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Sir Edmund Hillary Dies

The first man to climb Everest succumbs at age 88
By Peter Potterfield - January 10th, 2008

The man who made the first ascent of Mount Everest, and the first man to visit both the North and South Poles, has died at the age of 88.

Sir Edmund Hillary, who was one of two men to make the first ascent of Mount Everest has died in his native New Zealand. In May, 1953, Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to climb to the summit of Mount Everest and descend safely. The extraordinary event made both men famous. Hillary was knighted, and worked for decades to improve the economic conditions of the Sherpa people, who at the time of the climb were malnourished and undereducated.

Hillary's efforts on behalf of the Sherpa are legendary. He was instrumental in building the airstrip at Lukla, the first in the Khumbu region of Nepal. Lukla and its now paved strip, is presently the gateway for thousands of trekkers who come each year to make a climb or trek in the Everest region. Hillary also raised money to build schools and hospitals in the Khumbu as well. Largely because of his efforts, the lot of the Sherpa is greatly improved today over that of 1953

Hillary also was the public face of all New Zealanders. His reserve and modesty reflect the national personality. His son, Peter, went on to make impressive climbs of his own. I first met Hillary on a visit to New Zealand in 2002, where he was gracious enough to submit to an interview despite having lambasted me for having been a part of the expedition that discovered the long lost body of climber George Mallory in 1999. Missing for 75 years, Mallory's disappearance had become one of mountaineering's greatest mystery. Hillary first said the expedition that found Mallory's remains was made up of "ghouls and grave-robbers," citing the thorough searches of the body and documentation with photographry. He later relented, adding that the search for Mallory was a legitimate undertaking of mountaineering history.

I got the chance to spend more time with HIllary just a year later, in San Francisco, during the 50-year-anniversary celebration of the first ascent of Mount Everest. Norbu (the son of Tenzing Norgay), Hillary and I met for a quiet breakfast in the Fairmont Hotel. Nobu is director of the American Himalayan Foundation, which works closely with HIllary on the betterment of conditions for all Sherpa in Nepal. I had just finished editing the book, Everest the Anthology, a collection of original writings about climbs and attempts on the world's highest peak. The volume includes writings by pioneers such as Frank Smythe, more modern climbers such as Doug Scott and Reinhold Messner, and even Hillary himself, who wrote the summit-day account of the first ascent. I had in the back of my mind to get Hillary to sign a copy for me, thus creating a life-long keepsake, and a fitting wrap to a long project. As the three of us talked quietly over coffee, Hillary thumbed through the book, stopping occasionally to read a passage. He finally remarked, "This looks quite interesting, Peter, would you mind signing it for me?" I knew then whatever rift there was between us had healed.

Every climber who knew Hillary felt lucky. He was the irrefutable icon of mountianeering, the sport's elder statesman. A young bee keeper born and raised in New Zealand's, who honed his mountaineering chops in the Darran Range of the country's Southern Alps, Hillary will be remembered as a climber, gentleman and humanitarian who represented a commitment to high standards of human achievement.


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