Friday, January 11, 2008

INTO THE THINNEST AIR

Move over Evel, another icon has passed.

On May 29th, 1953 at 11:30 a.m., Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men to stand on the summit of Mt. Everest. But the top of the world's highest mountain was just the beginning for the beekeeper from New Zealand friends called Sir Ed. More than half a century later, his perpetual pursuit of things once imagined resulted in construction of schools, hospitals, medical clinics, bridges and freshwater pipelines for people of the Himalayas.

Hillary died today of a heart attack in his native New Zealand at age 88.

Today, one can pay $65,000 to be guided up Mt. Everest. Some 500 climbers reach the summit each year with the help of a well known route augmented with ropes and ladders, a guide, a Sherpa, pre-established camps, oxygen caches, radios, satellite telephones, SatNav systems and expedition leaders who direct the ascent/decent like pro football coaches. If your body can handle the "death zone," and the weather cooperates, experienced mountaineers have a good chance of conquering the highest mountain in the world.

Sir Edmund didn't have any of that. He helped discover the route, and he and Norgay weren't escorted up the mountain, they literally climbed it - step by step. The more you learn about Everest, and what it takes to climb it (people still die every year - mostly on the way DOWN), the more amazing the accomplishment of Hillary and Norgay looks.

For years, the two men held fast to the assertion that both of them reached the summit at the exact same time. Only after Norgay's death did Sir Edmund, who is consistently described as “humble,” admit that he was a few paces ahead of his loyal climbing companion. According to Hillary, "We drew closer together as Tenzing brought in the slack on the rope. I continued cutting a line of steps upwards. Next moment I had moved onto a flattish exposed area of snow with nothing but space in every direction…"

Out at Great Meadow, there is a sign that says “leave nothing behind but your footprints.” Sir Edmund proved that some folk's footprints are a little deeper and last a little longer.

Well done, Sir Ed.

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