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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His love of the area is tinged with sadness. In 1975, Hillary’s wife and youngest daughter were killed in a plane crash while flying to one of the hospitals. “The only way I could really have any ease of mind,” he now recalls, “was to go ahead with the projects that I’d been doing with them.” (A grown son and daughter survive; he remarried in 1989.)


History’s most acclaimed living mountaineer grew up in rural New Zealand too “weedy,” he says, for sports. But heavy labor in the family beekeeping business after high school bulked him up for his new passion—climbing. Impressive ascents in New Zealand and the Himalayas earned him a spot on the 1953 Everest expedition. Hillary was knighted in 1953, and he graces New Zealand’s $5 note and the stamps of several nations. Yet he works hard to debunk his heroic image. “I’m just an average bloke,” he says, albeit with “a lot of determination.”


It’s of a piece with Hillary’s modesty that he would rather talk about his partner Tenzing, a former yak herder who died 17 years ago. “At first he could not read or write, but he dictated several books and became a world ambassador for his people.” What Hillary admires about the Sherpas, he adds, is their “hardiness, cheerfulness and freedom from our civilized curse of self-pity.”


To hear him tell it, climbers are ruining Everest. Since 1953, 10,000 have attempted ascents: nearly 2,000 have succeeded and nearly 200 have died. Hillary concedes that Nepal, a very poor country, benefits from the permit fees—$70,000 per expedition—that climbers pay the government. Still, he has lobbied officials to limit the traffic. “There are far too many expeditions,” he says. “The mountain is covered with 60 to 70 aluminum ladders, thousands of feet of fixed rope and footprints virtually all the way up.”


Hillary plans to celebrate the golden anniversary of the first ascent in Kathmandu, he says, with “the most warmhearted people I know.”


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