Climbing legend Edmund Hillary dies

Edmund Hillary
Edmund Hillary

Sardar Tenzing Norgay of Nepal and Edmund P. Hillary of New Zealand, left, show the kit they wore when conquering the world's highest peak, the Mount Everest, on May 29, at the British Embassy in Katmandu, capital of Nepal, in this June 26, 1953 file photo. Hillary, the unassuming beekeeper who conquered Mount Everest to win renown as one of the 20th century's greatest adventurers, has died, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark announced Friday. He was 88.

The Associated Press, file photo
Published: Friday, January 11, 2008 at 1:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 11, 2008 at 1:52 p.m.

The first time a climber lays eyes on Everest, it's hard not to imagine what it was like when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay topped out on the world's highest peak shortly before noon on May 29, 1953.

For almost everyone who studied the pictures of his epic first ascent with Tenzing, Hillary stood for adventure. The collective sense of triumph that seized the world with their success was etched into Hillary's famous photograph of Tenzing on Everest's summit. I stared at it as a child and dreamed.

That Hillary would become a national hero without revealing until years after Tenzing's death that it was Hillary who stepped first onto the summit said a lot about him. For them both, it was about the adventure, and the brotherhood of the rope.

"My destiny was to climb this mountain," Tenzing's son, Jamling, told me in 2003, having followed in his father's footsteps to the summit of Everest. "I knew I was going to climb this mountain one day."

The Hillary Step, the 40-foot cliff that is the last great obstacle before the summit, was a struggle even for Hillary, a master of cutting steps in the snow. Only after he got past that did he believe the summit was within his grasp. It remains a test piece for climbers who now ascend fixed ropes and a recurring image in my own Everest dreams.

Years later, after I'd had my first career as an Outward Bound mountaineering and backcountry skiing instructor based in Colorado, I would visit a National Geographic exhibit and stare at the padded boots, oxygen apparatus and skimpy goggles Hillary and Tenzing wore. It drove home the true adventure of their first ascent, and how much has changed since then.

I used double plastic boots, a 40-below-zero sleeping bag, crampons with "anti-bollant" snow plates and other high-tech equipment on an American expedition attempting the seldom-climbed North Face of K2, from the Chinese side in the Karakoram range, and later in Alaska on Denali. Looking at Hillary's equipment made my gear seem like cheating.

For climbers, it's liberating to be outside, drawn out, tested, changed.

Hillary was no stranger to change, and became determined to give something back to the high places that shaped him. He "gave profound meaning to the concepts of courage and exploration," said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and "not only climbed to one of the purest victories known to humankind, thereby championing and pioneering an awareness of the treasures of our earth he also worked to build health and education in the communities around him."

Heading up the valleys of the Khumbu region toward Everest, along the wide dirt path that is the Sherpas' Interstate 95, it was obvious that villagers revered Hillary. I had gone there with three other climbers in the hopes of putting up some modest new Himalayan routes. A blizzard stopped most of our plans and we wound up carrying Nepali children on our backs to rescue them from being trapped in the snow.

In the Buddhist monasteries at Thyangboche and Thame, some of the locals we met talked about the good works of Hillary's family. I could see for myself the healthy-looking kids gathered for class and playing at the newly built schools, and the new hospitals and electricity lines that lit up the teahouses. Hillary's photo was everywhere. His foundation raised money for most of the projects, to protect forests and to rebuild Thyangboche after it burned to the ground in a fire.

"He inspired people to climb, but he also inspired people to do more than just climb," said Francis Slakey, a physics professor at Georgetown University who reached the summit of Everest in 2000 and was married at the Thyangboche monastery. "He used his world stage to actually improve the lives of people throughout the Khumbu. It's impressive."

For the Sherpas, and the trekkers and climbers they cater to, the change that Hillary ushered in now seems inevitable. The Everest gold rush brought to the Khumbu the frequent sight of Westerners sipping milk tea and dahl bat steamed rice smothered in curried potatoes and lentil soup and grabbing a bunk bed, all for less than $1.

Hillary was a model for other climbers to try to follow. It took decades for others to catch up to his class act. Where many climbers left behind trash, Hillary left a legacy of education, health care and bonds of friendship.

He always projected humility, not particularly impressed with himself, always sensing that climbers should seek new challenges, new adventures, rather than necessarily repeating something done before. In his day, he was out there. And he passed on his passion for being in the mountains.

"To me, it's a bit like falling in love," his son, Peter, told me, having become a famous climber like his father and reached the summit with Jamling. Peter Hillary also helps raise funds for the trust that runs more than 40 schools and hospitals for the villages at the foot of Everest. "There's some special chemistry. And I think some of us go to the mountains and it is just a wondrous thing. We like the people, we like the experiences, we like the mountains, we like the uncertainty."

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