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Sir Edmund Hillary at the time of the first ascent of Mount Everest
Photo by arch. E. Hillary
29 May 1953. Tenzing Norgay on the summit of Mount Everest, photographed by Sir Edmund Hillary.
Photo by arch. E. Hillary
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Sir Edmund Hillary

11.01.2008 by Vinicio Stefanello

Sir Edmund Hillary died in Auckland (NZ) on 11/01/2008 aged 88. Together with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay he was the first to reach the summit of Everest, the highest mountain in the world.

Sir Edmund Hillary has died. The New Zealand mountaineer who together with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first reached the summit of Everest in 1953 died this morning in Auckland, New Zealand. Sir Edmund died aged 88, leaving behind an unrepeatable live which did nothing to change his simple, ironic and acute character of the "ordinary person with ordinary qualities", as he liked to define himself. Hillary made history on 29 May 1953 when, together with life-long friend Sherpa Tenzing Norgay he stepped onto the 8848m high summit of the highest mountain in the world. At the time this monumental achievement represented something similar to man's first steps on the moon. "We knocked the bastard off" he said ironically to Tenzing after the ascent...

The historical British expedition led by Colonel John Hunt reported about Hillary's infinite strength and resistance, and together with Norgay he astounded all for the incredible ascent and descent times on the mountain's high altitude camps. But what distinguished Hillary above all was his ability to share his adventures with the local Sherpa people (defined by the first British mountaineers as "snow tigers"). Perhaps it is this human aspect, this great sensitivity rather than his mountaineering ability, which more than anything else truly defined the legend Sir Edmund Hillary.

After the 1953 ascent Hillary immediately focused his attention on the Nepalese population by creating the Himalayan Trust which has been instrumental in creating 26 schools, 2 hospitals and 12 health centers in the Nepalese villages, as well as bridges, roads and aqueducts. Through this initiative Hillary was widely regarded as an absolute forerunner, well ahead of all other fellow mountaineers. He realised immediately that change, which was to come about through Himalayan mountaineering and the ensuing high altitude tourism, had to be of help to the local population but should not in any way modify the nature and culture of the local territory. This vision made Hillary an absolute explorer, an example for may other mountaineers who (much later, it must be said) followed in his footsteps. It came as no surprise therefore that Hillay was the first foreigner to receive Nepalese honorary citizenship in 2003, an acknowledgement of the brotherly relationship with the local population in the Nepalese valleys.

Hillary was an example of how passion for adventure and the mountains can become a window onto the world. His was an unassuming passion, which went well beyond the incredible fame which accompanied him after the Everest first ascent. His taste for mountaineering began at 16 when climbing in New Zealand, and in 1948 together with Harry Ayres he made the first ascent of the South Ridge of Mount Cook, at 3753m the highest mountain on the islands. He progressed to climb in the Alps and, prior to the Everest ascent, took part in two exploratory expeditions in the Himalaya (Everest and Cho Oyu) which probably paved the way for his participation in the successful 1953 expedition.

It has been stated that Hillary's membership in the 1953 Everest expedition may have been governed by "politcal" reasons: being from New Zealand, he represented the British Empire. What is certain is that, on paper, he was certainly not one of the leading mountaineers of his time. But this circumstance too made his ascent even greater. After the first ascent of Everest and between the years 1956 - 1965 Hillary took part in numerous other Himalayan expeditions, but above all he explored the Antarctic: on 4 January 1958 he became the third person to reach the South Pole, after Admunsen and Scott.

Sir Edmund Hillary will always be remembered for his ability in being a man, not a hero. A man who was happy with his life, regardless of the legend which accompanied him. His answer to the question as to whether perhaps George Mallory and Andrew Irvine were in fact the first to reach the summit of Everest is famous: "For 45 years, people have regarded me as the great hero of Everest, so I've done pretty well anyway. So I couldn't complain too much if Mallory had proved to actually have reached the summit." An example for all!

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