Sunday, January 13, 2008

a modest hero (re Edmund Hillary)

this doesn't really relate to anything related to triathlon, or even sport.

except that, in a way, it does.

most anyone with any awareness of current events no doubt caught the announcement last week that Sir Edmund Hillary died. his obituary was featured around the world, and even garnered official condolences from international leaders like Queen Elizabeth and the scheduling of a state funeral in New Zealand, his home.

mountain climbing, on first glance, appears miles, even light-years, away from anything approaching endurance sports. some might even question whether it is a sport at all, seeing that it 1) doesn't really involve competition against other athletes, and 2) doesn't involve organized, regularly scheduled events.

while i agree with these arguments, i still want to focus on Sir Edmund Hillary, not just the mountain climber but also the human being. i think there's certain aspects to his life that do resonate with the ideals of endurance sports, and in so doing probably point to things that anyone involved in sports would do well to remember and respect...and better yet, emulate.

Edmund Hillary, as the public figure who, along with Tenzing Norgay, was the first to climb Mountain Everest, was ironically not universally recognized in his era as a technically supreme mountain climber. he was, however, consistently noted for possessing phenomenal endurance, strength, and above all, mental fortitude. compared to other adventurers of his era, he could simply go longer, harder, and more relentlessly than anybody else. he just didn't quit.

if those aren't the distinguishing paramount characteristics of an endurance athlete, then i don't know what is.

for all his abilities, however, and despite his internationally-lauded achievement, Edmund Hillary the human being ended up being known for a far greater legacy.

and this is where his life story becomes compelling for the rest of us.

you see, Edmund Hillary the human being wasn't like so many of the people we in the modern era have come to label as heroes. in our time, we have come to generate cults of celebrity for people with less than appealing character traits. particularly within the sports community, the most glorified athletes are often the most self-promoting, most self-centered, most obnoxious, and most disgusting personalities imaginable.

Hillary, in contrast, seemed to be the polar opposite. raised as a bee-keeper, he seemed to avoid the international spotlight following his summit of Mount Everest, and instead appeared to return his roots. he clung to what could only be described as a self-effacing, humble, straightforward lifestyle. some of the anecdotes about Hillary point to his shyness--he apparently couldn't bring himself to give a marriage proposal to his wife in person, but instead relayed it through her mother. he even described himself as "just an enthusiastic mountaineer of modest abilities." even as he continued to maintain his adventures, and eventually received a knighthood, he retained a modest home in New Zealand.

what is more remarkable about Hillary was his continued dedication to the people of Nepal, particularly the Sherpa community. coming from an imperial era, the common expectation would be that someone from a wealthier, more modernized society like Edmund Hillary would have left his Sherpa guides and their culture with a friendly goodbye and proceeded blithely on with his life with nary a memory of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpas, or Nepal.

but he didn't.

instead, with a supreme level of humanity, he maintained a deep connection with Nepal, continuing his personal relationships with Tenzing Norgay and other Sherpas, and building schools and health facilities in the Nepalese mountain communities, which count as among some of the most impoverished and unmodernized regions of the world. it's a testament to his involvement that Nepalese society is mourning his death with a profound expression of sorrow.

Hillary's sensitivity wasn't just for Nepal. i vividly remember an international scandal from a few years ago involving a NOVA-sponsored expedition to Everest, in which the crew found and abandoned a dying climber on their way to capture the summit on television cameras. this erupted into a worldwide debate between the higher ethics of saving a life versus the dangers such an act under extreme conditions posed to other people. for all the rancor, the controversy came to an abrupt and decisive end when Edmund Hillary came out on international news condemning the NOVA crew, saying that they should have made their best efforts to save the dying climber. as Hillary put it: "he is a human being. you can't just leave him to die." his pronouncement that day put the debate to rest, as if there should have never been any question as to what the correct answer should have been: the higher ethics of one life, no matter how tenuous, trumped any risk to save it.

his sentiments even when beyond humanity. throughout his life, he decried the commercialization of the Himalayas, speaking out against the increasing masses of tourism that took to populating the mountain with an accompanying pile of traffic and waste. the mountains, he insisted, should be left alone.

what i draw from this is a person who did remarkable thing, but chose instead to be remembered for more profound ones. people may prefer to recall him for his summit of Everest, but the legacy he created is one of philanthropy and high ideals that echo after his passing. and as modest a person he seemed to be, his actions as a human being point to a testament of selflessness and compassion that mark the greatest aspects of the human spirit.

