There was an exceptionally good article on Norm Hardie in Saturday's Christchuch Press , which gave me permission to run it on my blog.
It's like the moon landings. Everyone over a certain age remembers exactly where they were when Apollo 11 touched down but no-one paid much attention to Apollo 12 or Apollo 13.
So it is with mountains. You know who knocked off Mt Everest, but not K2 or Kangchenjunga.
Which is why you probably haven't heard of Christchurch's Norman Hardie. In 1955, Hardie was one of the group that made the first ascent of Kangchenjunga. At 8586m, this is the third-highest mountain in the world, but it doesn't lag behind by much – its Himalayan neighbours Everest and K2 measure only another 260m and 25m respectively.
But it's always about Everest, isn't it? The tallest, the most famous. The most glamorous.
"Everest is nothing like the hardest, though," Hardie says. "Of the 14 mountains over 8000m, it ranks about 10th in difficulty. It's just the fact that it's big and has a pronounceable name, and particularly because the British began trying to climb it back in 1921. They climbed it on the 12th expedition. There had been masses of books about it and a hang of a lot of hype, especially in the English language."
You won't hear it from him, but Hardie is one of the 20th century's great mountaineers. In the foreword to Hardie's 2006 memoir, On My Own Two Feet, Sir Edmund Hillary called him "a skilled mountaineer and a formidable explorer . . . renowned for his considerable determination and refusal to accept defeat".
Michael Ward, medical officer on the 1953 conquest of Everest, called him "an outstanding mountaineer and surveyor, whose feats can be compared with those of Oliver Wheeler and Henry Morshead on Everest in 1921 and of Michael Spender in 1935".
Even if those names mean nothing, you know that's heady praise. Surely there should be statues and plaques, perhaps streets named after him. But the lack of attention back home isn't a concern. "They make a fuss of me in Germany and Japan. And the British do, too. I've never been worried about it."
Hardie is 83 now, officially a semi- retired engineer and living a quiet life in the hills of Cashmere. Where else would you find him in an otherwise flat city? Even the driveway is a perilous ascent. There is a sheer wall of mountaineering books and journals in his study, and a cluster of Nepalese artefacts. There is a view of the distant Southern Alps. There are photos from the last reunion of the Kangchenjunga party – of the original nine, only four remain.
Among serious mountaineers, Kangchenjunga was seen as an enormous challenge and a glittering prize – definitely a tougher climb than Everest, Hardie reminds us. Earlier German expeditions had come within 1000m of the summit but were driven back by bad weather. But with oxygen tanks designed by Hardie, Joe Brown and George Band reached the top on May 25, 1955. Hardie and Tony Streather followed a day later. And it would be another 22 years before anyone else would match them.
Their feat was even more astonishing when you consider that the 1955 expedition was only supposed to be a reconnaissance mission for the real effort the following year.
It was another time, the closing of the great age of exploration. By the end of the 1950s, the world's major peaks had been conquered and much has changed since. Everest has become "a playground", some say, just another stop on the adventure- tourism circuit.
Any would-be climber can buy the services of an experienced guide and pay their way up – New Zealander Rob Hall, a man Hardie knew well, died on the mountain in 1996 while looking after a client who had collapsed near the peak.
Yes, the commercialisation of climbing is a concern. "It worries me because a lot of people have been to the top of Everest and never seen snow before in their lives. People from Hong Kong and Singapore. A woman from the Philippines got to the top of Everest last year. It cheapens the whole thing."
Hardie served his climbing apprenticeship in the Southern Alps and first encountered Hillary there in 1948. It was the year of the famous Mt La Perouse rescue, when the injured Ruth Adams was carried down from the mountain in a stretcher. This has been called "the most arduous rescue in New Zealand's climbing history".
That story is a reminder of just how tough our backyard can be. For years, Hardie was called on to help look for lost climbers in the South Island. He can still vividly remember the time he was caught in an avalanche on Mt Rolleston during such a mission. "Unconscious for a while there," he says quietly. "Thought I'd had it. Slowly going out as the oxygen runs out."
The same avalanche took the life of his good friend John Harrison. The bodies of the four lost climbers they had looked for weren't found until months later. And that, he writes in his understated way, was to be his last high mountain search.
As for putting it all down in a memoir, he says that he "got pressured from all sorts of people saying that my story ought to come out. The official book on Kangchenjunga – by Charles Evans – was the most restrained, controlled book I've ever struck. A very gentlemanly British thing that didn't give anything like the whole story."
