Edmund Hillary

Page 4 – The end of the 'big mountain days'

Through the 1960s and 1970s Ed Hillary’s life followed a familiar pattern of international travel, lecture tours and fund-raising for Sherpa projects, interspersed with expeditions in the Himalayas, Pacific, Antarctica and New Zealand. Sadly, there was also wrenching personal loss. On 31 March 1975, his wife, Louise, and youngest daughter, Belinda, were en route to Phaphlu, where Ed was helping build a hospital, when their small plane crashed on take-off at Kathmandu. Their deaths were a shattering blow.

In 1977, emerging from several years of despair, Hillary led Ocean to the Sky, an expedition to the source of India’s sacred Ganges River. Ed, his son, Peter, Graeme Dingle and others used New Zealand-made Hamilton jet boats to travel from the mouth of the river high up into the Himalayas through deep gorges and thunderous rapids. The party’s subsequent climb to an unnamed peak, which they called Akash Parbat (Sky Peak), was achieved without Ed, who succumbed to altitude sickness and was evacuated with great difficulty.

Another bout of altitude sickness in 1981, during an attempt on the then unclimbed east face of Everest, forced Ed to accept that his ‘big mountain days were over’. His son, Peter, meanwhile, became an accomplished climber in his own right, taking part in numerous alpine and Antarctic expeditions; in 1990 (and again in 2003) he followed in his father’s footsteps by reaching the summit of Everest.

Tragedy struck again in 1979, when Hillary’s close friend Peter Mulgrew – a member of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1957–58 – was killed in the Erebus disaster. Both men had provided in-flight commentary on Air New Zealand’s popular sightseeing flights to Antarctica, which began in 1977. On 28 November 1979 Mulgrew was making his fourth flight over the ice when TE901 crashed into Mt Erebus, killing all 257 passengers and crew.

In the mid-1980s Hillary’s long association with the Indian subcontinent led to a new adventure. When the newly elected Labour government decided to reopen New Zealand’s High Commission in India, Prime Minister David Lange convinced Hillary to become High Commissioner (and Ambassador to Nepal). He arrived in New Delhi in February 1985, accompanied by June Mulgrew (Peter’s widow), with whom he had grown close. A household name in India, Hillary was an inspired choice. Despite his diplomatic duties, he still found time for the odd adventure, including a 1985 ski-plane trip to the North Pole with the former United States astronaut Neil Armstrong. He also attended Tenzing Norgay's funeral in 1986. Following their return to New Zealand in July 1989, Ed and June married in Auckland on 30 November.

How to cite this page

'The end of the 'big mountain days'', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/edmund-hillary/end-of-big-mountain-days, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jan-2016