Friday, January 11, 2008

That's the famed beekeeper from New Zealand, Edmund Hillary, on the right, who died yesterday at the ripe old age of 88. I love this classic picture of him and his Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay. It's about as badass as it gets. They were the first to summit Mt. Everest in 1953 and when they made it back down to base camp, Edmund famously said, "We finally knocked the bastard off!" Then they sat down on their gear and had coffee, apparently.

In its day it was a hell of an accomplishment, given that they were without such luxuries as GPS, Gore-Tex, satellite phones, and corporate sponsors. In my mind, Hillary was the last of the real adventurers, at least until we develop interstellar space travel. Sure, there's all those guys who balloon around the world and so forth, but big deal, I say. Ballooning? Now, seriously. And then there's this guy, another Kiwi, who plans on skateboarding around the world. Magellan he is not. Jobless, yes.

There's all kinds of annoying firsts up Everest now -first without oxygen, first woman, first blind guy, youngest to summit, oldest to summit, first one from each country, first one in a purple jacket, etc. I suggest everyone try to do it using the same assortment of utilities that Hillary had: wool socks, leather straps, etc. Let's see who's really the badass now, hmmm? Climbing Everest has become something of a novelty for the wealthy, nowadays, as, if you have enough cash, you can pay a Sherpa to carry you to the top on his back. These Sherpas are the real climbers, too, as they just go up and down the mother-of-all-mountains all day long, with big smiles on their faces.

But Edmund Hillary was more than just a mountain climber, he was a good guy, too -generous, kind, and determined. He always refused to say whether he or his Sherpa was the first to set foot on the summit, claiming they'd done it as a team. When they got to the top they pulled out the camera to get some pictures, but Tenzing didn't know how to work it, so Hillary just took a picture of Tenzing, his Sherpa.

Well, what would you do? Edmund Hillary spent the rest of his life raising money to help the poor Sherpa people of Nepal, figuring he owed them at least that for making him famous. He built schools and hospitals and an airstrip in the Himalayas, and he was well-loved for it. He was the first New Zealander to get his face on the money while he was still alive. He immediately autographed a bunch of the five-dollar notes and auctioned them off, raising thousands for the Sherpa people.

Hillary Clinton once boasted to Edmund himself that her parents had named her after him after he conquered Everest. Edmund found it amusing, no doubt, that someone would name their daughter after an unremarkable beekeeper from New Zealand, given that she was born five years before he'd become famous from the feat. Since then, Clinton has backpedaled furiously about it. She may backpedal all the way up Everest, as far as I can tell. Another first.

Edmund Hillary did a bunch of other bitchin' things in his lifetime like journeying to the South and North Poles (with Neil Armstrong no less) and jetboating up the Ganges river to its source. He always considered himself nothing more than an ordinary guy and lectured schoolchildren that anyone could accomplish anything if they worked hard enough. He was no stranger to the pains of life, too, when his wife and only daughter were killed in a plane crash. (He later remarried and had another family.) He was a titan in New Zealand, but his local obituary called him "humble, hard-working, and honest" and claimed "we will not see his kind again," which is altogether sad for humanity.

Hillary did not want his ashes scattered over the Himalayas, as you might imagine. Rather, he wished them to be tossed into the sea near his birthplace.

"To be washed gently ashore, maybe on the many pleasant beaches near the place I was born. Then the full circle of my life will be complete," he said.