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A life of ups and downs

Saturday 8 June 2024 | Written by Supplied | Published in Features, Weekend


A life of ups and downs
Lady Hillary, left, and Helen Henry on the deck of the Paul Gauguin, when the cruise ship visited Rarotonga. SUPPLIED/ 24060735

Cook Islander Helen Henry reflects on the life of Lady June Hillary, who passed away recently.

Lady Hillary’s life has been one of ups and downs – literally and figuratively.

Up to great heights in the Himalaya’s and down to Antarctica, not just once for each, but many times for both.

Up, when in 1953 her long-term family friend, Edmund Hillary, was knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, soon after he conquered Mount Everest, along with Sherpa Tensing of Nepal.

Down, when in 1961 her husband, Peter Mulgrew, lost both legs due to frostbite while he and Sir Edmund Hillary were on an expedition to the Himalayas, in search of the Yeti, the “abominable snowman”.

Up, when in 1975 she started leading all-women trekking trips from New Zealand to Nepal.

Down, in 1975, when Sir Edmund Hillary’s first wife and youngest daughter were killed when their plane crashed on the very airstrip the two families had built to allow them to bring in materials to build schools for the Nepalese people who had assisted their various climbing expeditions to the Himalayas.

Down, even further, when in 1979 her husband Peter was on the scenic flight from New Zealand to Antarctica. It crashed into Mount Erebus, killing all 259 on board.

Up in 1985, when she accompanied Sir Edmund to India, as his “Official Companion”, as he had been appointed New Zealand’s High Commissioner to India.

Up, when in1989 she married Sir Edmund.

Down, in 2008, when Sir Edmund passed away.

Up when she was appointed patron of the New Zealand Nepal Society and the Honorary Consul-General of Nepal to New Zealand.

Up in 2011 on a trip to Nepal to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations of the opening of the first school built in Nepal by Sir Edmund and his mountaineering friends. Since that first school, many others have been built with the support of the Himalayan Trust, which is funded by the New Zealand Government and the many friends and admirers of Sir Edmund.

Down in 2011 when she resigned from the Himalayan Trust, a non-profit established by her late husband in the 1960s, following clashes with Sir Edmund’s two surviving children.

Up in 2011 when she visited the Cook Islands for the first time, while an honoured guest on the Paul Gauguin, for a cruise from Auckland to Tahiti, via Aitutaki and Rarotonga.

Up in 2021 when her portrait painted by gallery artist Rebecca Dowman-Ngapo was unveiled and displayed at the Auckland Museum, where it is now part of the national archive in the Sir Edmund Hillary collection.

Lady Hillary passed away on Saturday, June 1, 2024, at the age of 92.

-          Helen was born and raised in New Zealand - a “Kiwi girl”. At the young age of 15 she fell in love with Hugh, a handsome Pacific Island boy. They married in 1961, a time when mixed race marriages were far from the norm. When the Cook Islands’ gained independence in 1965, Helen’s father-in-law, the late Sir Albert Henry, became the first Prime Minister. Four years later Hugh and Helen moved to Rarotonga. Helen quickly involved herself in raising their five children as “island kids”, as well as in local community and business activities.