Journey to the Roof of the World
By Alan Lane
Sixty years can tempt a fading of the memory. But the conquest of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on 29 May 1953 was not to be forgotten. Man against the mountain; Everest against Man received the profile it deserved in this anniversary year of 2013.
The death of Hillary, aged 88 - following the passing of Sherpa Tenzing in May 1986 - was announced in New Zealand in January 2008.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark described the legendary mountaineer, adventurer and philanthropist as the country’s ‘greatest hero.’
Hillary’s 1953 ascent to the summit of the 29,028 ft mountain, the world’s highest, brought him worldwide fame. Thereafter he set out to support development for the Sherpa people of the Himalayas. He established the Himalayan Trust in the early 1960s. Before his death, he lent his name and full support to the recently opened Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre in New Zealand.
As a tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary’s extraordinary life, writer Alan Lane steps back to recount a conversation with Hillary in Canada on the 30th anniversary of the Everest climb. He talks about the ascent and his life at that time.
It is no coincidence that Edmund Percival Hillary has become known as ‘Big Ed.’ As he rises from his chair to greet you, there is a feeling of size (he is 6 ft 3 in tall, broad- shouldered and close to 200 lb). There is also a breadth of vision gained from a lifetime embracing challenges which for others remain permanently in their fantasies.
The appearance is craggy, but unlike the ascent on Everest, approaching the former bee-keeper from Taukau, New Zealand, is easy. The grin on the weathered face is genial. Deep-set eyes trained from years of scanning distant horizons study you searchingly. The handshake is firm without trying to impress.
Hillary has never given any time to pretence or the fineries of society. Loping through the Toronto headquarters of Simpsons-Sears, who he advises on sporting equipment, he is unmistakable among the well-groomed secretaries and executives. A rumpled suit and bulging, battered briefcase which has seen many a base camp, underline his down-to-earth informality and aversion to the cocktail circuit. “I have never been a great social butterfly and can well do without it,” he tells me.
For many people all over the world, Big Ed dropped out of sight after Everest. One Australian student told him at a Sydney high school: I’m glad you’re looking so well. I have read about you in the history books and I thought you were dead.”
Since then he has led the first vehicle expedition overland to the South Pole and headed an international group searching for the Yeti (the Abominable Snowman). He also led an expedition travelling in jet boats up the Ganges River in India to trace its source in the Himalayas.
Now in his early 60s, this maestro of the snowline has always striven to stay physically-fit. He never trains formally for expeditions but walks an hour a day. To maintain his best climbing weight he will walk for five days in the Himalayan foothills in Nepal to his work building schools and hospitals with the Sherpa people. He would rather walk than take an aircraft. Once he walked 240 km (150 miles) in 12 days, climbing to 1500 m (5000 ft) when monsoons grounded flights.
This firm grasp on his physical condition has at times been elusive. One day in New Zealand as his 50th year approached, he took a look at himself and became disenchanted with what he saw.
“I had a mild hangover from a surfeit of good food and wine. My discarded clothes reeked with other people’s tobacco smoke. Almost unconsciously I was slipping into the easy habits of most of the well-meaning, self indulgent and well-heeled members of society. If I became too physically soft I would be worth nothing to myself or to anybody else.”
On a notepad beside the bed he wrote a short list of resolutions – things he had wanted to do for years which would help to keep him reasonably fit and adventurous.
The first task was to escape the telephone and the concrete jungle – his term for a city. This was achieved by building a cottage on the cliffs above the Tasman Sea, outside Auckland, in New Zealand’s North Island – facing the setting sun and without a telephone. The list of objectives has continued to grow.
Such a life has not been without its personal traumas for Edmund Hillary. The death of his wife, Louise, and daughter in a Katmandu air crash several years ago has left “a great gap” in his life. Louise was a constant companion, working on his aid projects in the Himalayas – the place where he has directed most of his energies in recent years, away from the high profile glories of mountaineering.
The lectures he gives have increasingly reflected deeper involvement in world problems – racialism, the population explosion, conservation of the environment and the increasing gap in wealth between the rich and poor nations.
Nepalese mountain people
During his years among the Nepalese mountain people he became committed to improving their physically demanding, harsh lifestyle. He set up his Himalayan Foundation in New Zealand and established a Canadian equivalent to raise funds for this work.
Since the early 1960s, he and a team of helpers and the Sherpa people have provided hospitals, schools, airfields and piped water for the mountain people of Nepal. It’s a major contribution to a country of 13 million people, where only nine out of every 100 can read or write, and the nearest medical care for many is several days’ walk away.
