On the 60th Everest Anniversary, I recall the charms of Sir Edmund Hillary when I met him at home in New Zealand.
Few people have the privilege of being known around the world. Sir Edmund Hillary is such a man after his unprecedented ascent of Mount Everest, on 29 May 1953. It brought him a fame he could never have imagined.
Today’s Everest anniversary is special to me because I come from a family in which mountaineering was hailed as life’s greatest achievement. When I was a child, the name Sir Edmund Hillary was only uttered occasionally, in whispered, reverential tones, by my father.
Unlike now, when celebrities are two a penny, the 60s was a time when famous people earned their reputation. Heroes are known for their achievements, celebrities for their image. Heroes are made by history; celebrities are contemporary. Sir Edmund Hillary was a hero. He didn’t die climbing but had huge compassion for the families of those who do.
They say lightning doesn’t strike twice but there were two climbers in my family and both perished in the Scottish mountains, my father in 1979, my brother in 1982. Both were doctors in Edinburgh. A mountain fatality is brutally sudden. It leaves no sense of death as a journey, no time to pack your bags, say thank-you and goodbye. Bizarrely, the news of a mountain death creeps up on you imperceptibly. You see on TV that a climber has died – hear that phrase which still sends shivers down my spine: “no names until relatives have been informed” – you sense the awful inevitability, the fear in the pit of the stomach, the late-night knock on the door.
For years afterwards, I experienced slight resentment whenever I heard someone had fallen down a mountain and survived – incredulity that a stranger had managed to cheat death while two members of my own family had not. It was not a sentiment of which I was proud but it was there, all the same. Back in 1992, that torment prompted me to go to New Zealand to interview Sir Edmund Hillary in the vague hope he might be able shed some light on the questions which preoccupied me about climbing and climbers. Sir Edmund welcomed me into his stunning home overlooking Auckland Harbour. A mountain of a man, he was enthusiastic and courteous, rather like an over-large yet extremely affable Boy Scout. I will always remember him, in brown cords and baggy jumper, seated in his favourite armchair, surrounded by framed photographs of the Himalayas and New Zealand’s Southern Alps. He had intense blue eyes, set wide apart in a weather-beaten face and a wonderful smile.
Sir Edmund was very direct, almost blunt. He asked me whether I had been close to my father. When I said no, explaining he had been someone to whom intimacy was anathema, Sir Edmund said his relationship with his own father had been similar. He told me that, while he had never lost anyone on an expedition, in 1975, his cherished first wife Louise Rose, whom he married beneath an archway of ice axes in 1953, was killed in a plane crash near Kathmandu, with the couple’s youngest daughter, 16-year-old Belinda. He said he had lost the two people he loved most in the world – odd considering he also had a surviving son, Peter and daughter, Sarah.
We discussed the way the police arrive to break the bad news, how it is so hard to believe it is your door they are knocking on. In our case, the words uttered by the police both times were: “It’s Dr Barry. There’s been an accident.” It is almost 34 years since my father, Dr Claude Barry, set out with three of his friends to climb Cairn Toul, one of the highest peaks in the Cairngorms. On the descent, a friend noticed my father was out of sight and ran back. He found him seated oddly on a rock at the top, head thrown back and one eye open. He was dead. He got his wish which, he always said, was, “to go on the mountain”.
What I loved most about Sir Edmund was his desire to explain himself. He agreed mountaineering was utterly selfish but thought life was about seeking challenge and pushing oneself to the limit. My brother Richard felt the same way. He told me life was a balancing act between risk and caution, between bravery and daring, and that survival depended on striking the right balance. On February 15 1982, Richard finally lost that balance when he created his own avalanche on Ben Nevis and tumbled down 400 ft of snow and ice. That night, I knew my brother hadn’t returned to his flat and that four climbers had died in Glencoe. When the panda car came to a halt outside my door, there was no sound from the street – other than my own breathing as I answered the door. I have to say that the police excel at this kind of work. When one of the two officers said Richard had fallen to his death down an icy rock face on Ben Nevis, I was glad of the comfort of their presence. Then came the dark, it’s-not-fair, thoughts – all those people who fell twice the distance and survived with just a few broken bones.
Sir Edmund understood all this. He, the greatest climber of them all, did concede there was an element of escape in mountaineering, a process of pushing other people away, of risk-taking and selfishness. Nevertheless, he asked me not to think badly of climbers. Other people took risks, he said, like smokers, drinkers, people who drive too fast. Climbing was different, spiritual. Thanks to Sir Edmund, I smile now when I hear a climber has fallen and survived. And, I no longer hate Glencoe but, rather, recognise it as an awe-inspiring place, one which possesses a power I once dared to underestimate.
Article focus: 60th Everest Anniversary