Arctic encounter: how the ice man Neil Armstrong finally melted
The First Men's Club ... from left, Peter Hillary, Sir Edmund Hillary, Mike Dunn and Neil Armstrong at the North Pole. "You are virtually in outer space out there," Hillary said. Photo: Supplied
IT WAS the ultimate man's man getaway. The first man to climb Everest; the first man to walk on the moon; the man who would later be the first to fly solo non-stop around the world in a balloon and another who would be first to climb the ''seven summits'' - the highest peaks on seven continents.
Organised by the American adventurer Mike Dunn, they travelled to the North Pole together. Sir Edmund's son Peter Hillary, who himself forged a new route to the South Pole among other feats, was there too, along with some Canadian mountaineers.
You are virtually in outer space out there. It's so different from our normal lives, and here is Neil Armstrong telling the story of what he did not that long before.
Neil Armstrong and Edmund Hillary were men bonded by their famous achievements, but their natures could hardly have been more contrasting.
Opening up ... Peter Hillary with Neil Armstrong in the Arctic in 1985. Photo: Supplied
Hillary the younger quickly realised ''what a private guy he [Armstrong] was''.
He was used to his father who, on meeting awe-struck strangers, would ''shrug his shoulders, shake people by the hand, and then hear about their ascent of Mt Kosciuszko or Ben Nevis'' (Britain's highest mountain, a mere molehill by Everest standards, as is Kosciuszko).
Such friendly indulgence of gushing strangers eluded the famously reticent Armstrong, who was by contrast ''formal and kind of stiff''.
''Neil, by his own definition, was a pilot-engineer-geek sort of person and that type of human interaction was something that he just didn't feel comfortable with,'' Hillary said.
With Steve Fossett, the balloonist, and Patrick Morrow, the summiteer, theirs was a ''very gentlemanly expedition'' compared with Robert Peary's epic trek 76 years before.
They flew all the way, island hopping in ski-equipped aircraft with fabled Canadian bush pilots. It was an hour and a half to the Pole from the last stop-off point, Lake Hazen on Ellesmere Island. On landing they planted a barber's pole and cracked some champagne, which ''didn't stay liquid for long'' but quickly turned to ice.
But it was on the return journey, with the group holed up for three days in a Quonset hut on Ellesmere during a white-out, that Armstrong's ice broke.
''We were in this hut, it was very cold and windy outside, minus 40 degrees, the middle of nowhere,'' said Hillary. ''You are virtually in outer space out there. It's so different from our normal lives, and here is Neil Armstrong telling the story of what he did not that long before.''
Hillary was struck that ''the whole thing had not just been worked out by Houston or whatever … these people on board were recalling their whole landing procedure, they were changing exactly where they were going to go, it was enthralling to hear how it was really hands-on flying.''
(History relates that Armstrong changed the programmed landing position at the last minute because the lunar module was heading for the steep edge of a rocky crater. He manoeuvred onto a flat area with just 17 seconds of fuel to spare.)
Peter Hillary said it was ''thrilling'' and ''incredible'' to hear the story from the mouth of Armstrong, who notoriously refused interviews.
He described Armstrong as ''such a private, quiet guy who didn't really tell the story [willingly]''.
Yet he opened up ''when all these barriers had broken down in the intimacy of being in a little hut out there in the wilderness''.
Morrow recalled that on Ellesmere, Armstrong also read an excerpt from an account by the Swede Salomon Andree of his attempt to reach the Pole by balloon, back in 1897:
''Is it not a little strange to be floating here above the Polar Sea, to be the first to have floated here in a hydrogen-filled balloon? How soon, I wonder, shall we have successors? Shall we be thought mad, or will our example be followed? I cannot deny but that all three of us are dominated by a feeling of pride. We think we can well face death, having known what we have done is not the whole, perhaps the expression of an extremely strong sense of individuality which cannot bear the thought of living and dying like a man within the ranks, forgotten by the coming generations? Is this ambition?''
In what Morrow described as an ''eerie coda'', Armstrong, who had read up on Polar exploration in preparation for the trip, told how the bodies of the Andree expedition had been found 33 years later, on Bear Island.
Steve Fossett died in a plane crash in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California in 2007. Sir Edmund died of heart failure in hospital in 2008. Neil Armstrong died at the weekend after complications from heart surgery.