- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

When Sir Edmund Hillary became the first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest, he became an international celebrity. The mountain, meanwhile, remains a symbol of nature that is dangerous but conquerable.

Fifty years later, Mount Everest is still the beacon for outdoors adventurers. Since 1975, only about 1,200 people have reached the top, and 175 have died trying. Mr. Hillary, now 83, is a celebrated explorer who also has journeyed across Antarctica and up the Ganges River. In addition, he has left a humanitarian legacy in the form of hospitals, schools and airstrips to the Sherpas, the people of the southern Himalayas who supported him in his Mount Everest trek.

The life of Mr. Hillary is showcased in a temporary exhibit at the National Geographic Society’s Explorers Hall in the District through Sept. 1. “Sir Edmund Hillary: Everest and Beyond,” explores all aspects of his life, from his roots as a beekeeper in New Zealand to the Everest climb to his good works for the people of Nepal.

On display are artifacts that will impress any would-be adventurer. Among them: the nylon ropes Mr. Hillary and his climbing companion, Tenzing Norgay, used; Mr. Hillary’s down jacket; his ice ax; his journals; his camera; and a 1951 telegram to his parents, in which Mr. Hillary wrote, “Invited Everest expedition. Could not refuse. Please forgive.”

“I think this exhibit puts into perspective the accomplishments of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay,” says Susan Norton, director of exhibitions and special events at Explorers Hall. “They climbed Mount Everest 50 years ago using basic equipment. There were none of the things the climbers have today. Even today, with satellite phones and modern equipment, you can easily not come back down from the mountain.”

The exhibit, which debuted last year in Auckland, New Zealand, is divided into nine sections detailing such topics as Mr. Hillary’s life, the land and people surrounding Mount Everest, the ascent of the mountain, the honors the men received afterward and the geography of the mountain.

Visitors can learn a lot about the Sherpas at the exhibit. More than 40 worked on the 1953 expedition, carrying heavy loads above 21,200 feet. In the years since, the Sherpas — who live in the immediate area around Mount Everest and have a unique ability to adapt to altitude — have aided in the exploration of Mount Everest and benefited from the accompanying tourist industry.

Visitors can sit in a replica of a native schoolhouse decorated with drawings and messages from Sherpa children. They also can see a replica of a Sherpa kitchen, much like the one where Mr. Hillary planned many of his projects, and a Buddhist religious monument.

The exhibit has interactive parts as well. Visitors can walk across an aluminum ladder and balance across a “crevasse” much like mountain climbers on Everest. They can put on a backpack loaded with oxygen canisters. There also are film clips incorporating everything from interviews with Mr. Hillary to newsreels trumpeting the news of his successful May 29, 1953, climb.

One section is devoted to the news coverage of the event, which happened concurrently with the coronation of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. Magazine covers and a special section published by the Times of London are on display at Explorers Hall.

Also on display are the various honors bestowed on Mr. Hillary. They include medals from dozens of countries, along with honors ranging from England’s Order of the Garter to an award from the Kathmandu Taxi Drivers Association.

The “beyond” part of “Everest and Beyond” shows Mr. Hillary’s contributions to Nepal. In 1964, he founded the Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust, which helped build 27 schools and 13 medical clinics in Nepal. Photos show Mr. Hillary putting the physical labor into these works.

“He felt he owed it to give back to the Sherpas,” Ms. Norton says. “He actually hammered the nails to build those schools.”

WHEN YOU GO:

Location: “Sir Edmund Hillary: Everest and Beyond” is on display at the National Geographic Society’s Explorers Hall, 17th and M streets NW, Washington

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Sept. 1

Admission: Free

Parking: On-street meter parking and garages are nearby. The building is a short walk from the Farragut North stop on Metro’s Red Line.

More information: 202/857-7588 or www.nationalgeographic.com/explorer

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