I’m not too surprised that there’s reported resistance to renaming South Ridge on Aoraki Mount Cook 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.
Ed Hillary 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, 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.