'Each of us has to discover his own path. Some paths will be spectacular, others peaceful and quiet'.
– Sir Edmund Hillary
One of the ways I’ve been keeping body and soul together after having been metaphorically shipwrecked on the shores of Auckland has been house-sitting. It’s had some unexpected, and mostly quite pleasant, side benefits. I met one of my now best friends this way, after house-sitting for her over Christmas, and through another house-sit connection had a great day out on a charter boat serving drinks to a contingent of the Olympic Committee while watching the women’s international Laser class yacht racing in the Auckland Harbour (both girls from the USA, I’m pleased to say, did rather well).
I'm now house-sitting in this nice little place in a semi-posh suburb of Auckland (it's only recently become ‘posh’ in the past ten years or so, and still has a quite middle-class feel to it despite all the upmarket house construction going on). Most house-sits are more to take care of the resident pets than to ‘guard’ the property, and this one is no exception – I’m here to take care of a little black Lhasa Apso dog as well as the next door neighbour's cat. The lady who owns the house is 90, lives with her son, with her daughter and son-in-law living in the house next door, which I'm also keeping an eye on. I came early the day they all left for a month in the UK, was treated to a very nice G&T and lively conversation about Nepal and the Himalayas and Tensing's kids and the tiny Sherpa lady who wanted them to take bags of potatoes down in the helicopter and wasn’t that fun riding up the foothills of Everest on the back of a little horse... It slowly starts to dawn on me...
‘Did you guys actually know Edmund Hillary?’ I ask rather naively.
The 90-year-old lady laughs. ‘I'm his sister, June. We're off to Windsor for his memorial service, and I’m having an audience with the Queen after. That’s why we’re going to England, I thought you knew...’
Um, no. Not really. I look around at the house. It’s a modest little house, with the kind of eclectic decoration you'd expect from any ordinary 90-year-old woman... until you start to notice the details.
Hand-painted Nepalese watercolours and photographs of snowy mountain peaks amongst the old prints of English churches and Norfolk countryside. Sun-faded and crooked family photographs in picture frames so basic you wouldn’t look at them twice in a charity shop, just ordinary people doing ordinary things, boating and birthday parties and barbecues, and mugging for the camera… except that one of them looks rather familiar. So familiar, in fact, that it’s the face on the New Zealand five-dollar banknote.
So, somewhat awe-struck, I sit and sip my G&T and listen to family gossip and what June plans to say to the Queen during her audience, practicing it to get it perfect, with a wicked twinkle in her eye as she winds up her kids tut-tutting over her other less than PC declarations, and think to myself how surreal and yet so normal this all seems.
There’s no point in writing up too much of a thumbnail history of Sir Edmund Hillary here; far better works have been written on his life, and that’s not really what this post is about anyway. It’s about the perception vs. the reality of greatness.
The perception – particularly the American forged perception – is that the great and the famous are from backgrounds very different from yours or mine. They live in remote fancy mansions surrounded by acres of sculpted gardens to isolate them from their nearest neighbours, museum quality art hangs on the walls, they have unlisted phone numbers and a surfeit of personal secretaries to keep the grubby public at bay. Even those who archetypically rise from abject poverty and overcome gruelling obstacles, they’re different than the rest of us - the great and the famous have personality traits far superior to us mere mortals, they’re innately more talented, born smarter, stronger, faster, sexier, more charismatic, they get all the bloody breaks, the bastards. You and I? Let’s face it; we’re never going to be great or famous.
Then, there’s the reality. The reality is that Edmund Hillary was a painfully shy kid who – along with his brother Rex and sister June – had a pretty crap childhood not so much different from a whole lot of other peoples’ crap childhoods. He was lonely and unhappy, bullied by boys at school and dominated by his father at home. Academically, he was a terrible student, ranking at the bottom of his class, and dropping out of college after two failed years to work on the family beekeeping farm. Physically he was so skinny and unathletic his Physical Education teacher mocked him, calling him ‘deformed’. He was so bashful that his future bride’s mother had to propose marriage to her own daughter on his behalf over the phone. As a result, he suffered from an enduring sense of inadequacy and fear of failure that he struggled all his life to overcome.
His sister June was an avid hiker, and her bored and restless younger brother tagged along for weekend hikes in the New Zealand foothills with her and her friends, sparking his interest in mountaineering. After a hike in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, he watched two climbers who had just returned from the summit of Mount Cook being showered with admiration and fawned over by adoring young women. He, too, compared his disappointingly dull life to theirs, looking at the great and the famous, and wrestled with the envy and crushing doubt that he would ever lead a life anywhere near as wonderful as he perceived theirs to be.
It’s this – not being inherently better or confident or more exceptional than anyone else – that drove Edmund Hillary up the face of Everest. He harnessed his self-doubt and frustration into a force that wouldn’t allow him to quit. Ever.
And once he was great and famous? He went up the mountain as an ordinary Kiwi, and came down it to discover to his horror he’d been knighted by the Queen of England – he wasn’t good enough to be ‘knightly material’. He settled back into Auckland with his new wife and, since he hadn’t been paid to climb mountains, made a living beekeeping with his brother Rex, and supported his growing family with endless speaking tours and writing books.
So what do you do for an encore after you’ve just climbed the highest mountain in the world? Well, you go drive tractors across Antarctica, you go look for Yetis in the Himalayas, you build schools and hospitals for Nepalese Sherpa children. You trek down the entire length of Ganges River in India.
When your beloved wife and youngest daughter are killed in a plane crash, you publicly put on a stoic face, while fighting black despair in private. When you have an attack of high altitude sickness that causes cerebral swelling and memory loss, preventing you from ever climbing above 14,000 feet again, you forge a new path, becoming a spokesman for the environment and conservation, human rights, fighting poverty and political corruption. You sign five-dollar bills with your face on them for school kids in classes where you’ve been talked yet again into giving a lecture, because you’re a genuinely nice guy and all of Auckland knows it. Your telephone number isn't even unlisted, anyone can ring you up.
And if you’re truly great, you never lose sight of who you are. Just an ordinary person, like anyone else.
Except that you’ve climbed a mountain. That’s it, really.
‘I’m not a hero at all. I firmly believe that I am the creation of the media and the public. I am a person of very modest abilities.’
When I woke up this morning, I opened my eyes to a huge photograph of Mt. Everest, with a white Nepali silk scarf draped over it. And realized something – maybe something important. My mountains are quite a bit shorter than Sir Ed’s Everest, and so far – thank god – my tragedies less cruel. I’ll be happy enough if my path is more quiet and peaceful rather than spectacular. My self-doubt and frustration is probably no better or worse than anyone else’s. I don’t know if I’ll ever be great or famous (probably not), but whatever successes I do achieve in my life won’t be because I’m more talented, smarter, stronger, faster, sexier, or more charismatic than anyone else.
It’s because I know my self-doubt and frustration won’t allow me to quit.