- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

KATMANDU, Nepal — Fifty years ago today, Edmund Hillary and his climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay, stood side by side atop the world’s tallest mountain. They were the first to achieve this remarkable feat, and Mr. Hillary has chosen to be back in Katmandu to celebrate the anniversary of his ascent of Mount Everest in 1953.

“I am having a great time here with all my Sherpa and Western friends. It has been really delightful,” he said yesterday in an interview with The Washington Times.

While other members of his climbing team are being feted in London in the presence of Queen Elizabeth, Mr. Hillary said, “I didn’t want to be anywhere else but here for this event, and the people of Nepal have again shown how wonderful and friendly they are.”

Mountaineers from around the world have gathered to pay tribute to the achievement of John Hunt’s British-led expedition in getting two climbers to the highest point on Earth.

Old Katmandu has come alive with street parties, film festivals and a host of events to mark the occasion. Mr. Hillary himself was paraded through the streets in a horse-drawn carriage earlier this week.

“I get really embarrassed and felt a bit silly waving,” he said. “I am a fairly ordinary person, and I like to think that I am still just plain, old Ed. All the praise, the titles and laurels, they just go over my head, really.”

Mr. Hillary, 83, said he is still bemused by the fascination with his climb, though he acknowledged that, given how little the team knew about what they would find on the mountain, it was “a pretty good effort.”

“I had no conception that this would be such a big deal at the time we reached the summit. I remember I thought the mountaineering community would think quite highly of what we had done, but not for a moment did I ever think we would get such a big reaction from the world public and media.

“It was only when we came back to Katmandu and had all this mail — newspaper articles, magazines, telegrams — that we began to realize what a big deal it was to the world.”

Mr. Hillary,a beekeeper and air force navigator, said that when he arrived in the Solu Khumbu region in early 1953, he formed an instant connection with the locals.

“I really enjoyed them, and admired how hard they worked. And they had a marvelous sense of humor, which endeared me to them. They would laugh over my jokes for half the night, the same old jokes, so it was difficult not to appreciate this great characteristic they had.”

Mr. Hillary used his newfound fame to raise funds in the United States for a return to the Solu Khumbu region to help the local Sherpa people build the infrastructure they were so sorely lacking.

“I don’t regard myself as a heroic person. I climbed Everest, but my main interest has always been in the welfare of the mountain people, and it’s great to see so many of them here in Katmandu and doing so well.”

In fact, Mr. Hillary said, the joy of reaching the summit of Mount Everest doesn’t even come close to his most treasured memory: the opening ceremony of the first school he built in the Solu Khumbu in 1960.

“I still remember the 40 or so children lined up on the front veranda that day, scruffily dressed, but they had a twinkle in their eye; they were tough people even at that age, and I had so much respect for them.”

Mr. Hillary’s trusts have gone on to build 27 schools, two hospitals, dozens of medical clinics and provided access to the area through airfields, bridges and passageways. He admits to some regret over building the Lukla airfield, which has become the gateway to Everest for thousands of tourists every year.

“I built it so we could get supplies in to our hospital. I never thought the area would turn into such a large tourist destination,” he said. “But you know, the Sherpas are so good at looking after the tourists, that it has become a very successful operation for them.”

Mr. Hillary laments that climbing Everest is no longer the challenge it once was with the advent of commercially led expeditions.

“Nowadays there are still some extremely competent mountaineers doing very difficult things, but the vast body of people are just following in the footsteps of others.

“There are 65 ladders on the icefall, so its more or less a jaunt along it now, and there are thousands of meters of fixed ropes. As long as the weather is fine, the challenge isn’t as great as it was when we knew very little about the mountain.”

He said he feels blessed to have been born in an era when everything was new and there were so many challenges to meet.

Mr. Hillary’s climbing partner in 1953, Tenzing Norgay, died in 1986, but Mr. Hillary said he should be recognized for the contributions he made.

“When I was young there were so many firsts to be achieved, so I was lucky that I had been there at the right time,” he said. “I feel that the most exciting thing that can happen to anyone is to be the first on any big challenge that nobody has done before, but there aren’t many great challenges left.”

“You know, in his last few years he was somewhat saddened that he couldn’t have done more for his people. I told him that he had done so much in introducing thousands of young people to the mountains and the outdoor life, but he wouldn’t accept it. He didn’t like the fact that he was just paraded around; he was a real doer.

“But he did a tremendous job, and in my eyes he was a heroic figure.”

The other heroic figure in Mr. Hillary’s life is his boyhood idol, Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton.

“He was a man who could make decisions on the spot, and could change direction and really knew how to protect the members of his party from danger. I have tried to model myself on this great man, with minor success, but he has been my inspiration.”

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