Hillary (left of picture) was, of course, one of the first people to summit Mount Everst, the tallest mountain on the planet. He and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (also pictured) were the first recorded climbers to reach the top, in 1953.
But for Hillary, it wasn’t just a case of climbing it and leaving Nepal; he maintained close links with the country, and specifically the Sherpa people, until his death. I’ve been to the Nepal Himalaya twice now (and fully intend to return), and on both occasions, I’ve been in small mountain villages where I’ve been informed that a certain building – often a school or medical centre or meeting hall – was funded and supported by Hillary or one of the charities he was involved in, and often he’d visited them to officiate at their opening. Given the poverty in which many of the Sherpa people live, this work would be an impressive enough legacy for Hillary to be remembered by, but add in climbing Everest, and I find myself genuinely sorry to hear of his death.
Climbing of Everest is, for many wealthy people, something of a task to ‘tick off’ in their lives, and Hillary was rightly critical of this conveyor-belt mentality, as it led guides to try to take people up the mountain in inappropriate weather conditions, and also for climbers to leave stragglers to die. I completely agree with him that climbing Everest shouldn’t be seen as ‘conquering it’ – I’ve stood at Base Camp, and you get the feeling that if you think you’re going to conquer anything, you should probably turn round and go home, and perhaps try to conquer your own sense of hubris.
As I grow older, I find myself increasing impressed by people like Hillary, who almost seem to represent a vanishing breed; they seem determined to see the world in true explorer style (Hillary also went to the North and South Poles), and to have what I can only class as ‘adventures’ – it’s a lifestyle which seems a world away from so many of our lives, and even if we can never hope to emulate it even to a minor degree, there’s a part of me which is grateful that such people still exist – and that the rest of us can read about their lives and exploits and be reminded that the world is far larger than we can ever hope to fully comprehend.
And, of course, it’s all the more beautiful and interesting for it.