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Sir Edmund Hillary

The man who, alongside Sherpa Tenzing, first conquered Everest, represented courage, dedication and compassion

Mount Everest had captured the public imagination ever since 1856, when its record-establishing height was first confirmed by The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. But it wasn’t until nearly 100 years later, when determined young New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepal’s Tenzing Norgay scaled its summit at 11.27am on May 29th, 1953, that the last great challenge on Planet Earth had been successfully overcome. “It’s not the mountain you conquer,” Hillary famously remarked when he reflected on his achievement, “but yourself.”

Born in 1919 in Auckland, Edmund Hillary didn’t particularly excel at anything at school, and even his sizable frame – he would grow to 1.98 metres – was merely responsible for ungainly efforts on the rugby field. But it was during a trip to the Mount Ruapehu volcano on New Zealand’s North Island as a 16-year-old that he realised he had one attribute over his classmates: stamina. Combined with the adventure stories he read on his daily four-hour trips to school, the trip led to a lifelong passion for the mountains.
After leaving university he took a job as a beekeeper; a purely summer occupation, it meant he could spend his winters in New Zealand’s Alps. He climbed Mount Ollivier before his 20th birthday and, after World War II, scaled his country’s tallest peak, Mount Cook. With his prowess confirmed, Hillary was invited to reconnaissance trips to Everest in 1951 and 1952. In 1953, he was asked to participate in the British attempt on the summit, the only one permitted by the Himalyan authorities that year – when he was to make history.
Not that Hillary’s success was in the original script. The team leaders were Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, but their attempt to scale the mountain on May 26th failed when they ran out of oxygen with just 100 metres remaining. Hillary and Tenzing were charged with completing the task three days later. But even in the moment of his greatest achievement, Hillary wasn’t one for self-congratulation.
“While standing on top of Everest,” he said, having successfully negotiated the final leg of a three-month expedition, “I looked across the valley, towards the other great peak, Makalu, and mentally worked out a route about how it could be climbed… Even though I was standing on top of the world, it wasn’t the end of everything for me. I was still looking beyond to other interesting challenges.”
Hillary did indeed pursue new challenges, and for the people of Nepal they were to leave a much more important legacy. The newly-knighted Sir Edmund Hillary founded the Himalayan Trust, whose goal was to build schools and hospitals in the more remote villages. He also became Honorary President of the American Himalayan Foundation, which helped preserve the delicate environment. When his work had unintended consequences – airstrips led to more tourism and more damage – he persuaded the Nepalese government to pass strict laws to protect forests and create and fund a new national park. “Reaching the summit of a mountain gives great satisfaction,” he said, “but nothing for me has been more rewarding in life than the result of our climb on Everest, when we have devoted ourselves to the welfare of our Sherpa friends.”
Sadly, his commitment to the region contributed to his greatest personal loss, when in 1975 a plane carrying his wife and daughter crashed en route to the mountains, killing both. The tragedy seemed to strengthened his relationship with the people, and he was eventually appointed New Zealand’s Ambassador to Nepal, alongside his role as High Commissioner to India and Bangladesh. His books on his adventures, whether in India or the Himalayas all devoted sections to the plight of the local people he encountered.

“I thought their brand of heroism – the heroism of example, of debts repaid and causes sustained – far more inspiring than the gungho kind,” wrote Jan Morris for Time magazine in 1999. “Did it really mean much to the human race when Everest was conquered for the first time? Only because there became attached to the memory of the exploit a reputation for decency, kindness and stylish simplicity.”

Hillary himself said, with typical modesty, that his achievement was required little in the way of heroism at all. It sums up a unique kind of leader. “You don’t have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things,” he said. “You can be just an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals. The intense effort, the giving of everything you’ve got, is a very pleasant bonus.”

  Copyright 2011, Aramex International