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Commemorative feature naming and South Ridge

I’m not too surprised that there’s reported resistance to renaming South Ridge on Aoraki Mount Cook [1] to be Hillary Ridge. The official proposal and request for submissions by the New Zealand Geographic Board, complete with a report of considerations and policies on applying names, is viewable here [2].

Ed Hillary [3] did some awesome things, both in mountaineering and outside it. He held some strong viewpoints and didn’t hit it off with everyone, but he did much more with his life and influence than simply be in the first climbing team to reach the top of Everest. I think there’s little doubt that many people are much better off than they’d probably otherwise be. As for the naming of a feature after him, I’m not so sure.

The Geographic Board has policies and guidelines about officially naming features after people, such as that it shouldn’t happen until at least two years after the person’s died, features should be named after a surname, and so on. One guideline is that the first person to climb, traverse or discover a feature has a recognised right to propose a name. There’s strong evidence that Sir Ed was in the first climbing party to document a climb up South Ridge (along with Harry Ayers), but, at least as far as I know, he never proposed a specific name. It was already called South Ridge, and that was easily enough to identify it unambiguously in necessary contexts.

I think my uncertainty about naming South Ridge after Ed Hillary is that it feels like an artificial push to apply a name that never would have occurred otherwise. South Ridge already has a name—South Ridge—and it has that name because it’s what people decided to call it. Chances are that it has Maori names, and if so then great. Let’s officially recognise them too.

I think official names should be a function of what people decide to call something, not the other way around. If something doesn’t have a name and people need to refer to it, they’ll make the name up, and usually that name has significance for one reason or another. That’s why there are features named things like “Bob’s Bluff” (Egmont/Taranaki), “False Spur” (in the Tararuas), and squillions of others.

Once a name starts to be used a lot and accepted by the people who have an affiliation to a feature, such as trampers and mountaineers (but not limited to them), then perhaps there’s good reason for the Geographic Board to recognise this use and document the name, so that there’s an official record of what’s being referred to when the name is used. Often features will have multiple names, and this already happens. If there were a lot of people out there who saw South Ridge and, remembering that Hilliary was one of the first people up there, happened to call it “Hillary’s Ridge” in casual conversation, then I could fully appreciate some official recognition of that.

This certainly wouldn’t be the first feature to be posthumously named after a person in order to remember them, by a long shot. At the same time as this Hillary Ridge thing, there’s another proposal to name a peak in commemoration of Gottlieb Braun-Elwert [4], a well known mountain guide who died of a heart attack in 2008.

I think I have more respect, however, for names that are based on what people already call things, or have called them in the past, rather than names that are simply applied to something from official external influence because someone’s decided a feature was worthy or impressive enough to represent another person or thing they admire. It feels wrong to use official influence to ensure that official documents and references all refer to something as an artificial name that never existed before until it’s in so many places that people have to use it. If a person is worthy of commemoration through applying their name to a feature, then it should be reasonable to expect that other people will simply start referring to that feature by the name. In Hillary’s case, he’s already recognised and extraordinarily well known. So why not just suggest it to a few locals and mountaineers, try it out for a while, and see how well it takes off? (I have a feeling it wouldn’t because as I mentioned before, South Ridge already has a name.)

I won’t be making a formal submission on this proposal, because I don’t feel personally connected enough with Aoraki Mount Cook or South Ridge. I’ll leave it up to the people who feel an affiliation to decide if they’ll be happy replacing the names they already use with this one.

2 Comments (Open | Close)

2 Comments To "Commemorative feature naming and South Ridge"

#1 Comment By marty mars On 19 November, 2010 @ 4:47 pm

Kia ora Mike,

I agree with your post and you know my view that Aoraki is an ancestor and doesn’t need his shoulder named. I think this is an opportunity to really value the contribution of Hillary by opening up the ideas into a nationwide discussion (for those interested). Perhaps a natural feature can be considered but there are other options that could come from left-field that might actually really work and give the big man the respect he is due. The view has been expressed in the media that only mountian-people can appreciate his climbs and the significance of naming a feature after him, but whilst I can understand the view, I don’t agree with it. Whatever the result of a nationwide discussion the actual discussion itself would add value for everyone. It might even be worthwhile asking maori what they think and what suggestions they might have.

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 22 November, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

Hi Marty. Thanks for the comment, and I should link to [11] and the resulting comments for more context.

I’m all for respecting Sir Ed, and I think he deserves a lot of respect for a variety of reasons that are in the past and will never change, but I don’t see what’s so special about officially naming something after him just for what seems like the sake of it. He’s already recognised in a million places, and the history books know him well. He won’t be forgotten quickly, if ever.

To me at least, a name doesn’t really mean anywhere near as much as what it is—for yourself, Aoraki’s an ancestor and quite possibly more, for me it’s an awesome place and all kinds of things that extend from that. I don’t personally mind what it’s named, but I like to be able to think I can refer to something by a name that reminds me of what it is to me, as with anything. I have my own names for heaps of things that very few people use except me. I don’t expect official recognition, but if many people use a name, some official documentation makes sense (to reduce ambiguity when referring to things of certain names) as long as the names matched appropriate guidelines.

If anyone with a connection (including mountaineers, family members, Maori people, locals, anyone) want to name a feature after him or anything else, I think they should just do it, and let official recognition follow if people use it enough to be recognised. I can appreciate the significance of recognising Maori names that have been used in the past as often happens in NZ (sometimes controversially), but slapping a new name on something out of nothing just seems wrong and forced, and less meaningful, not that it doesn’t happen all the time.

Can’t we let a feature and what it means to us inspire us into inventing a name, rather than simply giving it a name from an outside place and washing away people’s inspiration to create one that matches?