60 years ago they knocked the b****** off

It was 11.30am on Friday May 29, 1953 and for the first time a man stood on top of the highest mountain in the world. Two men actually, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

They were part of a British team of some 400 people led by Sir John Hunt and their achievement reverberated around the world. Now, 60 years later, an exhibition at Auckland’s War Memorial Museum  gives visitors an intimate look at the expedition for the first time.

“From the Summit – Hillary’s Enduring Legacy” is open daily until September 2013 and entrance is free. Visitors have to do a bit of climbing of their own to reach the exhibition room on the second floor. Children will be entertained by following a map of the The Hillary Trail which winds its way through the museum taking in interactive activity stations representing each stage of the climb. Decisions have to be made, and challenges overcome, before climbing onwards and upwards.

What the exhibition lacks in size (it is contained in one modestly sized room) is made up for in atmosphere. A howling gale fills the room and the light is dim. Thankfully the air temperature is more pleasant than it would have been on the South Col from where the first two climbers made their attempt to reach the summit 900 meters away. They climbed higher than anyone had ever climbed before but they didn’t make it to the top. Hillary and Norgay made a second attempt and the rest, as they say, is history.

The exhibition is much more than a retelling of an historic mountaineering achievement. A film projected onto a model of Mt Everest tells the story of teamwork, and individual endurance and effort beyond belief. A series of red lights traces the route up the mountain. Visitors will be astonished to see how painfully slow progress was. Personal items and and photographs belonging to the Hillary family add a personal touch. An ice axe, a small rock picked up on the descent carefully preserved in a silver locket belonging to Hillary’s mother, and a small selection of medals honouring the conquering heroes.  Most illuminating of all are the entries from Hillary’s ring-bound diary which he kept throughout the expedition. Writing in pen and ink, in what must have been less than ideal conditions, he faithfully recorded his thoughts on the daily progress of the expedition. We get a sense of a man who had incredible personal strength and determination, who valued his team mates, and who wanted above all to knock the b****** off.

More artwork and photographs by children and artists from Nepal acknowledge the contribution that Hillary made to the Himalayan region in the years following the conquest of Mt Everest. He visited Nepal many times and used his celebrity well to raise funds to build schools, clinics and bridges and to repair monasteries. He worked alongside his Sherpa friends; the people called him Burra Sahib or ‘Big at Heart’. At his funeral in Auckland in 2008, then Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clarke said of Sir Edmund Hillary “We may not be able to match Sir Ed’s abilities or strengths, but we can all strive to match his humanity and compassion for others.”


Categories: New Zealand

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