya the following year and then accompanying British expeditions to the Himalaya in 1952 and 1953. 

Michael Gill, the author of Hillary's new biography, was a medical student in 1959 when he answered a newspaper advert for additional climbers on Hillary's next Himalayan expedition. He became a close friend of Hillary's for nearly fifty years, accompanying him on many expeditions and was heavily involved in Hillary's aid work building schools and hospitals in the Himalaya. We caught up with Michael ahead of the book's release ... 

How much did you know about Edmund Hillary before you joined him on your first Himalayan expedition together? 

I hadn’t met him before December 1959 when I followed up on a newspaper clipping that ‘Sir Edmund Hillary is looking for a climber to complete his forthcoming Himalayan expedition'. I wrote an application and received an almost immediate invitation to ‘come and have a yarn’. I’d added a description of myself, ‘I have an ape-like build peculiarly suited for climbing,’ which Lady Hillary commented on when she opened the front door: ‘I’ve just been dying to see what this ape-like person looks like'.

Ed asked his climbing friends what they knew about me and they said I’d been doing some good new climbs. I had the added qualification of a research degree in physiology and an important part of the Silver Hut expedition was high-altitude research in a laboratory to be built at 8,000 metres (19,000 feet) near Everest. So Ed was pleased he’d found not only a climber but also a physiologist who could join Griff Pugh and his other scientists.
What was Edmund like to travel with? 

Very easy-going and very generous the way he invited me to join him en route to London via Chicago in 1960 and to meet all sorts of exciting people during the three months I was in London working on physiology with Griff Pugh. Ed was always aware how much he’d been helped before Everest and he went out of his way to help others. Wherever Ed went, a red carpet was laid out and that was amazing for someone who was just a student at university. I was deeply impressed by the way Ed could handle any sort of social or public occasion with ease.
Did mountaineering provide escapism for Edmund after his time in the New Zealand Air Force? 

The real escape was in 1944 from Ed’s father Percy, from the family bee business, and from the moral pressures of Radiant Living. Ed liked beekeeping but Percy paid him such a pittance that he had no spare cash for even the most rudimentary social life. It was also an escape from being a conscientious objector when others of his age were overseas in the armed forces. Airforce training began at a camp close to the Kaikoura mountains in the South Island, then moved to another base at the foot of Mount Taranaki in the North Island. Suddenly Ed was able to spend all his weekends climbing mountains. After the war Ed made sure he took time off from the bees to pursue his climbing career.

How easy or difficult was it to access information in order to write a rounded view of Edmund's life and character?

Between 1959 and the plane crash in 1975 I saw a lot of Ed and his friends and family because he would always invite me to join his expeditions and sometimes share holidays in New Zealand. I saw less of him after he began his relationship with June Mulgrew in 1979 but even then I was deeply involved in his Himalayan Trust and kept in touch with what was happening. When I began writing the book in 2012 I was able to interview many friends. Peter and Sarah Hillary were a great help and always supportive. Then came the fifty boxes of the Hillary Archive in the Auckland Museum and after that all sorts of leads opened up.
Did you find anything that surprised you in the material that you were granted access to by the Auckland Museum? 

There was a great deal of new material. The first surprise came during my first week in the archive when I found a 46,000-word diary written by Percy Hillary before, during and after his horrific encounter with war in Gallipoli. It explained his dourness and his powerfully held moral positions including his immovable opposition to his sons’ involvement in World War II. There was also a lot of fresh material about Ed’s mother, Gertrude, and her pioneer family including Ed’s grandmother signing the successful petition to Parliament in 1893 requesting voting rights for women.

In his autobiographies Ed covered at length his problems at secondary school but said less about the years 1936-1944 though he summarised them as ‘the most uncertain and miserable years of his life.’ Letters from these years show that he was deeply involved in the quasi-religious movement known as Radiant Living and was for some time very close to its charismatic founder. Another surprising letter showed that for a year he ran a youth session every Sunday morning on one of Auckland’s main radio stations.

Diaries begin in 1944 and from then on these and personal letters provide a rich vein of new material which gave a fresh and immediate view of events as they happened rather than as they looked when tidied up for publication at a later date. Sometimes a letter would provide a lead into material I would not otherwise have discovered. The personal letters to Louise Rose/Hillary were of particular interest showing a depth of emotional involvement that he was reluctant to discuss in his autobiographies.

Another topic that was apparent in the archive was Ed’s significant health problems including a developing intolerance to even moderate altitudes, a serious benzodiazepine dependency after the tragedy of the plane crash, and the developing right heart failure in his last decade which was the ultimate cause of his death – and may have been associated with his half century of intermittent exposure to high altitude.
Did the passing of his wife and daughter change Edmund's relationship with mountaineering? 

Ed was aged fifty-five when Louise and Belinda died and although he was still organising and leading mountaineering expeditions, he was no longer doing serious climbing himself.
How far did Edmund's work in the Himalaya go in bringing him out of his depression after this tragic loss?

Ed spent long periods in the Himalaya pursuing his aid work after the crash. This was undoubtedly a distraction during the day though he describes little relief from his nightmares and insomnia. The Ocean to Sky expedition taking jet boats up the River Ganges in 1977 was an important distraction but the diaries show that the following year he was still deeply depressed. 1979 was the year when the cloud began to lift and it was the developing relationship with June Mulgrew that made the difference.
How do you remember him in his later years? Did the triumph and tragedy he'd experienced change his character? 

Many of those who had known Ed before 1975 felt that he was never the same after the loss of his much loved wife and daughter. He became ever more in demand as a public figure and speaker at a multitude of events but something had been lost, his joie de vivre, his enthusiasms, an easy reaching out to all sorts of other people.
Are you still involved in the aid work Edmund begin in the Himalaya? 

I’ve been involved with the aid work since I helped with the building of the first school at Khumjung in 1961. I was secretary to the Medical Committee which ran Khunde Hospital through to the time when Dr Kami Temba took over. I am currently Chair of the Himalayan Trust.


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