Forget his charity stuff. He was No 1

By Matthew Parris (THE TIMES, 12/01/08):

From when I was 3, I can only remember two things: shutting a little girl's finger in a door by accident in Bradford and the ascent of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing.

All else from those childish years has gone blank. There is no recollection of the Coronation of 1953; the concept of coronations is too complicated to lodge itself in a toddler's mind. But Everest and Bradford took hold, gripping the infant imagination. Bradford, because of fear. Not sympathy (I recall only a fervent wish the little girl would stop wailing), but fear that her mother would be angry. And Everest because it was the highest, the hardest and the first; and because it was a human victory.

My father explained - and a child could understand - what “the biggest mountain in the world” meant. Any three-year-old knew about climbing things. Any three-year-old could understand the thrill of struggle; of being the first; of winning. And almost from the dawn of consciousness, any human knows fear.

Fear, “the biggest”, and winning. These are primal. The special correspondent of The Times - James Morris, now Jan Morris - was at the base camp to break the news, and within the first two sentences of Morris's report, “won”, “big”, and “victory” appear. The final word of that report is “triumph”.

In the paragraphs between, along with some spine-tingling word-pictures of the massif that mark Morris out as the writer he was to become, the column faithfully records the seven previous British attempts: the deaths, the dangers and the valour of others that helped to lay foundations for Hillary's and Tenzing Norgay's successful climb. But these fade from the mind. We know they matter, of course; we know Hillary's and Tenzing's victory should not be isolated from the efforts of others; we know how insistent Hillary always was that that the achievement should not be seen his alone.

But the victory was his, and he knew it. This single, simple fact stands at the core of the long life that closed this week. In his later years Hillary took a mellow and relaxed attitude towards suggestions that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine before him might have reached the top before dying on the way down. In retirement Hillary took to suggesting that he'd enjoyed enough adulation to be able to share some with Mallory. But at the time he was not slow to remind interviewers of the rule governing first ascents: that you've to get back down safely for it to count. He knew upon what his reputation rested, and he was not going to let go of it.

Some are generous in victory, others less so. Hillary showed the same largeness of spirit off the slopes as on them. There will be much written this weekend about his charity work, his campaigning, his modest demeanour and his lifelong efforts to improve the lot of the Nepalese Sherpas whom he so much respected.

He himself used to say that he thought this more important than his record-breaking ascent. Nonsense. Anyone can help out among the poor in Nepal in their gap years, their sabbaticals or all their lives: but only one can be the first to climb the world's highest mountain, and it was Hillary. He was wont to profess astonishment that the moment he and Tenzing came down the newspapers seemed only interested on which of the two had set foot first on the summit, which (he said) hardly mattered. Again, nonsense. There can only be one.

You can strip away from Hillary's life the distinguished career that followed, the other adventures and firsts, the family joys and tragedies, the tireless good works, the knighthood, the modesty and the rough but unfailing good manners; you can imagine him a selfish ingrate, limelight-stealer and attention-seeker; you can take away all the admirable things that Sir Edmund Hillary was in addition to being the first man to climb Everest; and at the end of it you will have detracted hardly at all from the one really big thing about this life. It is when he walks back down into camp, victorious, to encounter his friend George Lowe, that we hear him speak from the core: “Well George, we've knocked the bastard off.”

For be under no illusions. Ignore the simpering holisticism of those who burble about oneness with nature and the partnership of man and mountain. You hate mountains, difficult mountains, when you're struggling on their slopes. Eight thousand feet shy of Hillary's record, I've only ever managed the 21,122ft of the (easy) Illimani in the Bolivian Andes, and for the last two hours of that ordeal I've never hated a waste of snow on an ugly big lump of rock more. It's a fight. It's trying to kill you; and when you beat it you respect it, but as an adversary you've foiled. By fighting off a gang member, you've joined the gang. Hillary fought off the leader of the gang, and claimed his own superlative. Everest the biggest; Hillary the first to beat the biggest.

There will be much written this weekend about how times have changed and generations shifted; how the imperial spirit has vanished; and how Britain today cannot understand Hillary's breed. There are no longer any big firsts to pull off, people will say, no great primitive challenges to be met. This, too, is wrong.

It is true that in 1953 New Zealand's Prime Minister called the ascent the achievement of “a Britisher” while today's New Zealand PM called Hillary “a great Kiwi”. It is true we would be more inclined today to see Tenzing as an equal than as a faithful assistant. It is true that were a mountaineering first to coincide today with a coronation, modern spin-doctors would recommend holding the announcement back so it could bury bad news later rather than oversupply good news today. And it is true that technology and equipment matter more than they used to.

But don't forget that Hillary had oxygen and his expedition was anything but makeshift. Don't forget that Hillary's celebrity status was exploited expertly by the predecessors to today's public relations industry. And don't forget that children still love records, thrill to danger and admire pioneers. There remain ocean depths unplumbed, peaks unclimbed, straits unswum, passages unnavigated and caverns unfound - and beyond our own planet, moons and stars still untrodden.

People will always try to be the first, the fastest, the highest. Plenty tried Everest before Hillary. Who knows whether he and Tenzing were cleverer, braver or just luckier than those who failed and those who died? Who knows whether Mallory got there before perishing? Who knows whether Hillary's immortal pre-eminence is wholly fair, wholly earned? And who cares? It was him; the peak is the highest; he was first.

Maybe what sticks in a child's memory is a useful litmus test of what will lodge in the collective unconscious of the human race. In a notice to remind staff of the mental age of newspaper readers, Lord Northcliffe wrote: “They are only 10.” Maybe we are all only 3.