How Sir Edmund Hillary’s biggest fan became his long-time filmmaker

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Michael Dillon had idolised Sir Edmund Hillary since he was 8 years old. Now 75, the Australian details how he ended up becoming his long-time filmmaker and why his new film Ocean to Sky is dedicated to another 8-year-old.

For three months we’d followed India’s sacred River Ganges, all the way from the ocean, and reached a high snow plateau that feeds it. And now, our leader, Sir Edmund Hillary, was gravely ill.

“He looked like a corpse”, recalls Sir Graeme Dingle. “He was totally grey, unconscious. It didn’t look like he was going to live.”

That day in 1977 will be etched forever in our minds; the desperate attempt by Hillary’s son Peter and the rest of us to save the life of a man we all deeply loved.

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Sir Edmund Hillary and his long-time filmmaker Michael Dillon. Photo / Supplied
Sir Edmund Hillary and his long-time filmmaker Michael Dillon. Photo / Supplied

I was eight years old and a schoolboy in Sydney when the name Edmund Hillary first blazed into all our minds. Eight’s a ripe age for hero gathering, and Edmund Hillary became mine.

With ever increasing eagerness, I followed Ed’s journey from Everest to his even more satisfying work with the people of Everest, building bridges, schools and hospitals. I devoured Louise Hillary’s books of their family trips to the Everest region, and daydreamed of being there with them, their imaginary extra son, Michael Hillary.

In 1969 I did the next best thing. I joined an early commercial trek to the Everest region.

The leader of my expedition had been loaned a camera by a TV network to film this exciting new region, but altitude sickness struck. He was stretchered down but, Monty Python like, continued to film from his stretcher. The Sherpas dropped his stretcher and said they were happy to carry him, but not him AND his camera. So his camera was handed to me.

Dillon, aged about 10, practicing for Everest. Photo / Supplied
Dillon, aged about 10, practicing for Everest. Photo / Supplied

It was the first time I’d ever used a camera, but it hadn’t been my first taste of movie-making. Aged 10 I’d made a film called A History of the Earth. Handicapped by not actually owning a camera, I’d made the film on a very long strip of paper I’d subdivided into frames. I illustrated each frame with my Derwent pencils, and hand-wound the film frame by frame through a little cinema I’d built with my meccano set. My sister read out the script I’d written, while my dog and my parents, who’d each paid a penny, watched in awe.

With no Academy Award forthcoming, my passion lay dormant until, by chance, while at University, I got a part-time job with a documentary film company, writing scripts and doing everything apart from actually using a camera.

But that accidental chance to film in the Everest region really got me going. I purchased my own camera and shot a film of my own in another part of the Himalayas, finished it off in England and took it along in its bright blue plastic can by bicycle to the BBC. They bought it. I went back to Nepal to do another film, and kept my dream alive that one day, with my newfound skill, I yet might get to work and walk with the Hillary family.

Dillon filming Sir Ed attempting to climb Joske's Thumb in Fiji in 1983. Photo / Supplied
Dillon filming Sir Ed attempting to climb Joske’s Thumb in Fiji in 1983. Photo / Supplied

In 1975, soon after my own father had died, came a day we all remember. The day the Hillary family’s own dreams were shattered. An air crash, due to pilot error, killed Ed’s wife Louise and his youngest daughter, Belinda.

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There followed a sea of despair for Ed far deeper than the public ever knew, a despair that almost drowned him. But one way out for him was to start planning a trip that he and Louise had talked about doing together – a jet-boat journey up the entire length of the Ganges.

Dillon filming in Pakistan in 2000. Photo / Supplied
Dillon filming in Pakistan in 2000. Photo / Supplied

One morning a friend slipped a newspaper article under my door – the public announcement of this expedition. And right at the bottom, in the very last paragraph that a sub editor might well have left out, it said that Hillary was looking for a film crew.

With much hope but little expectation I wrote to Ed.

Ed was in Nepal, but he’d asked his deputy leader, Dr Mike Gill, to look into the matter of whether I, or any other applicant, would be the answer to their prayers. Mike Gill – doctor, climber and cameraman – was already a fixture on Hillary expeditions, and decades earlier had entered the Hillary fold, just as I had hoped to do, by writing Ed a letter. Apart from listing his impressive credentials, Mike’s masterstroke had been to add that he “had an apelike build”, so when the day came for his interview Louise opened the front door and said “Hello Mike, we’ve been dying to meet you. We’ve been wondering what someone with an apelike build looks like!”