you see, for all this phenomenal physical abilities, and for all the celebrity he was offered because of the achievements made possible by those abilities, he decided instead to make a difference in the lives of people around him.

he decided to make a difference in this world.

and that's why he's a hero.

it's something the rest of us--as athletes, as people, as human beings--should aspire to remember.

you can get what i'm getting at by reading a selection of the obituaries for him (including, of course, the one in the New Zealand Herald):
more engaging is an editorial about him from the New York Times.
most compelling was a personal note written by a contributor to the Christian Science Monitor. i think it speaks the most volume about Edmund Hillary as a human being. enough so that i'm including the full text of the article below, along with the link:
The higher summit in Sir Edmund Hillary's life
Ascending Everest was momentous, but his modesty and philanthropy are the more enduring legacy.
By Maurice Isserman
Christian Science Monitor
January 14, 2008

I took the measure of Sir Edmund Hillary's greatness last summer, while on a three-week trek in the Everest region of Nepal. In our second week on the trail, my fellow climbers and I perched atop a low adjoining peak and gazed up in wonder at Everest's 29,035-foot summit. It was there, on May 29, 1953, that Sir Edmund stood alongside Tenzing Norgay to become the first men to climb the world's highest mountain.

That was certainly a defining moment in Sir Edmund's life, and he lived the remainder of his 55 years enjoying the world's acclaim for that day's achievement. But the moment I started thinking Sir Edmund was truly a great man came a week earlier, when I filled a water bottle at a public fountain in the small Sherpa village of Khumjung.

In Nepal, trekkers are advised never to drink water from public sources, unless it is boiled first, and it's a good idea to add an iodine tablet as well. Even then it's possible to get sick from treated water, as I found to my discomfort a week or so later. Nepal is one of the world's poorest nations, with an infant mortality rate nearly 13 times that of the United States. In the high mountain villages, human waste and yak dung regularly pollute the water supply. But not in Khumjung, because Sir Edmund gave the villagers there a safe water system. There is also a Sir Edmund school in Khumjung, and a Sir Edmund medical clinic in the neighboring village of Khunde.

The origins of the Khumjung School, the first of Sir Edmund's philanthropic efforts in Nepal, date back to 1960. Sir Edmund, making his first return visit since the 1953 expedition, embarked on a somewhat quixotic search for evidence of the legendary Yeti (abominable snowman). The villagers of Khumjung claimed to have a Yeti scalp in their possession. As part of a bargain with the villagers, who allowed Sir Edmund to borrow their prize for testing in America, he agreed to secure the funds to build them a school. The scalp turned out to be a fake, but Sir Edmund's commitment to improve the lives of the villagers turned out to be quite genuine.

The school went up in 1961. And over the next four decades, the charitable organization Sir Edmund subsequently founded, the Himalayan Trust, raised funds for more than two dozen additional schools in the Solu-Khumbu region, plus clinics, hospitals, bridges, airfields, and projects promoting clean water and reforestation. Every village we visited last summer had pictures and posters of Sir Edmund (locals called him "Sir Ed"), in teahouses, trekking lodges, and wayside stores. But there is one photographic image of Sir Edmund you will never see, in Nepal or anywhere else, and that is one of him standing atop Mount Everest. And that is because it doesn't exist.

Sir Edmund brought a camera with him that day in 1953 to the summit and took a photo of his Sherpa companion, Tenzing Norgay, holding his ice ax aloft in a triumphant gesture. That photo was featured on the cover of Life magazine and became one of the iconic images of the 20th century. Sir Edmund would write in "High Adventure," his account of the expedition, that he did not ask Tenzing to take his photograph because "as far as I knew, he had never taken one before and the summit of Everest was hardly the place to show him how."

Well, perhaps. But as Ed Douglas, one of Tenzing's biographers would later note, "Some climbers might have taken the chance on Tenzing getting lucky." I think the truth is that Sir Edmund, who fully expected to go back to the family business of beekeeping when he got back from Everest, didn't care whether his moment of glory was recorded. He was a strong, ambitious climber, and he had the drive to make it to the top. But he was also a simple, uncomplicated, and deeply modest man. And in the years that followed his day on the top of the world, he went on to do a lot of good.

So when I learned of his death last week, I wanted to raise a toast in his memory. My only regret is that, home in the US, I couldn't do it with some of that icy cold and remarkably clean Khumjung water. Here's to you, Sir Ed.

Maurice Isserman teaches history at Hamilton College. He's the author, with Stewart Weaver, of the forthcoming book, "Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes."

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