After Kangchenjunga he kept up a relationship with that part of the world. He made 14 trips to Nepal and only the first three were about mountain climbing. He spent 22 years as a director of Hillary's Himalayan Trust, helping to build schools and set up the Sagarmatha/Everest National Park. In 1960, he joined a team that had the very serious purpose of high- altitude acclimatisation research and another, more frivolous mission – to track the yeti.
How seriously was this taken? "The American members of the party took it very seriously. There were 22 of us from four different countries. The American sponsors were concerned that the medical research wouldn't get any publicity so they talked Hillary into going along with looking for the yeti. All of us who had been there before were very cynical about this. But it paid for the expedition and everyone had a good time."
And it might be a ridiculous question but was there any evidence? "There were footprints in the snow but they were just badly identified orthodox animals."
He went south, too, making three trips to Antarctica over 20 years. Once to instruct Americans in the right way and wrong way to tackle snow and ice, once to join Hillary's party for the first ascent of Mt Herschel and once as leader of Scott Base.
It was much harder then than now to make a living out of mountaineering. In the afterglow of the ascent of Kangchenjunga, that was something he had to consider. "Was I going to go a Hillary way and stay in this sort of thing permanently and somehow make money out of it? But I was already qualified as an engineer and decided to stick to that.
"Once I started to establish myself, I got all these invitations to free expeditions. I never ever went on one that got paid. I had to be grateful for having a co-operative wife and a co- operative business partner – I was able to go away for so long and so many times. It's no good going to the Himalayas for a fortnight. You're pretty useless for the first two weeks."
So bursts of adventure were slotted into domestic life. He had married Enid Hurst in 1951 and they had two daughters. He became a consulting engineer for a firm in Christchurch in 1956 and then a partner in his own firms. And until recently he was to be found kayaking and tramping around the South Island.
Can a sense of adventure be genetic? You might ask this if you heard about his older brother, Jack. A quick search of Nelson newspapers shows that one Jack Hardie holds a record as the oldest man to have ever skydived at Motueka airport. It's become a tradition: every January, Jack marks his birthday with a plunge, as it coincides with the day that he was shot down over Holland during World War II. "The parachute saved him and as a result of that, he does this thing every birthday."
In January, Norman and Enid will be in Nelson to watch Jack plummet out of the sky again, at age 90.
Planes, mountains – Hardie has had something else on his mind lately, too. It's that great South Island subject: water.
In 1948, as a young Ministry of Works engineer at Lake Pukaki, he had a brainwave. If the west coast of the South Island is wet, and the east coast is dry, why not pipe water from one side to the other? The idea hibernated for decades, but by the early 1990s, the surveying maps were accurate enough to see that the Landsborough and Douglas rivers on the western side are higher than Pukaki on the eastern side, meaning you could do it without pumping water uphill.
Among his collection of geological maps, rain graphs and engineering drawings, he has some photos of the Landsborough Valley: the glaciers, the moraines, the boulders. "I began with the Landsborough because I knew it so well through mountaineering.. All the mountaineers and shooters who go in there know it's really wet and the river comes up pretty fast and stays up for a long time."
It's entirely feasible, he believes, to put 25 kilometres of tunnels through the Alps and pipe the river water into Lake Pukaki. And as everyone who has spent a winter in Canterbury knows, the level of Pukaki and other hydro lakes are a matter of day-to-day anxiety. This could be a way to keep the levels up, without damming rivers and flooding valleys. As one Press correspondent wrote after reading about Hardie's scheme, "The forests and snails of the Copland Valley would be unharmed".
It sounds ingenious. The Press understands that this idea was put to the old Electricity Corporation of New Zealand (ECNZ) in the 1990s and that there was some interest before the carve-up of ECNZ into Meridian, Mighty River and Genesis. So has it been on Meridian's mind again since? Spokesperson Claire Shaw says that while "it's a very interesting concept that we're aware of" and "there are clear benefits to the project for hydro storage in New Zealand", it comes with significant challenges as well. Quite a few of them, she says.
"We have no plans to pursue it in the near future," she adds. "We have a whole host of options that would come before that."
Too bad. In the meantime, Hardie's legacy can rest on his mountaineering exploits. It's strange to think of it, but in all these years he's never reflected on what makes a great mountaineer. Can he define it? He pauses and considers this for a while.
"Fitness is obvious but you also need some appreciation of the high country, whether it's geology or weather," he says. "And certainly the ability to get on with people you're with if you're stuck in a small tent for three or four days."
And presumably you need patience? "Yes. Yes. I believe too that you should never stick your neck out too much. Don't take too many risks. If the weather's not on or you're not feeling well or your climbing companion has bust his equipment, give it away. The mountain will still be there tomorrow."