When Sir Edmund Hillary died earlier this month, the world lost not only a brave adventurer but a humanitarian and inspiring personality.
To some, Hillary is known only for the first line of his Jan. 11 obituary in The New York Times: on May 29, 1953, he and Nepalese climber Tenzing Norgay became the first humans known to reach the summit of Mount Everest at 29,035 feet above sea level.
On Jan. 11, The London Times reported Hillary was a citizen of New Zealand by birth and a beekeeper by trade. He was a towering man – 6 feet, 5 inches tall – whose physical accomplishments rightfully earned him the title of world explorer. According to his book, “The Ascent of Everest,” by the time he climbed to the summit in 1953, he already had scaled 11 other peaks of more than 20,000 feet in the Himalayas. He crossed Antarctica and reached the South Pole in 1958, and wrote about the experience in his book, “No Latitude for Error.” In 1985 he landed a plane at the North Pole and became the first man to complete the hat trick of standing at both poles and the top of Everest.
Besides conquering Earth’s most hazardous climates, Hillary also chose to fill his life with service to others. He was a member of the Royal New Zealand air force during World War II; New Zealand’s ambassador to India, Bangladesh and Nepal; president of his country’s Peace Corps; and founder of the Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust.
Hillary’s forgotten legacy – and maybe his most important – was his role as a conservationist and philanthropist. His efforts led Nepal to establish the area surrounding Mount Everest as a national park. The London Times reported his foundation built 26 schools, more roads and health clinics in Nepal.
Hillary has been the hero of ambitious mountain climbers the world over, as well as children who learn his name and would-be adventurers who live in nature and attempt to tame it. But Hillary probably hoped he would be remembered for the mountain he worked so hard to preserve, by the schoolchildren who study in the buildings his foundation built and in honor of his respect for the environment.
Hillary, humble and hardworking, showed us big achievements are not out of reach. Few of us will climb the world’s highest mountain or accomplish similar feats of incredible strength and endurance, but whatever our goals and aspirations, Hillary emphasized the most important factors in success are desire and personal commitment. He reminded us that, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
He used his fame as a renowned explorer not to advance his own particular agenda but to raise awareness of the social, economic, environmental and health conditions in Nepal. After Hillary reached the top of Everest in May 1953, doing what so many had called impossible, his journey had just begun. It is for a lifetime of achievement – the work that came after his grueling conquest of that great mountain – that he is even more deserving of our respect.
Sir Edmund Hillary died of a heart attack in New Zealand on Jan. 11. He was 88.
Joe Vossen is a senior in political science. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.