The outpouring of warm and affectionate tributes from all over the world when Sir Edmund Hillary died on January 11 did not surprise me. On May 29, 1953, this tall, angular, craggy-faced New Zealander, together with the diminutive, angel-faced Sherpa Tenzing, became the first men to set foot on the crown of Mount Everest. On May 28, two other climbers, Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon, had turned back just a few hundred metres short. If they had been lucky, the world would have had two dour, phlegmatic British heroes, forgotten by now.
But the Auckland beekeeper and the Sherpa from Darjeeling, as they came down the mountain to the real world, held us all in thrall. Modest to the core, fully conscious that destiny had dealt them a magic hand, they never lost their human touch, grace and endearing shyness. In Kathmandu, local chauvinists tried to project Tenzing as the real hero. Tenzing would have none of it. Others tried to give all the credit to Hillary, claiming he had pulled Tenzing up the now-famous Hillary step, and walked him the last few yards to the top. Ed dismissed such petty attempts to prove the white man's superiority with contempt.