Mountaineer to start Sydney-Hobart

20th century's most famous climber to kick off Boxing Day run south

Monday September 2nd 2002, Author: Peter Campbell, Location: Australasia

Almost 50 years after he conquered Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain, Sir Edmund Hillary (above) in December this year will lend his support to another great challenge, the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.

Sir Edmund, one of the most famous mountain climbers and adventurers of the 20th century, has accepted an invitation to be the Official Starter for the 2002 Race, regarded as among the most demanding ocean races in the world.

In 1953, with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, Sir Edmund made history when he reached the summit of Mount Everest during the assault by the British Mount Everest Expedition. For this he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

At the time, the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race was just nine years old; this year will be the 58th annual ocean race down the East Coast of Australia to the island State of Tasmania.

Now in his eighties, Sir Edmund and Lady Hillary will fly across the Tasman for the start of the 630 nautical mile Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race on Boxing Day, December 26.

"We are most honoured that Sir Edmund has accepted the invitation of the CYCA and our sponsors, Rolex, to send the fleet away on this 58th annual Sydney to Hobart," the Commodore of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, John Messenger, said. "His exploits in the Himalayas and later in leading scientific expeditions to the Antarctic are legendary; in New Zealand he is a living legend. Having a man of Sir Edmund's stature fulfil the role of Official Starter for the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race will add to the prestige to the event throughout the world."

Sir Edmund Hillary began mountain climbing in New Zealand as a teenager, later climbing in the Austrian and Swiss Alps. His association with the Himalayas began in 1951 when he and two other New Zealanders made first ascents to peaks over 20,000 fleet high.

This brought an invitation to join the British Everest reconnaissance party later that year, an expedition that was to discover the route up the south side of the mountain, later used in the successful assault in 1953.

The mountain climbing exploits of Hillary in the Himalayan mountains, continuing over the next decade, are legendary, but in 1956 his interest turned to the Antarctic when he became the leader of the New Zealand part of the British Trans Antarctic Exhibition.

An extensive scientific and exploratory program was undertaken and Sir Edmund and four companions travelled overland with three modified farm tractors and became the first ever party with vehicles to reach the South Pole.

In 1960-61, Hillary returned to the Himalayas with a large scientific and mountaineering expedition. During this expedition he first took action on his growing concern for the Sherpa people who had played such an important role in his various Himalayan successes, with the first school being built in the Mt Everest area.

He returned to the Himalayas annually for the next few years with combined aid and mountaineering expeditions which saw over the years the building of many schools, water pipelines, bridges, mountain airfields and several hospitals.

In 1975, during a project to build a hospital and airfield at Phaphlu, Hillary's wife and younger daughter died in the crash of a small plane that was flying them from Kathmandu to join him at Phaphlu. Despite this tragedy, the hospital and airfield were completed and Sir Edmund continued to be involved in other projects.

Despite his growing interest in overseas aid, Hillary still found plenty of time for adventure - including climbing Mt Herschel in Antarctica and driving three jet boats against the current up the Ganges River of India from the ocean to its source in the Himalayan peaks.

In 1985, Hillary was appointed New Zealand High Commissioner (Ambassador) to India, Nepal and Bangladesh, spending four and a half years based in New Delphi. During this period, he continued the construction programmes in the Everest region that has now seen completed 27 schools, two hospitals, 12 medical clinics, a re-afforestation programme, many bridges, difficult access paths and fresh water pipelines.

The same year, Hillary accompanied Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, in a small twin engined ski plane and landed at the North Pole. He is believed to be the first person to reach the North and South Poles and the summit of Everest.

Sir Edmund Hillary has received a number of medals and decorations, including the Founders Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, Hubbard Medal of the National Geographical Society, Polar Medal, Commander Merite et Sportif, Star of Nepal (1st Class), and the Order of New Zealand.

In 1991, Sir Edmund was appointed UNICEF Special Representative to the Children of the Himalayas and in 1995 he received the Most Noble Order of the Garter from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

At the conclusion of his diplomatic term in India in 1989, Hillary returned to his home in Auckland where he celebrated his 70th birthday and on December 21 that year he married June Mulgrew, widow of an old friend, Peter Mulgrew, who had travelled with him to the South Pole.

In 1999, the biography of New Zealand's living legend. 'View from the Summit' was released, and Sir Edmund Hillary celebrated his 80th birthday.

Sir Edmund continues to have an active interest in the Himalayas, its environment and its people and earlier this year he and Lady Hillary visited Sydney for a Himalayan Trust Fund luncheon.

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