Sir Edmund Hillary has died at age 88, after a long series of adventures and having contributed much to the world in which he lived. The life of this New Zealand beekeeper and national hero has included adventure, exploration, and philanthropy, all with the intent to enjoy and improve the world in which we live. While he is credited with being the first to the summit of Mount Everest, according to Wikipedia’s biography he later disdained the single minded focus of later climbers who in one case were said to have passed a disabled climber with altitude sickness, leaving him to die as a total of 40 climbers rushed past him to the top. Celebrating the life of Sir Edmund brings to mind other adventurers of the later half of the 20th century who combined unlimited possibilities and a love of the world around them (and beyond) with strong personal values.
Sir Edmund was far from a single minded climber, though his career in beekeeping in New Zealand was designed to leave winters free for mountain climbing. He was involved in developing climbing strategy for Everest before the expedition which led him to the summit, and after that achievement he later returned to Nepal to help develop hospitals and schools. Wikipedia notes that his son Peter as well as the grandson of his predecessor who died on the mountain, George Mallory, each climbed to the summit of Mount Everest in later years, and he lost his first wife and daughter in a plane accident in Kathmandu while coming to meet him in 1975. In 2003 Peter Hillary and Jamling Tenzin Norgay, son of the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay with whom Sir Edmund first reached the summit, made an ascent of Everest to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their fathers’ achievement.
The names Sir Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong might not seem to go together, but in fact the two shared one of Sir Edmund’s many adventures, flying over the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole in 1985. In the end, Hillary became the first man to stand on the summit of Mount Everest, and also at the North and South Poles. News of Sir Edmund reaching the summit of Everest reached the Queen on her Coronation Day, and by the time he reached Kathmandu after the ascent, he was surprised to find that he had received a knighthood and much international attention.
Neil Armstrong and Sir Edmund had a common approach to life, both in challenging limitations and ethical concerns. After walking on the surface of the Moon, his Wikipedia biography notes that Armstrong later said that he thought they had only a 50% chance of landing on the moon. Earlier in his career, Neil Armstrong flew many different types of military aircraft and had many aviation adventures, at one point sharing a flight with famous test pilot Chuck Yeager. After his aviation and space adventures, Armstrong’s career was guided by his conscience, as he chose teaching and business activities that reflected his values and gave back what he had learned during his life, noted in his NASA biography.
Another man, rather than Sir Edmund, is generally acknowledged to be the greatest mountaineer of all time, having climbed all 14 8000 meter peaks solo without oxygen equipment, quite a feat at nearly the altitude at which jet airliners fly. Reinhold Messner, from South Tyrol in the Italian Alps, also grew up with a love of climbing as Hillary did. His climbs without supplementary oxygen “changed mountaineering forever” according to Wikipedia, but his tactics were also radically different than his predecessors, in that he carried light equipment and approached the climb without the “siege mentality” of earlier climbers, finding that disrespectful to nature. Another biography describes more colorfully Messner’s life and climbing, noting that he claims to have seen the Yeti twice.
Mountain climbing is a strenuous endurance activity, and both Hillary and Messner were uniquely suited to the challenge. In 1975, however, Junko Tabei of Japan reached the summit of Mount Everest, the first woman to do so notes Wikipedia. As with Hillary in New Zealand and Messner in Italy, growing up in Japan she also developed a love of mountain climbing early in life when on a school hike, later climbing Mount Fuji and the Matterhorn in Switzerland, and founded the Ladies’ Climbing Club in 1969. Later, she was selected from hundreds of applicants for a women’s expedition sponsored by a Japanese newspaper and Nihon Television, and wound up reaching the summit of Everest. Since that time, she has been active in outdoor education and leading trips, has reached the highest peak in 55 countries according to her website, and has been recognized by the Japanese government for her education efforts.
Whether mountaineers, explorers, or general adventurers, the late Sir Edmund Hillary and others of his stature have upheld the standard that their activities are not primarily for personal fame and gratification, but to improve the world in which they live, both by their actions and the inspiration of the examples they set.
“The New Zealand Edge: Heroes: Sir Edmund Hillary”, http://www.nzedge.com/heroes/hillary.html
“home”, http://www.junko-tabei.jp/home.html (Japanese)
“Junko Tabei”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junko_Tabei
“Edmund Hillary”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Hillary
“George Mallory”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Mallory
“Tenzing Norgay”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenzing_Norgay
“Neil Armstrong”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_Armstrong
“Reinhold Messner”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhold_Messner
“Reinhold Messner Biography”, http://www.jerberyd.com/climbing/climbers/messner/
“NASA – Biography of Neil Armstrong”, http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/about/bios/neilabio.html