Before I visited Nepal and trekked in the Everest region, I knew little about the later life of Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander, who, with the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, first summited the world's highest mountain in 1953. Hillary died in 2008 at 88. I was glad to find in Kathmandu a dog-eared copy of Hillary's late-in-life autobiography View from the Summit and read it on the way home.
I'm just old enough to have a vague memory of the news of the two men's triumph on the mountain, all mixed up with the coronation of Elizabeth II, the first TV broadcast I remember. It took this book to make me aware of the complicated nationalist, post-colonial political ramifications that engulfed the returning climbers. It had been desperately important to Tenzing that a Sherpa should be one of the first people to reach the summit; on their return, he was pressed by Nepalese to sign a statement that the accomplishment was primarily his doing, while Hillary tried hard to credit both men. Hillary describes himself as an innocent, hyper-fit, somewhat sheltered, bee-keeper in those days, oblivious to the excitement their reaching Everest's peak would create.
Nationalist aspirations then ran into unpleasant realities of several sorts. Though Tenzing was fiercely proud of his Sherpa heritage, he actually lived in and was a citizen of India, and did not much identify as Nepalese. Meanwhile, the Brits, still harking back to empire, thoughtlessly gave more of their kudos to Hillary. Thanks to Tenzing's wife's insistence (Sherpa women don't keep mum), his family accompanied Tenzing to England for the excitement, but Hillary got the starring role. In later years, Hillary claims to have been aware something was wrong (racist) about this.
As Hillary explains in the autobiography, for the rest of his life, he was always viewed in the role of the conqueror of Everest. At first, he used his celebrity to win leadership of a New Zealand expedition to the Antarctic. Later he and his family spent summers camping in U.S. national parks as gear-testers and celebrity endorsers for Sears Roebuck. He organized a jet boat expedition that travelled the length of the River Ganges in India and eventually served as New Zealand's ambassador to that country.
But none of that was what he set his heart on. Rather rapidly, whatever the extraordinary physiological anomaly was that enabled him to acclimatize relatively easily to high altitudes as a young man deserted him. Quite a lot of the book is about Hillary hiking or being carried down from high Himalayan places with severe cerebral edema. The heights had turned on him.
He was well aware who took care of him.
I sure get that! I had the same sense that the Sherpas and other mountain people we met in the Khumbu region thought we'd die if left to our own devices. When I came down with pneumonia, they did anxiously assist me. This care felt willing, not in any way either servile or like a necessity to promote tourism: they simply understood themselves to be capable of living in these places and we were not, so we must be cared for.
So, beginning in the early 1960s, Hillary took up the work of his later life, raising funds and building hospitals and school in the remote Everest region.
The regional airport at Lukla was his project. Before it was built, people and supplies had to travel on foot for two weeks over a 15000 foot pass to reach the area.
We visited the hospital built at Kunde.
Their fee schedule made a lot of sense to me.
From the hospital, we walked on down to the regional high school at Khumjung, another project built because of Hillary's work with international climbing groups and philanthropic institutions.
Sign on the entrance arch.
The wide school yard easily accommodates several hundred studens.
Korean climbers had contributed the most recent building.
Back in Khumjung village proper, women washing clothes can thank the Hillary projects for running water.
I liked Khumjung the most of the places we visited on our trek. It seemed prosperous, enjoying some of the fruits of modernization, yet very much a town where Sherpa culture survived the relatively small trekker influx and thrived. Tourism and indigenous cultures often throw up ugly by-products, including a sense of mutual exploitation. In Khumjung, perhaps I missed things, but I didn't feel that common tension.
Sir Edmund Hillary was completely clear on what he valued most in his life.