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Bannister and Hillary
Frank Deford
December 27, 1999
Pioneer miler Roger Bannister and Everest conqueror Edmund Hillary became, at midcentury, the last great heroes in an era of sea change in sport
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December 27, 1999

Bannister And Hillary

Pioneer miler Roger Bannister and Everest conqueror Edmund Hillary became, at midcentury, the last great heroes in an era of sea change in sport

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He finds a sports analogy to describe the huge chasm between England and America. Bob Mathias, an 18-year-old California schoolboy, had won the decathlon at the 1948 London Olympics. "An 18-year-old winning the decathlon would've been inconceivable here," Bannister says. "Not only [because of] the weather, but, all the more so, because of our lack of resources." Indeed, on the very morning of the day that Bannister ran his mile, an article in The Times of London lamented England's athletic plight. "In spite of our own standards," the paper groaned, "we are still hard put to keep up with the advances of other countries."

Ah, but despite such melancholy, the fond links forged by the Empire remained strong. Hillary declared, "Like most of my fellow citizens, I was British first and New Zealander second." New Zealand had been an independent nation since 1947, but still, as the journalist Colin James writes of his country, "It was British and white. It made lambs and butter and some of the most boring cheese imaginable, and it sent it Home [to England] in plain wrappings for a good price.... It was safe...a place of no choice and none needed. Small, rich and complete. Bland beyond boredom. The most comfortable place in the world to grow up in."

Nevertheless, the Kiwis have always been rugged sportsmen and the most courageous companions. John Keegan, the renowned military historian and author, calls New Zealanders indisputably the finest soldiers in the world in this century. So in 1951, when Eric Shipton, the pipe-smoking English leader of an Everest expedition, had the opportunity to add a few Kiwis, he invited them—the well-regarded George Lowe and the unknown Hillary included—to join him in Nepal if they could make it there on their own. Shipton knew the New Zealanders brought specifically useful talents, because their South Island Alps offered the same challenges of snow and ice (ace, in Hillary's Down Under accent) as were found in the Himalayas.

But there was a new problem. Everest rises out of two nations, Tibet and Nepal, and in 1951 the Chinese Communists had taken over Tibet and closed it off. Previously, Tibet had been open as the way up, while Nepal kept out foreigners. Around this same time, Nepal started to ease its restrictions and allow foreigners to travel there. So now the task was not only to get to the bloody top but also to discover a whole new route—which would obviously be even more challenging than the one that had already proved too difficult and had, in fact, taken at least 16 lives, including that of the legendary English climber George Mallory. Hillary finally caught up to the expedition, saw Everest and thought this: a white fang, thrusting into the sky.

Shipton quickly realized what a find he had in Hillary, and it was on their reconnaissance that they spotted the glacier pass that might make a southern route possible. It was at this point too that the competitor in Hillary emerged; it was, if you will, the Americanization of Edmund. Despite himself. In his heart, he wrote in a 1955 memoir, he knew Shipton had to abandon "the deep-seated British tradition of responsibility and fair modify the old standards of safety and justifiable risk and to meet the dangers as they came.... The competitive standards of Alpine mountaineering were coming to the Himalayas, and we might as well compete or pull out." Nice guys finish last.

That expedition was a success, in Shipton's view, for his team had mapped a route he felt could be successfully followed to the summit, and they made plans accordingly for another trip the next year. However, when Hillary returned home, he learned that two Swiss teams had the only permits for an assault on Everest in 1952, and when he heard, incorrectly, that Raymond Lambert and the Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay had made the summit, he was crestfallen. For a mountaineer—all-for-one and all that—Hillary knew these jealousies were "unworthy thoughts." But the conceit of taking Everest had won out over his better British self. "Yes, we had to change the traditional attitude, accept the dangers and be prepared to take more risks than the older brigade," Hillary says. "But then, we're a bit that way in New Zealand—adventurers of sorts."

Still, on a 1953 British expedition led by John Hunt, Hillary knew he'd overstepped honor even more, because he had terribly mixed emotions about his "very good friends" Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans when they made the team's first assault. He took small comfort that Norgay, whom he admired and who was now paired with him, felt even more conflicted with jealousy as Evans and Bourdillon closed on the peak. "Tenzing was very glum," Hillary says. He pauses as Big Red, his tabby, jumps up into his lap; then he goes on, remembering clearly, "I wasn't very proud of my feelings."

As it happened, Evans and Bourdillon had to turn back barely 300 feet below the summit. Upon returning to high camp, Evans told Hillary, "I don't think you're going to get to the top along that ridge." But, says Hillary, "I didn't take that seriously, because it reminded me of just another one of those good Alpine ridges I'd seen so often in New Zealand—demanding, yes, but climbable." So it was, to make a long story short, that at the top of the world Hillary and Norgay found a very daunting cornice and then, past that step, a...well, a climbable South Island-style ridge. And they endured, confidently. "I suppose most people who find themselves in a dangerous spot pray to God," Hillary says. "But while maybe I have an arrogant view, I feel that I've gotten myself there, so it's my own responsibility."

So they pushed on together, the Kiwi and the Sherpa. At 11:30 on the morning of May 29, 1953, in the first year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, Hillary took one last stride up a gentle rise and found himself, first ever among humankind, standing and looking down at all the world beneath him.

He and Norgay shook hands, and then Hillary took photographs of the Sherpa. "It never crossed my mind to give Tenzing the camera to take my picture," he says. "That would never happen today. But I was just a naive country boy. Why did I need a photograph? I knew I'd been there, and that was good enough for me."

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