Working, planning and climbing in Nepal can take up to six months of his year. During this time he strives to prepare the mountain people for inevitable changes in their lifestyle.
“Tourism has become an important business and quite a lot of money is involved,” he says. “There is nothing much I can do about these changes. I can, however, try to ensure, with the agreement of the local people, they do not get left behind.
“What has happened so many times is that the local people become needed just as a source of labour. Providing education, health care and communication facilities has allowed me to ensure the Sherpas know how to do things for themselves – such as running the hotels and trekking businesses which have been established. I prefer to see them steering their own ship rather than just being trampled on.”
The changes for which Hillary is preparing the Sherpas are already influencing their way of life.
“Divorce is much more common now in the community. The Sherpas are under great pressure of a type they had not previously experienced. Their previous tough, hard lifestyle had a regular pattern of habits but now they have a great deal more money and their lifestyle is changing. I want to see them confident in their new environment and I have been able to play a small part in achieving this.”
Hillary’s no-nonsense style and earthy approach to life is legendary. A suggestion that a larger share of New Zealand’s national purse should be devoted to assisting the poorer countries drew the Minister of Finance (described by Hillary as “well nourished”) to say: “I think Sir Edmund Hillary knows as much about the New Zealand economy as I know about mountain climbing.”
Even at what was the pinnacle of mountaineering achievement, his style remained unchanged. After the descent from Everest’s summit he told fellow expedition members: “Well, we knocked the bastard off.”
Thirty years later, Hillary cast his mind back to 11.30 am on May 29, 1953, when he stepped on to the summit of Everest, with the Nepalese Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay. It was a time of climbing with simple army equipment, leather boots which froze and thick hemp rope of the type used on ships – far removed from the specialized gear of today.
“My first reaction was one of surprise. I had been brought up thinking this mountain could never be conquered. Now, here was Ed Hillary on top of Everest. Who’d believe it. Everest was just another mountain. There are dozens of projects which have all been just as important.”
Would he do it again?
“I am physically incapable of doing it again. If I did try, I would tackle the most difficult route.”
He is amazed how the mystique of Everest has been retained. “We really felt it would all fade away when we conquered it. But there are still people lining up waiting to climb.”
On climbing and challenge today, he has this to say: “It is nonsense that people climb mountains just because they’re there. You wouldn’t put up with all that discomfort and grind your heart out just for the sake of it. It’s the challenge of fear and danger. You struggle with them. You extend your limits.
“There are challenges all around us if we take the trouble to identify them. Modern mountaineers are doing much more difficult things today than we were. The purpose of climbing then was to find the easiest way up. The route we took on Everest was only moderately difficult. Now the challenge is the difficult route.”
Rather a tent than hotel
As the interview draws to a close, Edmund Hillary prepares to leave for the United States, where he will test camping equipment for Sears Roebuck.
“I’m looking forward to that,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “I’d rather sleep in a tent any day than stay in a hotel.”
We shake hands and it’s time to say farewell to this giant of a man.
As he sets off down the street, I recall his style of parting from fellow climbers at a crossroads deep in the Himalayas. They would be simple affairs. With a cheery “see you in a few months,” Big Ed would set off on foot heading for perhaps India, Tibet or Pakistan, quietly disappearing into the mist. In comparison, some of the traumas in our own lives could seem a little overdone.
While in the United States, Hillary will continue to raise funds for his work in the Himalayas. There, among the great mountains, he is known by the Sherpas as ‘Burra Sahib’ (Big Sir).
These hill people of the Himalayas are never far from his mind. They gave him his most prized accolade for climbing Everest: a decoration from the Katmandu Taxi Drivers’Association.
Meanwhile, his concern for the Sherpas’ future is well founded.
Tenzing, now 69, and known as the Tiger of the Snows in his home town of Darjeeling, said earlier this year: “There is a lot of change since Nepal opened for trekking. Everything is too commercial. Even the monks are having tea shops now, not praying any more.”
© Copyright Alan Lane, Toronto, 1983
11 January 2008. The news of Sir Edmund Hillary’s death made me dig deep into my files for a copy of this interview. Past conversations are not normally worth resurrecting; but the life of a bee-keeper from New Zealand was different. Here was someone who saw the big picture. Here was someone who managed fame and humanitarian work with equal humility; someone who grabbed life and ran with it.
Meeting the great man, the first on the roof of the world, left a lasting impression.
© Copyright Alan Lane, Poole, Dorset, UK, January 2008