A man to match his mountain

On top of the world: Don George profiles Sir Edmund Hillary, mountain climber, world explorer and Himalayan humanitarian extraordinaire.



Don George
December 1, 1998 6:18PM (UTC)

The photo of Sir Edmund Hillary shows him at the pinnacle -- literally -- of his career: on the summit of Mount Everest, beside his Sherpa climbing companion, Tenzing Norgay. The date is May 29, 1953. Sir Edmund -- just plain Edmund back then -- is 33 years old; his hair is wind-tossed, his craggy, angular face is ruddy and burned by sun and breeze, and he is wearing a smile as big as the Himalayan sky. Beside him Norgay is smiling just as broadly. They are on top of the world.

Cut to Nov. 5, 1998. Sir Edmund is surrounded by mountain climbers and social climbers in the posh ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. The now 78-year-old man has grown a bit of a paunch in the intervening years; his unruly hair and bushy eyebrows are snowdrift-white, his shoulders are slightly stooped and he walks with the hint of a limp. Dressed in a dark blue suit, his tie askew, he looks rumpled and professorial -- but he still has the mountaineer's gleam in his eye.

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The occasion is the annual dinner of the American Himalayan Foundation, and on this night more than 900 people have gathered from around the world to honor Hillary and the extraordinary work accomplished by the foundation he established, the Himalayan Trust. Sir Edmund is reflecting, once again, on the climb that changed his life: "I was just an enthusiastic mountaineer of modest abilities who was willing to work quite hard and had the necessary imagination and determination. I was just an average bloke; it was the media that transformed me into a heroic figure. And try as I did, there was no way to destroy my heroic image. But as I learned through the years, as long as you didn't believe all that rubbish about yourself, you wouldn't come to much harm."

It's the same message he's been delivering for decades, and as they have for decades, the people in the audience shake their heads and smile. They all know: There's only one Edmund Hillary.

To say that Hillary is held in awe by this vast and glittering gathering would be a monumental understatement. The love and respect that fills the room is almost overpowering. People speak of Hillary with hushed reverence, almost as if they were speaking of the mighty mountain he conquered.

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David Breashears, director of cinematography for the acclaimed new IMAX film "Everest" and one of the world's most respected climbers, tells the audience: "Ed pointed the way for the rest of us. It was just such a thrill to follow him."

Then Jon Krakauer, author of "Into Thin Air," the gut-wrenching bestseller about the Everest tragedy of May 1996, walks to the podium. Looking straight at the head table, he says, "Quite simply, Edmund Hillary shaped the course of my life."

And there it is -- Hillary's smile, still as broad as the Himalayan sky.

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There was no knighted mountaineer to inspire young Edmund Percival Hillary's dreams when he was a lad growing up in New Zealand. Edmund's father was a rural newspaper editor and beekeeper, and there wasn't much money in the household to fuel far-flung adventures. Even so, Hillary spent a good deal of his childhood reading tales of adventure and dreaming. "There was a phase when I was 'the fastest gun in the West,'" Hillary recalled in an interview, "then another when I explored the Antarctic. I would walk for hours with my mind drifting to all these things."

Hillary's first climb was up 7,500-foot Mount Oliver in southern New Zealand. "It wasn't a difficult mountain by any means, but making it through the snow to the ridge, then along the ridge and up to the summit really captured me," he said. "It was then that I resolved I was going to do a lot more mountains."

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And he did. He began climbing seriously among the Himalayan peaks of India. Then, in 1951, at the age of 31, he was asked to join a British expedition to the Everest region. That team reconnoitered the Khumbu glacier and a great ice fall under the mountain. "We were the first to realize there was a potential route up Everest from the south side," Hillary said. Two years later, Hillary was invited with Norgay and 400 others on the massive British Everest Expedition, the first ascent from the Nepalese side. As the expedition proceeded toward its goal, the force dwindled until only Hillary and Norgay were left for the final ascent.

In this age of high-tech commercialized mountain climbing, it is almost impossible to imagine the earth-shaking impact Hillary's and Norgay's achievement had in 1953. Here was a mountain -- unreachable, tantalizing, fearsome, deadly -- that had defeated 15 previous expeditions. Some of the planet's strongest climbers had perished on its slopes. For many, Everest represented the last of the earth's great challenges. The North Pole had been reached in 1909; the South Pole in 1911. But Everest, often called the Third Pole, had defied all man's efforts -- reaching its summit seemed beyond mere mortals.

Hillary's and Norgay's feat was electrifying. Heightening the impact even further was the felicitous coincidence of their arrival just before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II -- and the dramatic announcement of their triumph on the morning of the coronation. Add to this the figure of the mountaineer himself -- firm of jaw and bright of eye, humble and high-minded and handsome in a lean, mountainous way, daring but down to earth, supremely competent without being showy -- and you had the makings of an immediate legend. Hillary embodied the dash, the pluck, the stiff-upper-lip and what-the-hell, let's-go-for-it aplomb the British empire still aspired to, and almost overnight the two mountaineers became worldwide sensations. Hillary was knighted, Norgay was given the George Medal, one of Britain's highest civilian awards, and the duo was medaled, titled, toasted and feted around the world.

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Tellingly, Sir Edmund did not simply cash in on this fame and while his days away in early retirement (nor did Norgay, who taught mountaineering and dictated several books about climbing before his death in 1986). Quite the contrary, he continued his explorations: In the '50s and '60s he undertook another half-dozen Himalayan ascents; in 1957 he trekked across Antarctica; in 1960 he embarked on a much-ballyhooed expedition to find the Abominable Snowman; and in 1977 he journeyed by jet boat to the source of the Ganges.

