In 1989, at the age of 70, Sir Edmund married June Mulgrew. Today many Sherpas in the Everest region consider them both to be part of their families. A few years ago at a banquet in the village of Khumjung, Sir Edmund told his Sherpa friends that for June and him, coming back was like coming home. “When he said that, all the old people had tears in their eyes,” says lifelong resident Doma Chamji, in part because they knew Hillary was increasingly sensitive to altitude. Each visit to the village at 12,300 feet might be his last.
Even now, at 83, with his trademark bushy eyebrows, white sideburns, and longish flyaway hair, Sir Edmund is still frequently called upon to be the hero of Everest—whether he’s cutting an Everest-shaped cake at the Auckland Museum or giving a pep talk to New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks. “The thing that amazes me, in a way, is that it all keeps going,” he says. “But I think I have a clear idea why. I think a lot of people rather like the fact that I haven’t just climbed mountains but also built schools, hospitals, and all the rest of it. So in a way I’ve given back to the people all the help they gave me on the mountain.”
On May 25, 2002, Sir Edmund got a telephone call from his son. “Dad, it’s Peter. We’re on the summit,” he said from Mount Everest. The 47-year-old was part of a National Geographic expedition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1953 climb, including Jamling Norgay, Tenzing’s son, and Brent Bishop, son of Barry Bishop, a member of the first American team to reach the top, in 1963. “Well, take it easy on the way down,” Sir Edmund cautioned. They chatted briefly about the weather. Then it was time for Peter to go. “I feel really emotional about being up here,” he said. “What you did nearly 50 years ago—it’s just incredible.”
It was a feeling many would endorse, because Sir Edmund has proved during a lifetime of generosity and achievement that he is more than a new kind of hero. He is one of a kind.