Sir Edmund Hillary

By Verlyn Klinlenborg (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 12/01/08):

I am one of those people who can close their eyes and see Hillary and Norgay on the summit of Everest. I was born the year before that climb, and while I was growing up, Sir Edmund Hillary was the last word in simple, bold heroism. I quietly set him apart in my mind, knowing that I would probably never test my own limits of physical and mental endurance, as he did. What makes the news of his death Friday at age 88 so moving, was his modesty, the sense of a civilian heroism held in reserve apart from that one great moment. He made the word “beekeeper” — his and his father’s vocation — sound like an honorific.

Everest is not, now, a technically extreme climb, at least on some routes. It takes stamina and determination and money, and its dangers are as real as they ever were, but every year dozens of climbers — mountaineering tourists, many of them — make it to the top.

For Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa guide, it was an extreme climb, and not merely because theirs was an age of canvas, wool and leather. The mountain seemed to project defeat and death, and though it makes no sense to talk of “taming” a peak, the fact that Hillary and Norgay reached the summit and descended, none the worse for wear, made Everest suddenly seem possible. A modern climber going up Everest has to ask whether he or she can make it — a matter of individual will and preparation. For Hillary and Norgay, the question was whether anyone could make it.

Everest has not changed since May 29, 1953, when Hillary and Norgay, who died in 1986, reached the summit, but our idea of Everest has. Since then, it has been climbed in ways that once would have seemed nonsensical. There have been, for instance, solo ascents without oxygen. And yet each of these technical variations is also an attempt to restore to Everest the inherent difficulty — the near-impossibility — it possessed when Hillary and Norgay set out.