Lady June Hillary 1931 - 2024

Sir Ed was a towering figure, but Lady June was equally staunch at his side, discrete, always there – his saviour

Sir Ed and Lady June Hillary at the 50th Everest Anniversary celebrations in Kathmandu on 29 May 2003.

“She’s gone” the choked voice of her daughter on the call from Auckland said it all. “Please can you tell her friends in Nepal?” As I caught my breath and gazed at the cloud-shrouded Annapurna peaks beyond the balcony, it dawned on me that a great lady had departed.

Lady June Hillary died on 1 June 2024 surrounded by her daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren in the Auckland care home overlooking the green fields and leafy avenues of Cornwall Park. A tireless friend of Nepal, June was a supportive wife to Sir Edmund Hillary and played a significant role in his life and work.

In her own right, she served for decades as Nepal Honorary Consul-General to New Zealand and was patron of the New Zealand Nepal Society, promoting cultural understanding and ensuring that Nepal's rich heritage and traditions were celebrated and appreciated in New Zealand. She chaired the Himalayan Trust New Zealand for several years after Sir Ed’s death, 16 years ago. 

Dinesh Khadka, the current Honorary Consul-General in Auckland wrote: “Lady Hillary was an exceptional individual whose contributions to Nepal and the Nepalese community in New Zealand were immeasurable." The Himalayan Trust New Zealand farewelled her on social media: "June was involved in the Himalayan Trust since its beginnings through her friendship with Ed and Louise. She had a deep fondness for the Himalaya and the people of Nepal.” 

Lady June Hillary NT
Photo courtesy of Susan Hayman

As lamps were lit and pujas planned throughout the mountains, Himalayan Trust Nepal posted: “Lady June Hillary made significant contributions to the humanitarian initiatives to support the people of Nepal throughout her life. She was a very good friend of the Sherpas. Her dedication and compassion touched countless lives and will continue to inspire us all.”

Effortlessly stylish in her trademark navy and flowing scarfs, never a hair dared escape her elegant silver chignon, even on remote trekking trails. From their home in Remuera Auckland, she accompanied Sir Ed on his punishing schedule of global public appearances, event openings and Himalayan Trust appeals.

Perhaps most of all she will be remembered for her dogged dedication to the wellbeing of Sir Edmund Hillary, a great man in both stature and accomplishments who had been felled by the double disaster of losing his wife Louise and youngest daughter Belinda in the Kathmandu plane crash in 1975. 

June is credited with lifting her husband out of the devastation and deep withdrawal that followed this tragedy, Sir Ed’s saviour, his "steadfast support system".  “June enlivened Ed's last decades, or maybe even more accurately she kept him alive after the accident,“ wrote Australian filmmaker Michael Dillon, who spent many months with the Hillarys.

Lady June Hillary NT
Sir Ed and June Hillary, Richard Blum, Elizabeth Hawley at the consecration of Thyangboche monastery 1993.

Raised a catholic in post-war Wellington, June was first married to Peter Mulgrew with whom she had two daughters, Robyn and Susan. A close friend of Sir Ed, Peter was a dashing figure, a mountaineer and yachtsman, who had both feet amputated after a climbing accident on Makalu. The foursome were close friends, travelled together and helped during the early years of the Himalayan Trust. In 1979, Peter was killed in the Mount Erebus air disaster, a sightseeing flight lost over the Antarctic on which he was the celebrity commentator, ironically as a stand-in for Sir Ed.

It was perhaps inevitable after these catastrophes that Sir Ed and June found strength and solace in each other. At Sir Ed’s side, June accompanied him to New Delhi during his four-year stint as New Zealand High Commissioner from 1985 – her unwed status regularised as his Official Companion. They only married after their return to New Zealand in 1989.

It was during his frequent visits to Nepal as Ambassador that I first got to know June. I loved her caring tenacity, her feisty humour and especially her acerbic wit. June’s fierce and gallant commitment to Sir Ed’s best interests were not always well understood or appreciated, but we knew Sir Ed could not manage without her. 

Sir Ed was a towering figure, but Lady June was equally staunch at his side, discrete, always there, ever watchful. No stranger to controversy, newspaper reports of which she did not approve would be dismissed as “wrapping for tomorrow’s fish and chips” with an unhappy shrug. But as a grounded Kiwi, she deftly navigated the privilege and pitfalls of being married to a national hero and “the greatest New Zealander”. After a fundraising dinner in San Francisco, June twinkled: “Quite fun, being seated between Warren Beatty and HH the Dalai Lama.”

Lady June Hillary NT
Sir Edmund Hillary and Lady June Hillary. Lady June deftly navigated the balance of public and private life with Sir Ed. Photo: LISA CHOEGYAL
Lady June Hillary NT
Lady June with Sir Edmund Hillary, King Charles III and Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand.

As Jim Edward’s guests at Tiger Tops they joined us to present Elephant Polo trophies and party at New Year’s Eve in Chitwan between diplomatic duties and philanthropic trips to the Khumbu. Together they opened Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge in 1998, and June returned to celebrate our 10-year anniversary.

The 50 year anniversary of the first Sagarmatha summit, 29 May 2003, was a hot day in the splendid British Embassy residence gardens. Live broadcasts anchored by TVNZ presenter Mark Sainsbury linked the Sherpa dancing and celebrity interviews with events in New Zealand. Ang Dooly was there to celebrate and remember Mingma Norbu, Kanchha, Pertemba, Lhakpa Norbu, Ang Rita and many others. As the sun beat down and guests sipped drinks, June passed the phone to Sir Ed and he spoke to his son Peter on Everest. I suggested perhaps they would like a break and a shower. “We’re not like that” June laughed it off, always the trooper. “We’ll just carry on.” 

Lady June Hillary
Lady June in Nepal in 1961.

At Sir Edmund Hillary’s state funeral in January 2008, a visibly shaken Lady June sat swathed in black beside Prime Minister Helen Clark as the service was broadcast around the world. The iconic image of her touching the casket in farewell was entirely spontaneous, she told me afterwards. June had thought Sir Ed was being discharged from hospital, “but instead, he died that morning.” It was a moment she frequently recalled.

Forever linked with Sagarmatha and the Sherpas, Lady June’s death comes just days after the 71st anniversary of Sir Edmund's historic first summit of Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay, and a week before the centenary of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s disappearance high on the northern ridges of Everest in 1924. 

But Lady June Hillary deserves her own accolades and recognition, independent of the Burra Sahib. A “classic lady,” she is remembered as “wonderfully funny, with a tremendous sense of style” and her own special brand of purpose and destiny. It was an honour to have known her. 

Lisa Choegyal

writer

  • Most read