In this sense, Sir Edmund can be seen as the last branch in the great historical tree of terrestrial explorers, a direct descendant of such adventurers as Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark, Stanley and Livingston, Perry and Scott and Amundsen, Sir Richard Burton, Charles Lindbergh -- explorers who drove themselves to do what no one had done before, "because," in the famous words of Sir George Mallory, "it is there."

In 1958, Hillary himself edited a book devoted to just such explorers. It was called "Challenge of the Unknown," and it contained excerpts from accounts by such adventurers as Lindbergh; Antarctic explorer Adm. Richard E. Byrd; Thor Heyerdahl, who sailed from Peru to Polynesia on a balsa-wood raft; Sir Ernest Shackleton, who crossed the sub-Antarctic Ocean in a whaleboat; and Col. P.H. Fawcett, who would lose his life looking for the lost mines of Muribeca. In the introduction to that book, Hillary wrote:

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"Modern developments in machinery and equipment have produced major changes in the technique of exploration. Aircraft and vehicles are in many cases replacing the human legs; oxygen bottles are giving new strength to air-starved lungs in the thin air that clothes the giants of the Himalayas; and radio communication has removed the loneliness from the most desolate land. But despite all this I firmly believe that in the end it is the man himself that counts. When the going gets tough and things go wrong the same qualities are needed to win through as they were in the past -- qualities of courage, resourcefulness, the ability to put up with discomfort and hardship, and the enthusiasm to hold tight to an ideal and to see it through with doggedness and determination.

"The explorers of the past were great men and we should honour them. But let us not forget that their spirit still lives on. It is still not hard to find a man who will adventure for the sake of a dream or one who will search, for the pleasure of searching, and not for what he may find."

Most impressively, the challenges Hillary undertook during these years weren't only of the geographic kind. He was also using his fame to aid the people who had helped him reach Everest: his beloved Sherpas. In his speech at the Fairmont Hotel, Hillary recounted how an elderly Sherpa from Khumjung village, the hometown of most of the Sherpas on his Everest ascent, had come to him a few years after that expedition and said, "Our children lack education. They are not prepared for the future. What we need more than anything is a school in Khumjung."

So Hillary established the Himalayan Trust, and in 1961 a three-room schoolhouse was built in Khumjung with funds raised by the tireless mountaineer. In its first decade the fund focused on education and health. Then, in 1975, tragedy struck: Hillary's wife and 15-year-old daughter were killed in a plane crash while flying from Kathmandu to a school dedication ceremony.

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A lesser man might have been defeated by this devastating disaster, but Hillary responded by redoubling his Himalayan efforts. In all, the trust has built 27 schools, two hospitals and 12 medical clinics, plus numerous bridges and airfields. In recent years the trust has expanded its scope, devoting considerable funds to rebuilding monasteries and to reforesting valleys and slopes in the Mustang, Khumbu and Pokhara regions. Hillary's son Peter, himself a mountaineer, has also been active in working for the Sherpas.

"I have never felt sorry for the Sherpas," Sir Edmund said in San Francisco, "and I have never tried to impose projects on them. These are all things that the local people wanted, and we just responded. Every time we finish one project, we get more requests." These days he spends more than half the year traveling the world from his home in New Zealand, raising money for the trust and supervising the various projects undertaken with the funds he's raised.

And so Sir Edmund has come to San Francisco. You listen to the humility and selflessness in his words; you watch as he smiles and shakes hands with a mind-numbing parade of fans -- and then touches a little boy with magic as he stoops to sign a tattered book and shakes his tiny hand. You think of how often he has been through this, how many times he has answered these same questions, told these same tales -- and how genuinely gracious and good-hearted he seems to be. And you find yourself wondering: Is this man for real?

Is this man for real? Sometimes you worry that we have lost our capacity for worship, for awe, for delight and humility in the face of genuine idealism; sometimes you worry that the shadows of modern life have obscured our ability to be inspired. Then you listen to Sir Edmund talk about how fame was thrust on him, and how he has spent the years helping the Sherpas help themselves, and you watch the faces in the crowd, the smiles and the nods and the sighs, the tears that occasionally glisten in those hard and glittery eyes.

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And you feel somehow that your own faith has been renewed, that there are dreams worth following, causes worth pursuing, that people can devote their lives to something larger than themselves and grow in heart and mind and grace until they become almost as high as the mountains they love.

You can feel it in the ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel; you can see it in the eyes of the black-gowned, bepearled socialites and the mountaineers restless in their sport coats and ties. This one man has captured the heart and imagination of generations. Here is someone who did the near impossible, climbing the world's tallest mountain, and then did the near impossible again -- refusing to be spoiled by all the adulation and accolades that achievement earned him, and remaining loyal to an ideal and a people he loved. Because of this man, countless lives have been bettered, and an entire culture has been preserved.

When Hillary shuffles off the stage, you watch people throughout the room -- bankers and lawyers and writers and climbers -- dab at their eyes, until you can't see because your eyes too are filled with tears. And you remember what David Breashears said earlier, looking straight at Sir Edmund, his voice cracking a bit and tears glistening in his own eyes: "We shall never see the likes of you again, Ed; we shall never see the likes of you again."

But the evening's defining moment occurs just before the end of Sir Edmund's speech. He has been showing slides of the clinics and schoolrooms his fund has built, and telling tales of the villagers whose eyes have been cured and limbs have been straightened, whose lives have been saved from prostitution or destitution. Then a shot of three laughing schoolgirls with shining eyes flashes on the screen, and Hillary sighs. "Ah, here are three of my favorite young friends," he says. And as he looks at the screen, his smile is as wide as the sky.

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Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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