Five years ago today, modern-day explorer Edmund Hillary died. Steve Goldstein wrote of his amazing life. Originally published January 2008 on Obit-Mag.com.
Sir Edmund Hillary, whose mighty heart finally failed him January 11, 2008 at age 88, always maintained that good works, not Everest, defined him.
“My life is not so much stepping on top of a peak that has never been stepped on before, or traveling to the South Pole,” he said in a 1989 interview, “but, rather more, the building of schools and medical clinics for the very worthy people of the Himalayas.”
Fair dinkum, mate, as they say in the Antipodes. Yet it might be argued that Hillary’s greatest achievement lies in refusing to allow the scaling of the world’s highest peak to bring him low. Far from being crushed by the weight of such a monumental first, Hillary flourished and embellished the physical mastery of a mountain with a life well lived at sea level.
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. (AP Photo, File)
It could have been a curse. The former beekeeper was 33 when he and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay attained Everest, and he continued his ascent through life. Contrast this with Captain Merriwether Lewis, protégé of Thomas Jefferson and leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition. After an 8,000-mile journey of discovery, Lewis, who had been struggling with depression and drinking heavily, died of gunshot wounds – possibly self-inflicted – at a Tennessee tavern called Grinder’s Stand. He was 35.
Or Charles Augustus Lindbergh. “Lucky Lindy” was 25 when he soloed nonstop across the Atlantic in 1927 in the Spirit of St. Louis. The subsequent kidnapping and tragic death of his infant son was followed by his controversial role as a leading isolationist -- whom critics accused of paranoia and anti-Semitism -- during the run-up to World War II. These events tended to overshadow his groundbreaking work in aviation.
Ultimately, Lindbergh fled the crowds that adored him, living the last years of his life in an isolated part of the-then isolated Hawaiian island of Maui.
Hillary didn’t succumb. The remainder of his life – a half-century more – didn’t sully his achievement. Though he rejected the hero’s mantle, he was embraced as such in a world less than a decade removed from war, even more warmly in the United States, where boom times were darkened by the Korean conflict and McCarthyism’s heavy shadow.
In this time of darkness, Hillary was a beacon of effacement: a modest man known to friend and stranger as Sir Ed, willing to welcome the awestruck into his Auckland home. A dutiful son who could write to his mother of his achievement that “I may not have produced much joy or happiness in the world, but at least I’ve helped make the Hillary name a bit more famous.”
But Hillary’s milestone had another, less sanguine, effect. In conquering an unconquerable, he closed the door on one of the labyrinths of the imagination. This mountain had swallowed Mallory! Could anyone survive above 29,000 feet? He had dispelled those mysteries.
With one of the world’s secret places gone – two men lived to tell the tale – Hillary ushered in a new age of exploration. Sputnik made space the new frontier, and Hillary’s heirs had the right stuff to walk on the moon in 1969. The moon! With rockets and space-age submersibles, we ventured beyond known boundaries. Latterly, we have the advent of space tourism, an experience obtained only by the Midases among us.
As for Everest, well, mountain and myth were soon brought down to size. In 1993, 40 persons summited on a single day with reports of a queue forming to surmount the fearsome 40-foot rockface now known as the Hillary Step. Though the peak continued to claim lives, the experience could be bought, and Everest, atop every zillionaire’s Bucket List, created its own sense of entitlement. Writer Jon Krakauer memorably recounted the fates of several converging expeditions, with wealthy amateurs being hauled up the mountain, and the tragedy that ensued.
Attaining Everest is not what it used to be, and the achievement seemingly has to be enhanced by some extra fillip of hubris: sightlessness, speed, the absence of one or more limbs. Adding insult to these injuries was the innocent who strapped on skis and reduced the perilous descent to a lengthy slalom.
Fifty-five years on, where are the world’s secrets? A decade ago, a group of world-class paddlers attempted to run the remote and terrifying Tsangpo River from Tibet, dreaming of the likes of Hillary, John Wesley Powell, Francis Chichester and other explorers. The expedition ended in death for some and disillusionment for all. For the most part, though, the secrets are gone. The age of exploration transformed into stunts.
Hillary would never have recognized Everest -- or his adventuring -- as a stunt, The only thing he shared with his successors was a strong competitive streak. A few years after his climbing superlative, he joined a team trekking across Antarctica via the South Pole, something that Ernest Shackleton had failed to do early in the century. Dissatisfied with the methodical pace dictated by expedition leader Vivian Fuchs, an Englishman, Hillary took a small team on a 400-mile dash to the pole in bad weather and over unstable snow bridges. He beat Fuchs by two weeks, then radioed back that given the weather conditions perhaps Fuchs should go home and Hillary would continue alone with his team.
New Zealand's Sir Edmund Hillary makes a speech during the 50th Anniversary of Scott Base celebration, Scott Base, Antarctica, Saturday, January 20, 2007. The celebration marked 50 years of New Zealand presence at Scott Base and the start of a 50-year co-operative relationship with the United States on the ice in Antarctic science and logistics. (AP Photo/NZPA,Wayne Drought)
Fuchs ordered Hillary to wait and ultimately the two finished the trek together. The forgiving Fuchs said he could not blame Hillary for his mad dash. “It would have been like turning back from the south summit of Everest,” the Brit said.
Would Hillary have turned back from Everest had he known the follies that would follow? Unlikely. But even Sir Ed realized that his own sense of wonder had been diminished, his “dream” could not be duplicated. “Well, we’ve knocked the bastard off,” he said on his return, acknowledging the loss of something grand. It suited to his nature to resist the mythology.
Far more than heroic adventure, Edmund Percival Hillary defined a time when the world was young, when all the boundaries had not been breached, when to stand atop the roof of the planet was akin to standing on the moon, and when all of that could leave us breathless and dumbstruck. Imagining. Just imagining.
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