Hillary CentenarySir Ed would not have liked the queues on Everest this spring
Sir Edmund Percival Hillary KG ONZ KBE was born 100 years ago, on 20 July 1919. A big man in every way, Sir Ed is the Sherpas’ beloved Burra Sahib, a towering presence in the Sagarmatha story, the most celebrated New Zealander, with his profile enshrined on every Kiwi five-dollar bill.
But I like to remember his shy ragged grin, the baggy corduroys, a gentle giant reclining during his latter years in the huge brown leather armchair in his Auckland home, surrounded by books and Himalayan mementos. Often one of Lady June’s cats would perch on his knee, and during the last of his many regular visits to Nepal my Labrador puppy strayed onto his lap on my Kathmandu sofa (pictured above).
Read also: Highs and lows of Sir Ed, Kunda Dixit
From his bee-keeping origins throughout all his accolades and acclaim, Sir Ed remained the consummate Kiwi — humble and approachable, his phone number listed in the public telephone directory.
Sixty-six years ago, that last step onto the pristine summit of Mt Everest catapulted Ed and Tenzing Norgay into the textbooks. Defying altitude and endurance they ventured beyond known human limits to the highest point on earth.
The news of the 1953 expedition success was announced on the morning of the young Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, thrilling a war-weary Britain with visions of conquest ‘high in the thin cold air’.
Mountaineer, explorer, philanthropist, writer, Sir Ed recorded his adventures with an elegant turn of phrase in a shelf full of books. As well as mountaineering, he jet boated up the Ganges, crossed Antarctica on tractors, and was the first to reach the North and South Pole as well as the top of Everest.
By the time I knew him, Sir Ed had hung up his boots, having lost his tolerance to altitude, but he continued to helicopter annually into the Khumbu and travel the world raising funds for his Himalayan Trust. Since 1960 he ‘gave back’ to the people without whom he would not have got to the top.
The Sherpas led an uncertain life in those days, struggling for survival in the shadow of Sagarmatha as farmers scraping a living from the poor upland soil, traditional trade with Tibet and occasional expedition work. Sir Ed invested his time and energy to provide education and health to enable his Sherpa friends to cope with the impending changes of the modern world.
To support the Himalayan Trust schools and hospitals that were constructed with his own hands and family help, Sir Ed built Lukla airstrip in 1964 on a steep hillside at 2,860m. A chorus line of Sherpa and Sherpani dancers were mobilised to compact the ground with their stomping steps. Surprised and alarmed by the visitor influx that he unwittingly unleashed with the new airstrip, Sir Ed was unflinching in his criticism of the negative aspects of tourism, and was never convinced by commercial mountaineering.
‘The highest rubbish dump in the world’ was a phrase coined by him, and he never appreciated the benefit in terms of fees, royalties and employment brought to Nepal’s mountain communities by our 200,000 trekkers, 6,400 trekking peak climbers and 2,300 expedition members every year. Sir Ed would have hated the recent image of Everest summit queues that went viral online and on front pages around the world.
This year we marked Sir Ed’s birth centenary with a reception on his Sagarmatha Summit Day, 29 May, on a humid evening in the warm yellow glow of the British Ambassador’s historic Kathmandu residence. The terrace was covered by a white sail to protect against the threatening monsoon rain, sparkling glasses clinked, and uniformed waiters circulated with promising plates of dainty eats.
Amongst the guests dressed in their best who thronged the graceful rooms was Helen Clark, the new patron of the Himalayan Trust who, as New Zealand’s prime minister, had presided over Sir Ed’s State Funeral in 2008. Climbers recently returned from mountain summits jostled with expedition leaders, Everest guides, and a crowd of Nepalis, Sherpas, Kiwis and assorted others with an affinity to Sir Ed’s work and memory.
British Ambassador Richard Morris sported a scrappy beard and adrenalin-fuelled vigour having raced the Everest Marathon that morning, choppering back just in time to host the celebration.
I made a beeline for Nirmal ‘Nims’ Purja, the stocky ex-Gurkha Special Forces soldier just back from climbing six 8,000m peaks within 31 days, including Everest, Lhotse and Makalu in 48 hours, as part of his extreme mountaineering feat to summit all 14 Himalayan 8,000m peaks within a single seven-month season. Last week, he climbed another, Nanga Parbat in Pakistan.
Nims had taken that summit queue photo that so shocked the world and prompted such moralising criticism, not as any sort of ethical judgement but, he grinned: “Just to prove why I could not break my own speed record for bagging Everest and Lhotse. I got slowed down by all those people and ended up directing traffic on the Hillary Step.”
One hundred years on, Sir Ed might not have liked the orderly line queuing along Everest’s narrow summit ridge on their way to his virgin spot on top of the world, but he surely would have admired the athletic ability and dedicated ambition of the amazing Nims and his Project Possible. I know I do.
Lisa Choegyal is the New Zealand Honorary Consul General in Nepal, and has been writing this fortnightly column ‘So Far So Good’ in Nepali Times since 2016.