Finally, the Top of the World

A witness to the first ascent of Mount Everest 50 years ago this month recalls Edmund Hillary's aplomb, Tenzing Norgay's grace and other glories of the "last earthly adventure"

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Fifty years on it is hard to imagine what a golden moment that was. That the young British queen, at the very start of her reign, should be presented with such a gift—a British expedition reaching the top of the world at last—seemed then almost magical, and a generous world loved it. The news ran around the globe like a testament of delight, and was welcomed as a coronation gift to all mankind. It was nothing like so momentous an achievement as that giant moon-step the Americans were presently going to take, but it was altogether simple, apolitical, untechnological, an exploit still on a human scale, and wholly good.


Oh, the world has changed since then! Coronations and empires have lost their last allure, and mankind is not often drawn together in such guileless rejoicing. I remember, during an Everest lecture tour in the United States later in 1953, desperately trying to find a taxi in New York City to take Hillary and the rest of us from the Waldorf-Astoria to some celebratory banquet or other. We were late—we were always late, being young and exuberant—but I went to the head of the taxi line on Park Avenue and explained the situation to the elderly American at the head of the queue—Edmund Hillary—frightfully late—important function—awful cheek of me—but might he possibly consider letting us go first? His face lit up, and he made a courtly half-bow. “For Hillary of Everest,” he said, “it would be a pleasure and a privilege.”


For me the whole adventure was a pleasure and a privilege, and it has never been tarnished in my memory. Some of the climbers went on to be famous, some died young on other mountains, some returned from the limelight to their diligent professional lives. Tenzing was the first of the expedition’s stars to die, age 72 in 1986. The British government had honored him, as a foreign citizen, with the George Medal; but it probably did not mean much to him, because anyway he had long been one of the most famous men on the face of the earth. Hunt died in 1998, age 88, by which time he was a peer of the realm—Lord Hunt of Llanfair Waterdine, a Knight of the Garter and one of the worthiest of all the British kingdom’s worthies. Ed Hillary lives grandly on, surviving innumerable perilous adventures to become Sir Edmund Hillary, Knight of the Garter and New Zealand’s ambassador to India from 1984 to 1989, and to devote his later years to the welfare of his comrades of the Himalayas, the Sherpas.


Whenever I met those climbers again at Everest reunions, every few years, they seemed to me much as they always had been: getting older and grayer, of course, but lean and wiry still, as climbers must be, and essentially a very decent lot of gentlemen. Would they ever ask for more? And could one want more of allegory—a very decent lot of gentlemen, reaching the top of the world?




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