An Ode to Sir Hillary

Sir Edmund Hillary“I continued cutting a line of steps upwards. Next moment I had moved on to a flattish exposed area of snow with nothing but space in every direction. Tenzing quickly joined me and we looked around in wonder. To our immense satisfaction, we realized we had reached the top of the world.”
Sir Edmund Hillary, ‘View from the Summit’

The fact that Mt. Everest towers over all other peaks is something that cannot be questioned. However, the world will always remember its conqueror, Sir Edmund Hillary to be far greater than the mountain itself. Sadly, Sir Hillary passed away on 11th January 08 in his native Auckland. The cause of his death was reported to be a heart attack. He was 88 years old.

His demise has New Zealand mourning for the loss of her hero. His countrymen believed that he was the epitome of all traits that symbolized the Kiwi folk — courage, adventure and perseverance. He was a shy, gangling lad who sought refuge in books and dreamed of leading a life of great adventure. It was in his teens while in New Zealand that he successfully climbed his first mountain, Mount Ruapehu.

After a short stint in the Royal New Zealand Air Force that ended in the late 1940’s, he set his sights on scaling the prominent Himalayan peaks – and was delighted with his dual identities, those of the bee-keeper and the avid mountaineer. In 1953, along with Tenzing Norgay, he was named as a part of the team that was to climb the yet unconquered Mt. Everest. By the time they had reached within 330ft of the summit, Tenzing and Hillary were the only two team members left. They faced several hardships which included the bitter cold, wedges in the ice and sudden avalanches. Yet, they carried on dauntlessly. And on 28th May of the same year, they successfully reached the top of the world. They left chocolates and a holy cross on the snow as a ‘welcome surprise’ for future mountaineers.

Upon returning to civilization, he was baffled by his newfound celebrity status. He was knighted by the Queen of England and had his image imprinted on Kiwi currency. Hillary however, retained his humility. In an interview, he was asked to describe how he felt; he was quoted as saying –

“My dominant reactions were relief and surprise. Relief because the long grind was over and the unattainable had been attained. And surprise, because it had happened to me, old Ed Hillary, the beekeeper, once the star pupil of the Tuakau District School, but no great shakes at Auckland Grammar (high school) and a no-hoper at university, first to the top of Everest. I just didn’t believe it.”

His friendship with Tenzing Norgay, his time spent in Nepal and his sense of responsibility made him an iconic figure in the Indian subcontinent. He devoted his life in its entirety to help the Sherpa community of Nepal. He founded the ‘Himalayan Trust’ that provided aid and relief to those areas of Nepal that were in dire need of it. He founded various schools and hospitals in the nooks and corners of Nepal. In addition to which, there was the Honorary President of the American Himalayan Foundation, a non profit organization that aimed at improving both, the ecology and the living conditions of the Himalayan regions.

Hillary was celebrated as a devoted family man. His son, Peter Hillary, along with Tenzing Norgay’s son, Jamling, climbed the Everest as a part of the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the scaling of the mountain.

On a larger scale, Hillary was a man who stood for much more than merely mountaineering. His courage to dream big and follow it through to its completion, his courage to take on challenges that the rest shied away from, his perseverance even when faced with dire adversity, his philanthropy and his humility endeared him to the world. However, more than anything else, Hillary is venerated for daring to dream (and subsequently, achieve) the impossible. His victory provides hope to the rest of us, it provides us with the incentive to dream big, and inspires us to attempt to emulate his particular brand of bravery. And the fact remains that despite having reached the top of the world, he was a deeply grounded man – which made him all the more admirable. And as the great man himself said –

“You don’t have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things—to compete. You can be just an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals.”

Rayman Gill