THE MAN who first stood on the highest point of the earth, triumphing over, really, man's last geography, was actually a most unassuming chap. He sort of stumbled into mountain climbing, and was still pretty much unknown in the upper echelons of the sport when he was chosen for the British expedition to Everest in 1953. Sir Edmund Hillary—or just "Ed," thank you, whenever you were in his company—still primarily thought of himself as a beekeeper when he and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay stood first among humankind on the summit, 29,035 feet up, on the bright, clear Himalayan morning of May 29, 1953.
Hillary, who died of heart failure last Friday at age 88, had a lantern jaw and unruly hair. Jan Morris, the British writer who wrote the first account of Hillary's ascent for the London Times, remembered him as moving "with an incongruous grace, rather like a giraffe." Hillary recalled his younger self to me this way: "I'm just a big hulk, but I knew I could perform. If there were far better-looking sorts, I was stronger and faster going uphill."
I loved that: reducing standing atop Everest simply to being uphill.
He could be wry too. George Mallory, the British climber famous for his "because it is there" reason for scaling Everest, disappeared on the mountain in 1924. His body was found in 1999, but it was unclear whether he died in ascent or descent. Would it bother Sir Edmund to find out he really wasn't first? "You know," he replied, "to mountaineers, it's one thing getting to the top, but another getting back to the bottom. I'll settle for that."
When he and Norgay did reach lower terra they allowed the story that Norgay had actually reached the summit first. Hillary was happy to, for it gave greater pride to the Nepalese, whom he loved and dedicated most of the rest of his life to with good works. Indeed, his first wife, Louise, and daughter Belinda died in a plane crash leaving Kathmandu in 1975, leaving him inconsolable. It was he, the explorer, the man of daring, who should die young.
But he lived on nobly, a wise and benevolent presence, New Zealand's grand old man. (Well, maybe the world's grand old man.) After Norgay revealed, just before he died in 1986, that in fact Hillary had reached the summit a few steps before him, Hillary also acknowledged that fact. But, he said, it really didn't matter who was technically first. It was a team game. After all, the first words he uttered, gaily, as the other members of the expedition came out to greet him and Norgay as they walked back down the mountain were, simply enough, "Well, we knocked the bastard off."