To be a New Zealander this week has been to bask in the reflected glory of our country's most famous son, Sir Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Mt Everest. Since his death last Friday at the age of 88, heartfelt tributes to the great mountaineer and Antarctic adventurer have flowed through the New Zealand media in an endless stream. Fellow Kiwis have been particularly fervent in their praise of Sir Ed, hailing him as a national icon representing all that is good and great in the New Zealand character, "our most gracious ambassador" and even "our own mahatma" (great soul).
In Nepal, he is regarded not only as a great philanthropist and friend but, according to some accounts, almost a demigod for his power to go "beyond the horizon" — the meaning of the Nepalese name for Everest, Sagarmatha. Before May 29, 1953 the local people believed it was impossible for any human to scale its peak. The British, having established that it was the world's highest mountain and named it, had been attempting the summit for over 30 years, and it was as part of a British expedition led by Colonel John Hunt that Ed Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay finally reached the top.
Everyone loves a great adventure and there is something particularly inspiring about climbing, against tremendous odds, to the highest point of the Earth. That alone would have made — did make — Ed Hillary, the lanky but tough young man from small-town New Zealand, a hero. But, as he often pointed out, the elements of heroism are within the average person's reach: an ideal, pursued with determination ("I rather like to succeed"), intelligence, perseverance and sheer guts. Throughout 55 years of fame and two knighthoods he insisted that he was an ordinary and even "mediocre" person who simply took advantage of the opportunities that arose. He eschewed the character of a "conqueror" of Everest and preferred to say that "Everest relented".
This is what his countrymen love most about Ed Hillary: he remained an "ordinary bloke". Many refer to his modesty, but the word that crops up more frequently in the tributes is humility. This is remarkable because humility is not a virtue that normally makes the news — or even the Sunday pulpit — and some of the younger generation of New Zealanders may have to look the word up in their dictionaries. But it turns out that humility is a quality highly esteemed among us and one that would provide a salutary counterbalance to the tiresome self-promotion of the celebrity culture in which the young are steeped. Thanks, Sir Ed, for the reminder.
Today's celebrities like to do good, and some of them have done a lot of good. But Ed Hillary set a high standard of philanthropy with his decades of service to the Sherpa people of Nepal. Starting in 1961 he helped establish 27 schools, two hospitals, a dozen medical clinics, bridges, drinking water pipelines and several airfields. His Himalayan Trust also rebuilt Buddhist monasteries and planted a million seedlings in the Sagarmatha National Park. Hillary stuck to his effort there even after a plane crash at Kathmandu claimed the lives of his wife and younger daughter in 1975, and towards the end of his life regarded his work for the Sherpas as "my most worthwhile things". This constant spirit of service is another of Hillary's qualities that has received top billing in recent days.
Another is the affability, the easy geniality of the great man that has been illustrated in countless anecdotes about people who met him in the street, on planes, in the bush, or simply cold-called him on the phone, and ended up chatting and drinking tea with him as though they were family or old friends. I never met him but it seems Hillary was always simply himself, direct and candid, never adopting a special public style.
A comment in the London Telegraph caught this admirably in describing one of the photographs of the newly-famous Hillary taken around 1953: "It showed an old-fashioned face, the kind you don't see very often any more. Looking at that face, which engaged the camera with an unflinching gaze, it was possible to construct so full an impression of the subject that words were not really necessary. It was the visual autograph of a man who had achieved something unique, yet harboured no illusions about the world, nor misunderstood his place within it."
Ed Hillary had his faults, no doubt, although they were seldom discussed. There was the famous display of "bad form" when he beat Sir Vivian Fuchs across the Antarctic, infuriating the British expedition leader and the British media. He did not always get on well with his son, Peter. But if he was not perfect he was, according to the general consensus, the next best thing. What emerges from all the tributes — certainly the local ones — is our need for men and women of good, even heroic character; people who show us that it is possible to live a virtuous life and what it means to do so. There is also the sense that such people are passing from the face of the Earth and with them our understanding of virtue itself.
One Kiwi educator has therefore called for a "Hillary Charter" that sets out the major values we embrace as a nation and informs both education and national observances such as Anzac Day. These values include duty, service, modesty, humility and selflessness — a line-up, I am prepared to bet, such as has not been seen in a school mission statement — or that of any other public institution — for many a year. But what a difference it would make to our country if we could agree to start hanging them on the wall and putting them in the curriculum tomorrow.
All sorts of memorials to Sir Ed, including a national holiday and renaming Mt Cook after him, have been suggested. Continuation of his charity work is what he wanted most himself, but that is likely to crumble without an effort to foster the Hillary-type qualities that made it possible in the first place. So something like the Hillary charter would be the most fitting tribute. Imitation is the sincerest form of praise; everything else dissolves into sentiment and rhetoric. Virtue is the Everest of the 21st century and we can climb it if we really want to.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.