Image: From left to right – Grant Davidson, Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Graeme Dingle and Mick Hopkinson at the original Outdoor Pursuits Centre in Tongariro National Park. Photo: OPC
The empowerment and development of Aotearoa’s young people has long been a mission of many dedicated Kiwis who, despite our ever-present harrowing youth statistics, never seem to be deterred on their journey of supporting our country’s most vulnerable tamariki and rangatahi.
Perhaps one of the better known individuals in this space is national hero and icon, the late Sir Edmund Hillary. A mountaineer, yes, but also a driving force in supporting education and outdoor pursuits for children. Helping to keep his legacy alive is the Graeme Dingle Foundation, a child and youth development charity founded as ‘Project K’ in 1995 by Sir Graeme Dingle and Jo-anne Wilkinson, Lady Dingle, and with Hillary himself as a Trustee.
Dating back to 1970 Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir Graeme Dingle had many adventures together in New Zealand, Nepal, and India. ‘Ed’, as Sir Graeme called him, cut his teeth on the mountains of the Southern Alps, particularly those around Aoraki, Mt Cook.
“Of course, Ed Hillary’s life changed dramatically when in 1953 he made the first ascent of the world’s highest mountain, Everest, with the Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay. Ed was knighted by the Queen and went on to achieve many great things including leading the first mechanised traverse to the South Pole, as well as legendary hospital and school building work throughout the Sherpa homeland” said Dingle.
Hillary and Dingle’s most notable expedition together was when, with a group of mates, they drove three Hamilton jet boats from the Bay of Bengal, up the Ganges River, into the mountains, and then climbed two peaks at the source of the river.
From Left: Edmund Hillary, Graeme Dingle, Jim Wilson with their jet boat
”Ed was a great achiever – always looking for new challenges. Many of these challenges as he got older focused on his ethic of giving back, particularly to the people of Nepal.”
Fast-forward 63 years and in 2023, the Graeme Dingle Foundation has just celebrated Sir Edmund Hillary’s legacy at their National Excellence Awards in support of Aotearoa’s young people. The National Excellence Awards, now in its 23rd year, serves to recognise the impressive successes and resilience of New Zealand’s young generation who, through the Foundation’s programmes, have overcome obstacles and achieved what they never thought possible. Central to this celebration is the Sir Edmund Hillary Achievement Award given annually — a fitting tribute to Hillary.
The sought-after Sir Edmund Hillary Achievement Award serves to acknowledge individuals who have, since their time in a Graeme Dingle Foundation programme, demonstrated exceptional resilience while overcoming significant obstacles – much like Hillary himself did when conquering Mount Everest. In addition, the criteria requires the recipient to have given back to their community or other voluntary activity. This year, the winner of this coveted award was a former student, Briar Thorman.
Briar, now a young marketing professional, accepted the award taking supporters in attendance through her journey, surmounting obstacles and living up to the values of the Graeme Dingle Foundation and legacy of Sir Edmund Hillary.
“When I was introduced to the Project K, the tagline was ‘Unlocking Youth Potential’ a little light in 14 year-old me flickered – someone besides my mum thought I had potential. The wilderness adventure of Project K introduced me to the aptly named, great outdoors. Being out in nature for three weeks, experiencing new things, learning new skills and moving out of my comfort zone allowed me to develop a different perspective on myself and my abilities – it was life changing therapy”
She spoke of reaching a mental and physical summit after a challenging hike undertaken during the Project K wilderness adventure. “The feeling of reaching the summit was incredible, I was being shown the power of my mind to overcome the physical world… I know if I can keep moving forward at whatever pace I can manage I’m going to get there. I will fight to keep healing myself, support my community, advocate for adventure-based therapy and the impact of empowering and mentoring young people” she continued.
“The Graeme Dingle Foundation strives to fill the gaps in our current systems, they’re out there in the community walking the walk, combating inequity, passing on wisdom to our young people to help them navigate life, and collaborating with other groups to help them create healthy communities throughout our country” said Thorman.
Edmund Hillary Achievement Award winner Briar Thorman with Sir Graeme Dingle
Sir Graeme Dingle recognised the years of commitment by Thorman, saying “Briar’s journey has come full circle with the Foundation – from a participant in the Project K programme while attending Havelock North High School in 2008 to now, 14 years later, being an influential full-time staff member Impacting young people experiencing similar challenges. Her successful navigation through personal challenges and her contributions to the Foundation align closely with the values we uphold. She is a truly remarkable individual”
In attendance to celebrate the intrinsic ties between the Graeme Dingle Foundation and her father’s legacy was Sarah Hillary, daughter of Sir Edmund Hillary, who spoke as a representative of the Hillary whānau, congratulating all winners and particularly the supreme award winner, Briar Thorman.
“It is interesting for me to consider why this first ascent is still of interest after all these years and of course the ascent of Everest is remarkable because nobody knew whether it could be successful, they were venturing into the unknown, they didn’t know what challenges lay ahead, whether it was even possible – or whether people could even survive at that height. It took a huge amount of courage and determination to keep going and they all worked together to make it happen, just like all of the people who have spoken tonight, it’s not just one person on their own” she said, echoing themes of the evening.
“Another thing keeping the 1953 expedition of Everest alive in people’s lives today are its three main characters who went on to use their success to help others just like Graeme Dingle has here with his Foundation. Tenzing Norgay taught and inspired hundreds of young climbers in India, and John Hunt set up the Duke of Edinburgh awards scheme which affected thousands of young people. And my father established the Himalayan Trust that has been assisting the hill people of Nepal for more than 60 years. My father always said that his greatest achievement was not Everest but his work in Nepal. He greatly admired the strength and positive outlook of the people, despite the difficulties that they faced. And by providing education and healthcare it was possible to make a huge difference to their lives” continued Hillary.
“It has been so inspiring to hear from Graeme Dingle Foundation award winners tonight… I wish you every success in endeavours and hope that you will bring about much joy to those around you. Congratulations on your achievements and to all that supported you to get there” said Hillary.
Sarah Hillary Speaking at the National Excellence Awards
With the forcefield of Dingle and Hillary’s achievements providing the much needed springboard for the development of our country’s youth, it is clear the Foundation’s focus on making ‘Aotearoa the best place to be young’ will for many years continue, while Sir Edmund Hillary’s memory will live on through brave, outstanding young people who make up the fabric and the future of Aotearoa New Zealand.