Friday, January 11, 2008

Sir Edmund Hilary RIP

I heard the news of the passing of Sir Edmund Hilary today. This guy was the first person of European descent to stand on the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on the surface of the Earth. At the time it was quoted as 29,002 feet - a number I will never forget, though now the numbers are 8,848 meters, or 29,029 feet.

As a young lad, in the late 1970s, I read the Ascent of Everest by John Hunt. It's not a big book - it's only a few hundred pages, in a roughly A5 format, but it is a description of the 1953 expedition to Mount Everest that he led, and that enabled Sir Edmund to reach not just the roof of the world, but the very pinnacle. I found it absolutely fascinating. It was not because of any deeply moving purple prose about the achievements of the expedition, but the simple presentation of the facts of the work, and the technologies they used to achieve the summit - the ladders, clothes, and open system & closed system breathing apparatus.

Remember that this was in the period before GPS, satellite phones (in fact Sputnik didn't even fly until 4 years later!), carbon-fiber framed geodesic dome tents, high performance fabrics & climbing boots or rescue helicopters. These guys did it with cotton, wool, leather, WW II radios, aluminium, wood, steel, ridge tents, and kapok. I don't think they even had nylon ropes!

So, serious kudos to the John Hunt expedition, and all those who made it possible.

In the long run, however, I think that Hilary's contributions to the Nepalese people through the Himalayan Trust will be of greater real significance than his climbing. The Trust has helped to establish clinics, hospitals and nearly 30 schools in Nepal, to the lasting benefit of many. For this, Hilary deserves great credit in inspiring people to go beyond simple personal glorification and climbing achievement, and to really put something back into a relatively deprived society that has long supported the ambitions of foreigners to climb in the peaks of the Himalayas.

Sir Edmund Hilary, RIP, but may the Himalayan Trust continue long in your memory.

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