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March 3, 2024

Interview with Michael Balson, creator of Ocean to Sky

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Edmund Hillary, the subject of the film

Local filmmaker helps tell the story of Edmund Hillary’s last adventure.

Ocean to Sky tells the story of the last adventure of Edmund Hillary. It is told by the closest friends of Hillary, decades later, voiced over some extraordinary footage taken by the crew who were with him for that adventure 40 years ago, including the original filmmaker, Michael Dillon. Their story is woven together through carefully curated edits by local filmmaker Michael Balson.

Like Hillary and Dillon, Balson has also had an extraordinary career. He’s made documentaries all over the world – from tales of traversing the Himalayas to being lifted on the tail of a Southern Right Whale in the Great Australian Bight with his colleague and collaborator, Michael Dillon.

‘She was protecting her calf’ explains Balson. ‘She flicked her tail, and we were airborne, Michael [Dillon] had a $30k camera and I was recording. We were in the nursery of the giants!’

The filmmakers and their equipment survived. Testament to a long, exciting and very … immersive… relationship.

Very often a director of Dillon’s work, in this latest documentary release of Ocean to Sky Michael Balson’s editing brilliance tells the story of the journey that Sir Edmund Hillary called ‘The best journey of them all!’.

Ocean to Sky traces Hillary’s journey ‘from the mouth of the Ganges River, which is sea level, to the peak of a mountain called Sky mountain, which was like the headwaters of the Ganges,’ says Michael.

‘They used jet boats to climb 300 kilometres up the rapids. Some of the rapids were crazy and wild – then, when they got up there – they came to a waterfall, which was two kilometres high [and] which they could not get up. They left the boats and walked 300km – more than three-and-a-half million people turned out to see them on the way. Edmund Hilary was so loved throughout India because of what he had done in Nepal – building 40 schools and four hospitals and his commitment to looking after the sherpas.’ It was to be his last expedition.

‘He was so depressed when he made this journey’ said Michael Balson of Hillary’s mental wellbeing. ‘He had lost his wife and daughter in a dreadful plane crash. It was Ed’s decision to live and work in the Himalayas… and the pilot forgot to move the bungee cord on the rotor and the plane nose dived and crashed to the ground. He had enormous grief, and possibly a sense of guilt’.

This was the emotional landscape for Hillary’s ocean to sky journey in 1977– very different to how he approached his historic Everest climb with Tenzing Norgay in 1953.

Balson reflects that although Hillary was not a spiritual man, ‘… there is a sense that this is the climb that saves Hillary’ soul’.

‘Ed was quite profane in his own way’ says Balson, ‘he didn’t have a mystical bone in his body. Something about the mountain though had a mystical effect, and brought him loose of himself.’

‘He hadn’t told anyone he’d had a pulmonary oedema on a few expeditions.

‘This time he was 47, and instead of weighing 12 stone he was 18 stone. It was always going to be a challenge for an older, less fit man.

‘Ed was the leader – he was the organiser and he was very good – when they started to climb, they were climbing too fast for someone Eds age. When he got to the high camp he went to his tent feeling like shit; and he was gurgling and losing his mind, and the doctor who was on the expedition diagnosed him as having cerebral oedema, so they wrapped him up in his tent – you can die very quickly and he was incoherent – and the only cure is to get down to lower altitude as quickly as you can, so they took a quarter of the tent each and they dragged him like a sled down the mountain. They went down 3000 feet in an hour…’.

They returned to finish the climb on his behalf.

‘He lived another 30 years. He never climbed again, but he became the ambassador to India and carried on work with the sherpas, and found a new wife.’

Balson’s beautiful edit was created over three months and includes the original film from the 1977 footage taken by Michael Dillon. This extraordinary documentary screens with a Q&A with the filmmakers on 1 March at Byron Theatre. Tickets are byroncentre.com.au

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