The higher summit in Sir Edmund Hillary's life
Ascending Everest was momentous, but his modesty and philanthropy are the more enduring legacy.
Clinton, N.Y. — I took the measure of Sir Edmund Hillary's greatness last summer, while on a three-week trek in the Everest region of Nepal. In our second week on the trail, my fellow climbers and I perched atop a low adjoining peak and gazed up in wonder at Everest's 29,035-foot summit. It was there, on May 29, 1953, that Sir Edmund stood alongside Tenzing Norgay to become the first men to climb the world's highest mountain.
That was certainly a defining moment in Sir Edmund's life, and he lived the remainder of his 55 years enjoying the world's acclaim for that day's achievement. But the moment I started thinking Sir Edmund was truly a great man came a week earlier, when I filled a water bottle at a public fountain in the small Sherpa village of Khumjung.
In Nepal, trekkers are advised never to drink water from public sources, unless it is boiled first, and it's a good idea to add an iodine tablet as well. Even then it's possible to get sick from treated water, as I found to my discomfort a week or so later. Nepal is one of the world's poorest nations, with an infant mortality rate nearly 13 times that of the United States. In the high mountain villages, human waste and yak dung regularly pollute the water supply. But not in Khumjung, because Sir Edmund gave the villagers there a safe water system. There is also a Sir Edmund school in Khumjung, and a Sir Edmund medical clinic in the neighboring village of Khunde.
The origins of the Khumjung School, the first of Sir Edmund's philanthropic efforts in Nepal, date back to 1960. Sir Edmund, making his first return visit since the 1953 expedition, embarked on a somewhat quixotic search for evidence of the legendary Yeti (abominable snowman). The villagers of Khumjung claimed to have a Yeti scalp in their possession. As part of a bargain with the villagers, who allowed Sir Edmund to borrow their prize for testing in America, he agreed to secure the funds to build them a school. The scalp turned out to be a fake, but Sir Edmund's commitment to improve the lives of the villagers turned out to be quite genuine.
The school went up in 1961. And over the next four decades, the charitable organization Sir Edmund subsequently founded, the Himalayan Trust, raised funds for more than two dozen additional schools in the Solu-Khumbu region, plus clinics, hospitals, bridges, airfields, and projects promoting clean water and reforestation. Every village we visited last summer had pictures and posters of Sir Edmund (locals called him "Sir Ed"), in teahouses, trekking lodges, and wayside stores. But there is one photographic image of Sir Edmund you will never see, in Nepal or anywhere else, and that is one of him standing atop Mount Everest. And that is because it doesn't exist.
Sir Edmund brought a camera with him that day in 1953 to the summit and took a photo of his Sherpa companion, Tenzing Norgay, holding his ice ax aloft in a triumphant gesture. That photo was featured on the cover of Life magazine and became one of the iconic images of the 20th century. Sir Edmund would write in "High Adventure," his account of the expedition, that he did not ask Tenzing to take his photograph because "as far as I knew, he had never taken one before and the summit of Everest was hardly the place to show him how."
Well, perhaps. But as Ed Douglas, one of Tenzing's biographers would later note, "Some climbers might have taken the chance on Tenzing getting lucky." I think the truth is that Sir Edmund, who fully expected to go back to the family business of beekeeping when he got back from Everest, didn't care whether his moment of glory was recorded. He was a strong, ambitious climber, and he had the drive to make it to the top. But he was also a simple, uncomplicated, and deeply modest man. And in the years that followed his day on the top of the world, he went on to do a lot of good.
So when I learned of his death last week, I wanted to raise a toast in his memory. My only regret is that, home in the US, I couldn't do it with some of that icy cold and remarkably clean Khumjung water. Here's to you, Sir Ed.
Maurice Isserman teaches history at Hamilton College. He's the author, with Stewart Weaver, of the forthcoming book, "Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes."