Sir Edmund Hillary: Top of the World

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Edmund Hillary (left) and Tenzing Norgay were the first men to summit Mount Everest.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stood on top of the world. Around them spread the snow-covered ridges and peaks of the Himalayas: frozen crests of huge, earth-driven waves. Far below chasms and streams wound like muddy veins, cut occasionally by ice blue glaciers. In the east hulked Lhotse, Makalu and the formidable Kangchenjunga. To the west was Cho Oyu and a rumpled horizon of unexplored ranges.

Atop Everest, the highest of them all, a crisp wind blew. Hillary pulled out his camera and snapped Tenzing holding aloft his ice ax strung with the flags of Britain, India, Nepal and the United Nations. Tenzing dug a hollow in the snow and filled it with Buddhist offerings: a few lollies, a chocolate bar and some biscuits. Hillary dug a second hole and buried a crucifix. The two nibbled on some mint cake and, aware that their oxygen supplies were limited, began their descent 15 minutes after reaching their goal.

The descent was as arduous as the climb. Their path had been erased by strong winds, so they repacked every step. Finally, after more than four exhausting hours, they saw fellow team member George Lowe, who had climbed up to meet them. Lowe asked Hillary how the attempt had gone. "Well," replied the unassuming conquerer. "We knocked the bastard off."

Sir Edmund Percival Hillary died today at the age of 88, almost 55 years after the ascent that made him and Tenzing two of the great heroes of the 20th century. For one who had reached such lofty heights he was a strange mix of confidence and modesty; bravado and reticence. A beekeeper and amateur mountaineer from New Zealand, he figured in one of this century's defining moments: the conquest of Everest on May 29, 1953. His adventures in the Himalayas and Antarctica and his work for the sherpas of Nepal continued for more than four decades, but he will be remembered always for his victory that Spring morning.

His beginnings were more humble. Hillary grew up in Tuakau, a small town 50 km (about 30 miles) south of Auckland. His father, Percival, a strict man, edited the local newspaper. His mother, Gertrude, was a school teacher. Hillary excelled at the local primary school and finished two years early. But at his next school, Auckland Grammar, he was surrounded by boys two years his senior and, overwhelmed, managed only average marks.

There was another frustration. The long daily train trips to Auckland ruled out sports and outdoor activities, at least during the week. Then, at 16, a love affair with mountains began. On a final-year excursion to the North Island's Tongariro National Park, Hillary sighted Mount Ruapehu, a 2,797m (about 9,000 ft tall) active volcano. "There was snow everywhere," he recalled over 50 years later. "It was a bright moonlit night, a brilliant, marvelous sight to me."

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