Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sir Edmund Hillary, 1919-2008

Sir Edmund Hillary, the man who made the first ascent of Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world, died today. He was 88. I never met him and yet he still he had a major influence on the course of my life. Certainly he had had that effect on countless numbers of people, many who more vastly benefited by his accomplishments as a mountaineer and humanitarian. When he and Tenzing Norgay, his Nepalese Sherpa, became the first to climb Mt. Everest in 1953 the face of mountaineering changed forever. No summit anywhere was impossible. The feat was celebrated throughout the world and I learned of it through radio and National Geographic magazine. My parents, fenced in by their Protestant and dutiful lives of post World War II, did not notice the achievement, however, they did subscribe to to the NGS magazine. I know that my mother, who always yearned to see more than north Denver, mandated the magazine's monthly arrival in our mailbox. When the issue describing Hillary and Norgay's ascent of Everest arrived, I read it over and over began to look at maps of Nepal and the Himalayas. I memorized the heights of the 10 highest peaks in the range and dreamed of the day I would set foot in Nepal and see for myself the biggest mountain range on Earth. In the ensuing years I developed a deep love of geography and wild places. My father took me fishing with him on our family vacations in western Colorado, and no pun intended, I was hooked. I was a student in the first Outward Bound School course in North America in 1962 and then an instructor in 1971 after my Peace Corps tour of duty.

Yes, I did get to Nepal. In 1970 I trekked up the Kali Gandaki valley through Jomsom and Muktinath and back to Pokhara. The views of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri were mesmerizing. I never got on a Himalayan expedition and quite frankly my mountaineering career was unremarkable. I continued to climb in Colorado and Wyoming with my old climbing partner, George Bracksieck in the 70's. When I moved to Louisvlle, KY my climbing went dormant. There was a brief resurgence in 1989 through 1991 when I had opportunities during my book project to climb on El Cap and Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite. I will always remember those nights in my Denver home reading with awe about Hillary and Norgay on Everest. I was even more entranced with the accounts of the American Everest Expedition in 1963, especially the astounding West Ridge ascent by Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein. Geography, adventure, exploring the world through photojournalism, for me, all began with Sir Edmund Hillary. Thank you, thank you, Sir.

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