Ascending Everest was momentous, but his modesty and philanthropy are the more enduring legacy.
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.