I hoped that Michael Gill may therefore empathise with another young man named Michael who had also written a letter to Ed. I didn’t have an apelike build, but I did have two cameras, some knowledge of India, two Himalayan films to my credit, but what sealed it, I was later told, was my offer to work for free and just share any returns.

So I was in, and off on the adventure of my life. In fact the adventure of all our lives. Even Ed, himself, said that Ocean to Sky was his greatest adventure. The trip had everything, tigers, a magic carpet ride through India, groundings, laughter, white water, near sinkings, a climb and high drama.

Ed became dangerously sick from the altitude and had to be urgently saved by the expedition members.

The film did well, won prizes, and best of all, I became Ed’s long-term filmmaker. With Ed, Mike Gill and Jim Wilson and their families we made adventure films in Fiji and India, and I did lots of filming of Ed’s ongoing work in Nepal, from the early eighties when he was still very much hands on, up on roofs, banging in nails, until the late nineties. I filmed Ed’s last extended visit to the Everest region in his 80th year. Filmed him puffing and panting up hillsides, doing it much harder than he’d ever done on Everest, aged 33, yet still hell-bent on doing all he physically could for his beloved Sherpas. The man, who had climbed their highest mountain, had gone on climbing ever higher, into their hearts.

Dillon filming in India 1990. Photo / Supplied
Dillon filming in India 1990. Photo / Supplied

When Ed died in 2008, I came for his funeral and stayed with Mike Gill. The Cathedral, where Ed lay in State, was just up the road, and we’d often go to spend time with the man who had said “yes” to both our letters, and had made such a deep impact on our lives.

It was sometime during those emotive days that I think each of us realised we had unfinished business with Ed. That there was something more we each still owed him.

For Mike Gill it would be years of research and writing about Ed. A book about Ed’s huge medical contribution in Nepal, and then, just recently, his magnum opus, the best biography of Ed anyone could possibly write.

For me, what I should do, took hold the night before Ed’s funeral. That night, you may recall, the authorities decided they would keep the cathedral open right through the night, so people could pay their last respects. This was announced on TV, and it seemed that every person in every lounge room in Auckland said in unison, “We have to go. There will never be another like him”. And off they headed, out their doors. A queue soon formed at the Cathedral that went kilometres down the street and round several corners, I never found its end. Whole families. Every ethnic group. All ages.

Dillon with his first film The History of the Earth. Photo / Supplied
Dillon with his first film The History of the Earth. Photo / Supplied

At midnight, half a kilometre down the queue I saw a large Indian family, about 15 of them, three of four generations, the youngest a boy holding a long-stemmed flower he’d plucked from his garden as he headed out the gate.

The boy was about 8, the same age I was when I first heard about Edmund Hillary, and at the rate of progress of the queue, it would probably be 2am before he and his family would get to file past Ed. I talked to them for a while. Told them how much Ed loved India. I told the boy about the wonderful Ocean to Sky adventure Ed had had in his ancestral home.

And I realised then that I could do more than just tell him. I could show him. I could take him on that magic carpet ride. We still had the expedition colour footage, the most comprehensive footage taken of any Hillary Expedition. We had available the magic Peter Jackson can weave on old footage to bring it to life on the big screen. We had the expedition members, brilliant raconteurs and funny to boot, who could tell the tale of that remarkable expedition and the remarkable man who led it.

Dillon filming in the special featuring Sir Edmund Hillary, Return to Everest, in 1983. Photo / Supplied
Dillon filming in the special featuring Sir Edmund Hillary, Return to Everest, in 1983. Photo / Supplied

That would be my gift. It would be the entire expedition’s gift to that 8-year-old boy, and to everyone everywhere who cared about Ed. Through this film, they could come with us on his greatest expedition, get to know him personally, get to love him just as we did. And, when at the end of the expedition, when his life is hanging in the balance, we can all of us, onscreen and off, rally together to save him.

And it’s my gift to you too Ed, a 100th birthday gift to you. From one of the many from all over the world who loved you.

Michael Dillon’s film Ocean to Sky begins in cinemas throughout New Zealand on October 31.

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