Everest conqueror Hillary honoured at state funeral


Wellington : The people of New Zealand and the mountain Sherpas of Nepal Tuesday joined the state funeral of Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary in Auckland, to honour a man loved and revered in both countries.

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“He was a colossus. He was our hero,” said New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark. “His extraordinary life has been an inspiration to our small nation and to so many beyond our shores, too.”

Norbu Tenzing, eldest son of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who reached the top of Mount Everest with Hillary in May 1953, said that Hillary’s spirit “forever will live and protect the great mountain and the people he loved so much”.

Hillary, who died Jan 11 at age 88, was bid farewell at what was reportedly New Zealand’s largest-ever state funeral, an honour usually reserved for prime ministers and governors-general.

Screens were set up in cities and towns all over the country to watch a live telecast of the service at historic St Mary’s Church in suburban Parnell, where Hillary’s casket was taken after lying in state for nearly 24 hours at the city’s Anglican Cathedral next door.

Before the start of the service, Sherpas laid traditional scarves across the New Zealand flag-draped casket, with an ice axe resting on top.

The funeral began with the tolling of a bell from the Navy ship HMNZS Endeavour, which carried the great adventurer on his first expedition to the Antarctic in 1955.

The telecast was transmitted by satellite to Nepal and to New Zealand’s Scott Base in the Antarctic, which Hillary helped establish.

Norbu Tenzing and other Sherpa representatives who came to New Zealand for the service said that Hillary was revered in Nepal, where his Himalayan Trust built or funded 63 schools, after an elder said to him, “Our children have eyes, but they are blind”.

Tenzing – whose father died in 1986 – told the service that the trust had also built two hospitals, a dozen clinics, bridges and water-supply facilities: “It’s impossible to describe all he has done for us in Nepal.

“His love and dedication to the Sherpas was like that of a parent towards a child – absolutely unconditional. When Sherpas heard of his death, their grief spiralled into mourning only comparable to the loss of a parent.”

Thousands of people queued for up to two hours throughout the night at the cathedral to pay their respects to Sir Ed, as he was known throughout New Zealand.

Mourners were led by his widow, Lady June Hillary, and included five members of the 1953 Everest expedition, including Jan (then James) Morris, correspondent for The Times of London, who broke the news of the successful ascent.

About 40 members of the New Zealand Alpine Club holding long-handled ice axes formed a guard of honour as Hillary’s casket was carried out of the church, and students at a high school named after him performed a spirited Maori haka (or war dance), a traditional tribute of respect.

Thousands of Aucklanders defied rain to line the streets as the funeral cortege drove through the city before a private family cremation.