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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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The widower Hillary and Mulgrew's widow, June, had known each other for two decades. After a while they moved in together, and eventually they married. They live today—along with the old tabby Big Red—in Auckland in the same house where Hillary raised his family with his first wife.

All you really must know about Sir Edmund Hillary is that while his face is on his country's five-dollar bill, his name is still in the Auckland phone book. Talking with him in his home seems a bit like chatting with George Washington at Mount Vernon.

The house is in Remuera, an affluent if not ostentatious suburb. You go down a hill to reach it, but it boasts a glorious vista, looking toward the harbor where the sleek America's Cup boats sail out to race. One huge tree soars over the house—a Himalayan deodar, a gift from Louise Hillary's father. Maybe that is proper. Symbolically, you see, something of Everest always rises above Edmund Hillary.

The reason that Hillary's wife and daughter were flying out of Katmandu when their plane went down was that Hillary returned there regularly. As Sir Roger would devote some of his later years to the sport that had brought him eminence, so has Sir Edmund dedicated much of his life to helping the indigent Sherpa people. Even now, Hillary goes back to Nepal every year, spending several other weeks in Europe and the U.S. to raise the funds to build hospitals and bridges and airfields and schools in the Himalayas.

Yet the irony that he has given so much love to helping Tenzing Norgay's land is heightened by the fact that when the two men came down off the bastard, Norgay's people let Hillary know they despised him. "Everyone in the crowd was pouring out hate toward me," he wrote in 1955. This was because those indigenous folk had lived in the lee of the mountain that they had called Chomolungma for eons before the British identified it as Peak 15 and then, in 1865, named it after Sir George Everest, a surveyor general of India. The Sherpas believed that Buddhist gods resided up there, in the clouds, and they did not want to accept that the first human afoot there had not been one of their own.

To Hillary the issue was meaningless. "I led all the way," he says, "but believe me, to us, to mountaineers, who's first is not important. We were a team. Who sets foot first bears no relationship to who makes the greatest contribution."

It was another example of Hillary's innocence that he would assume that no one—in Nepal or anywhere else—would be curious about primacy. But then, he also was astonished when the queen knighted him, and it did not trouble him that whenever he and other members of the expedition spoke about the conquest, his fee—a minuscule £25—was the same as theirs. "We thought all this reaction would quickly fade," he says. "I really didn't expect that the public would care much."

In any event, even before they came off the mountain, John Hunt, the expedition leader, met with Hillary and Norgay, and they agreed that they would say that somehow the two men had arrived at the top simultaneously. As soon as the expedition reached civilization, though, it found trouble. "In Nepal it became very important to believe that Tenzing was first," Hillary says. "That was proof that an Asian was as good as a Westerner. Norgay was quite frightened, actually, because politically he found himself in a very difficult situation."

The two men kept to the story, although in Norgay's final memoir, shortly before his death in 1986, he acknowledged that he'd been a couple of steps behind. That book didn't receive much attention in the West, so at last, as he entered his ninth decade, Hillary decided to set the record straight. "Finally, I just got a gutsful of it," he says. "I got tired of people saying that Tenzing had gotten to the top first."

That Hillary is such a munificent benefactor of Nepal mutes the issue. By now, the mountain people had learned that he was, if not a Sherpa himself, one of them in spirit who had first stood with their gods. "The Sherpas always impressed me with one element of their belief," Hillary says, "which is that you must choose your own path." As if on cue, Big Red jumps off his master's lap and strides away disdainfully, as cats do. Hillary goes on: "They don't preach at you if you choose a path that they wouldn't. No matter how strongly they may feel, they're unlikely to express judgment. The Hindu priests always welcomed me into their temples, and, you know, I adopted the attitude that anybody who wants to bless me—well, I'm quite willing to accept their blessing."

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