May 23, 1953, at 11:30 a.m., a quiet New Zealand beekeeper, Edmund Hillary, astounded the world by being the first man to reach the summit of the world's tallest mountain, the 29,029 feet (or 8,000 meters) Mt. Everest, or "Qomolangma" — "The Goddess Mother of The Earth" in Tibetan.
The only other person to share the feat was his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay. Norgay did not know how to use a camera, so that peak experience remains forever shared only by those two explorers.
Hillary's conquest of Everest, along with Roger Bannister's breaking the four-minute mile, the first moon landing and Robert Peary's trek on foot to the North Pole, changed mankind's view of what is possible forever.
Hillary passed away Thursday in Auckland at age 88. His passing reminds us all of not only of his numerous adventures and accomplishments but his truly heroic lifelong work that his fame allowed him to do.
Born in 1919 on the North Island of New Zealand, Edmund Hillary was shy and dreamy in school, but on a school trip to a mountain he discovered that he had considerable endurance. At age 20 he made his first major ascent of Mount Oliver in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. He loved mountains so much that he became a beekeeper so he could climb in the winter.
Immediately following his ascent of Everest, he was knighted. Sir Edmund subsequently returned to the Himalayas to study the effect of altitude on human health and to search for the "yeti," whose tracks he believed that he had seen on his climb. He did not capture or photograph the abominable snowman, but he did find a number of huge footprints in the snow, which kept that mystery very much alive.
Hillary climbed 10 other peaks in the Himalayas. He also reached the South Pole in January of 1958 as part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. His party was the first to reach the Pole since Amundsen in 1911 and the very first that used motor vehicles to reach the Pole.
He also led a jetboat expedition, titled "Ocean to Sky", from the mouth of the Ganges River to its source in 1977. He ultimately became the first man to have stood on both Poles and Mount Everest.
Hillary's adventurous feats led him to be appointed in 1985 as New Zealand's High Commissioner (ambassador) to India, Nepal and Bangladesh. In later years, Sir Edmund said that he was equally proud of his work helping the Sherpa people of the Himalayas.
Every year he quietly returned to the high country of Nepal. On his visits he asked what he might do to thank the Sherpas. They could have asked for yaks, but instead they asked him for schools and a hospital.
Hillary's Himalayan Trust was responsible for the construction of 27 schools, 12 clinics, 2 hospitals, 2 airfields and a number of bridges. When modern doctors arrived, they discovered that the high incidence of mental retardation and goiter in the area was related to a lack of iodine in the local diet. This discovery has brought a considerable boost in health to the Sherpas, which only deepened their love for him.
When Sir Edmund turned 50 he resolved to do three things: to build a house on the cliffs above the Tasman Sea; to become a better skier; and to do a grand traverse up the peaks of Mt. Cook. He is said to have accomplished all three.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ascent ascent, Sir Edmund turned down an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to share a quiet dinner with lifelong Sherpa friends.
Hillary was a brave, pioneering explorer, but also a true hero in every sense of the word. He was as proud of his accomplishments in both realms, but he was often aghast at some of the people who tried to follow in his footsteps.
When Hillary reached the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, Nepal only allowed one expedition per year. Today, some 250,000 tourists and trekkers visit Nepal every year. This has proven to be a very important source of revenue for the Nepalese, but it is not without costs. Since Hillary's feat, there have been over 3,500 ascents, over 600 last year alone.
More than 200 people have perished on attempted ascents, many of the corpses remain frozen on the mountain, adding to an overall serious conservation problem of human waste and expedition equipment that has been left on the mountain by these expeditions.
Every climber that ascends Everest today (which costs about $65,000 a person), is in a party of at least a dozen with two porters per climber. Each climber and his two porters must carry about 200 pounds of food and gear, 1/3 of which is left behind. This includes oxygen tanks, which were not used in Hillary's time.
Above the snow level, decomposition is nearly non-existent. The growing mound of trash and cast off equipment — oxygen cylinders, axes, boots and other tools of the mountaineer's trade — make it the world's highest garbage dump. This sorry state led Hillary to lament that "Everest is a junk pile."
Those who truly wish to follow in Hillary's footsteps hopefully will remember that with fame and accomplishment comes responsibility to give something back to the people and places that have enabled one to gain notoriety.
In honor of Sir Edmund, it would seem only fitting to give Everest and the other world's tallest peaks a good cleansing.
James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.