Sir Edmund Hillary died today. He was 88 and died of heart failure at the Auckland City Hospital. The reason you will have heard of him is that in 1953 he and Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
I have never had a desire to climb mountains. In fact when we were in Zermatt last year we wandered around the village graveyard looking at the graves of all those who had failed to conquer the Matterhorn and paid the ultimate price. I looked at the names and the birth and death dates of these young men and wondered what on earth possessed them to give up what was probably a very bright future to get to the top of a mountain. I suppose it’s some desire to do something that you will be remembered for. But wouldn’t it just be easier to write a book or become a golfer?
But some of the greatest acts of bravery have come from expeditions. The British have a long and illustrious history of exploring. The Antarctic explorer Captain Lawrence Oates, weakened by frostbite, walked into a blizzard knowing it meant certain death so as to increase the chances of survival for the remaining men. His last words are among the most famous quotations ever. “I am just going outside and may be some time,” he said as he left the hut.
“Those were the days when men were proper blokes,” said Rupert as we watched a programme about an expedition to the north pole in the 1960s the other evening.
It is true it seems a more romantic time, when men were driven to daring deeds and to discover the world you actually had to go there instead of just googling it. Having said that Hillary may have been undaunted by Everest, but when it came to proposing to his wife he was too shy and so asked his future mother-in-law to do it.
Hillary’s wife and daughter were tragically killed in a plane crash in 1975. But his son Peter climbed Everest in 2003, along with the Tenzing’s son, Jamling Tenzing Norgay, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Hillary’s ascent.
So maybe we are still up to daring deeds, we just need the right inspiration.
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2008