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Hillary's 'Return to Everest' - a journey of joy

On May 29, 1953, New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first two people to reach the top of the world. Thirty years later, Sir Edmund Hillary and his son, Peter, returned to Nepal to celebrate the 30th anniversary of that climb to the summit of Mt. Everest.

Return to Everest (Wednesday, March 7, 8-9 p.m., PBS, check local listings for repeats) is a joyous Gulf Oil/National Geographic special which records that celebration.

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This was not Sir Edmund's first return. Ever since his triumphant conquest of the highest mountain in the world, he has been visiting Nepal regularly - where he is regarded as a saintly folk hero, a kind of benevolent giant who has brought the people glimpses of a world they never knew before his 1953 adventure. Sir Edmund felt that he owed the people of the Khumbu region help in building schools (there were none; now there are 22), help in reforesting their depleted woodlands, and help in preventing further soil erosion. In a way, perhaps, his formation of a Himalayan Trust was his own form of penance for the harm to the culture of the Sherpas wrought by the influx of Western people and attitudes as a result of the enormous publicity given the ''crowning glory'' of this New Zealand beekeeper in 1953.

After the publicized summit journey, Sir Edmund and his family made the journey to Nepal many times; in fact his children learned about the country by climbing its mountains. When his wife and daughter were killed in a plane crash near Katmandu, Nepal, sympathizing Sherpas shared his mourning by building a shrine for the two, further strengthening his ties to the country.

Now, with an altitude disability that prevents him from climbing above 14,000 feet, Sir Edmund climbs vicariously through his son, Peter. On the 30th anniversary of the first climb, Sir Edmund and Peter return to the shadows of Everest where Tenzing Norgay arrives to join them in the celebration. And the National Geographic cameras record it all.

This jubilant and heartwarming documentary roams the Khumbu region of Nepal with father and son as they visit people and places where their efforts have resulted in better hopes for the fragile Sherpa culture to survive. ''Return to Everest,'' produced and written by Theodore Strauss, narrated by Richard Kiley, is worthy of being awarded the same ceremonial scarfs of reverence with which the villages bedeck the ''friendly giant.'' It is a joyous story of discovery, compassion, and responsibility. Perhaps what Sir Edmund Hillary has accomplished in villages throughout Nepal may be an even more enduring contribution than his historic climb. A chat with Sir Edmund Hillary

When ''Return to Everest'' was being edited, Sir Edmund Hillary visited the United States. I caught up with him by telephone to Chicago, where he had stopped over on Hillary Foundation business just before his return to his home in Auckland, New Zealand. He also maintains an apartment in Katmandu, where he spends about four months of each year, mostly trekking to the east into Sherpa country.

What is it about the Sherpas that draws Sir Edmund to them?

''They're tough, hardy, and friendly, with a vigorous sense of humor,'' he says. ''Anybody who goes there is warmly welcomed. Many of their attitudes - willingness to work, friendliness, sense of humor, things like that - are attitudes we like to think exist in our own society. We've lost some of them, but the Sherpas have managed to hold on to theirs.''

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''There are only around 100,000 Sherpas in the Khumbu district,'' Sir Edmund adds. ''Those are the people we've been working with now for the past 22 years.''

Sir Edmund says he neither encourages nor discourages his son in his mountain-climbing ventures. Peter is planning an attempt on the west ridge of Everest in the fall. ''That ridge is more difficult than the one by which we climbed. And they don't plan to have any Sherpas carrying loads. It's going to be an Alpine-type expedition. I wish my son all the luck in the world . . . but they're taking on a pretty considerable challenge.''

Sir Edmund believes it's important for young people to stretch themselves in adventures of this sort. ''But I'm also a firm believer in people who are new to something taking advantage of the experience of older people. But once young people have absorbed that, then I think it's up to them to go off and do their thing. It's good for young people to have challenges ahead of them, whether it's in the physical field or in society.''

What are the greatest challenges left in the world today?

''Mostly in the human field. Maintaining happy human relationships between peoples and the maintenance of peace - those are the greatest challenges.''

Are there any mountaineering challenges left?

''The great peaks of the world have all been climbed. But there are still many difficult routes on these mountains that haven't been climbed. These are the real challenges for the younger generation of climbers. Not just to reach the top, but to reach the top by a difficult, dangerous, challenging route.''

Aside from Sir Edmund's work with the Sherpas in recent years, what does he now believe his historic climb in 1953 contributed to the world?

''I do think our success on Everest tended to make mountaineering respectable. Before that, if any youngster wanted to go off climbing, the families would frown on it. But after we climbed Everest, the growth in the number of mountaineers throughout the world escalated enormously. And mountaineering is now accepted as a reasonable sort of challenge which can be good for young people.

''The fact that Tenzing and I were together on top gave a terrific boost to the image of Asians - not only in Nepal but in India and other countries. It proved that people are equal when a challenge comes along. National background, culture, color, didn't matter. It was wonderful that in the first ascent we had people from two completely different cultures involved.''

No longer a climber, Sir Edmund says, ''I get my challenges in a different way now. Building schools is as great a challenge to me now as climbing a mountain.

''I'm very involved in the principle of affluent countries accepting more responsibility to help the developing countries. The more people accept this responsibility, the better our world is going to be.''

It is obvious that, for Sir Edmund Hillary, finally reaching the summit of Mt. Everest was only the beginning. Sometimes destinations are disguised starting points.

The nonprofit Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation can be contacted care of Larry Witherbee, Department 606, Sears, Roebuck & Co., Sears Tower, Chicago, Ill. 60684.

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