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Everest: 50 Years and Counting
May 2003
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Everest
By Peter Miller


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Catastrophe struck in 1975, when a small plane carrying Louise and Belinda crashed and burned shortly after takeoff from Kathmandu. The two were on their way to join Sir Edmund in the village of Phaphlu, where he and Rex were building a hospital with local Sherpas and volunteers. "Ed was thunderstruck," says Rex. "It was so damn sad." It took many years for Sir Edmund to recover, but he took some comfort in the physical labor of his aid projects in the Everest region.

Those projects—to build schools, hospitals, bridges, and other improvements in Sherpa villages—grew out of Hillary's affection for the mountain people. "Ed's the sort of person who, if he's asked to do something and he can't think of a reason not to, he'll go ahead and do it," says Jim Wilson, a longtime friend from New Zealand. To help fund this private aid program, Hillary and several buddies created the Himalayan Trust, which continues to this day.

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 (3,700 meters) 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.


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