Hillary’s final adventure returns in digital format

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Nevil Gibson

The modern era of high adventure began at end of world hostilities in 1945.

Peace opened up new areas of exploration while technological advances made travel and filming easier.

My first cinema experience was seeing Sir Edmund Hillary in The Conquest of Everest, made by George Lowe in 1953. (Wikipedia lists 18 subsequent films about Everest.)

The most famous documentary adventure up to then was Thor Hyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki (1950), remade as a feature in 2012.

The three decades of adventure after Kon-Tiki depended heavily on modern forms of mobility – for example, Hillary used snow tractors in the first overland trip to the South Pole since 1912.

So, it is no surprise that he embraced fellow New Zealander Sir William Hamilton’s invention of the jet boat for rivers that were inaccessible to normal vessels.

Today, expeditions are more likely to test feats with as little technological assistance as possible. Hooning would be hard to justify on environmental grounds alone.

Nor would it be considered out of the ordinary if no one died, which was nearly the case with Hillary’s last great adventure, at the age of 58, was a 1500-mile trip up India’s biggest river followed by a high mountain.

Decade of reconstruction

Hillary – Ocean to Sky (Rialto) is a digitised reconstruction of the original 1979 documentary by Australian producer-director Michael Dillon.

He was one of the original cameramen and 30 years later found an hour of previously unused footage. The reconstruction took 10 years, included interviews last with some of surviving expedition members.

They include Dillon, Hillary’s son Peter (then 22), Sir Graeme Dingle and Dr Jim Wilson, a jet boat driver and Hindu adviser.

India in 1977 was still largely an unknown quantity and the government backed the expedition as a tourist promotion.

Spiritual journey

Hillary had lost his wife Louise and daughter Belinda in an air crash near Kathmandu in 1975. This helped turn the adventure into a spiritual and religious experience.

River Ganga (Ganges) was considered holy, the journey became a pilgrimage and the adventurers were considered god-like in boats that could perform miraculous feats. The two main drivers were Hamilton’s son and grandson.

The expedition starts in the choppy Bay of Bengal, for which boats that skimmed over riverbeds were not designed. Tigers roamed in the Sundarbans, the muddy mangroves at the Ganges’ mouth.

Upstream at Calcutta (now Kolkata), where the Howrah bridge was built in 1943, the adventure has become a media sensation with millions of sightseers.

In the fast-flowing head waters, the canopies and equipment have to be offloaded to cope with Whitewater rapids. Sequences near the Badrinath Temple in Uttarakhand provide the highlights as thousands of pilgrims perch on steep riverbanks hoping to see miracles or a spill.

The pace slows in the mountaineering phase, but it isn’t an anti-climax.

The journey ends with Hillary’s near-death experience on Akash Parbat, one of the Himalayas’ sacred sky peaks, and a lifesaving tin of peaches.

Rating: Exempt. 106 minutes

Nevil Gibson is Editor-at-Large at The National Business Review based in Auckland. He has been a Judge of the Indian Newslink Indian Business Awards since inception in 2008. Indian Newslink Editor worked as a Correspondent/Contributor to NBR for eleven years from 1999 to 2010. (Pictures from Michael Dillon Films website)


  1. Sir Edmund Hillary
  2. Edmund Hillary climbing above Badrinath
  3. Peter Hillary Climbing above Badrinath
  4. Welcoming Crowd beside the Ganges

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