March 30, 2020
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The Amiable Snowman

Only Sir Edmund Hillary could have worn greatness with such casual aplomb

The Amiable Snowman
The Amiable Snowman
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.

In Delhi, the then president, Rajendra Prasad, honoured them both. Tenzing and family were to fly for the first time to London to meet the newly-crowned Queen. Nehru, in his typically affectionate way, took Tenzing home, opened his clothes cupboard, and asked Tenzing to take as many achkans as he needed. They were about the same height. With his loveable personality, Tenzing took the West and the British by storm. Nehru set up the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, and made Tenzing director of training. Nehru became the president, and came every year to preside over the graduation of young Indian climbers.

In 1961, as a young member of the IAS, I asked, and was sent to train in Darjeeling with Tenzing—the first civilian to do so. It was an experience to cherish. A hero to the world, Tenzing was a dedicated instructor. During a heavy snowstorm at our 16,000 feet Chouri Khiang camp, we were almost buried under snow. Tenzing would get up in the bitter cold at midnight to come and clear the heaps of snow from atop our tents, like a father. In Darjeeling, I was given my ice axe badge by Nehru in the presence of Indira Gandhi and her two young sons. I remember Rajiv's big puffy hairstyle.

Hillary made his success relevant by using his name and fame to collect money worldwide, particularly in the rich West to build schools and hospitals for the Sherpas living at the foot of Everest. He visited them without fail every summer. He built little airstrips in the area. Tragically, he lost his wife and daughter in an air crash at Lukla. The resilient Hillary recovered, and continued his service. More than the climb, which was emulated by many later, he won the world with his visible and enduring warmth and empathy.

The New Zealand government took an imaginative decision in appointing Hillary high commissioner to India. The sub-continent loved him. He went everywhere to encourage the young. In contrast to the lanky Hillary, his second wife June was a petite woman with a stunning, crinkly-eyed smile and great charm. At a private lunch, I tried the eternal question on Hillary, "Did you step on Everest first?" He refused to respond to my pettiness; he just laughed, and talked of their togetherness. I met Tenzing in Delhi many times before he died. I knew him as a friend. He too would not fall for the bait. The answer always was—the two of us together.

That was the greatness of Hillary and Tenzing. Their feat was perhaps more dramatic than Armstrong's giant leap on the moon. But they retained for half-a-century their modesty, and a true consciousness of their place in the world. I contrast this with that of today's cricketers. There is little sportsmanship, every type of gamesmanship, the absurd, absolute desire to win at all costs, and a crudeness of behaviour. Money has banished the proverbial gentleness from the game. The one-billion-dollar contract for an India league of 20-20, which should be more aptly called gulli-danda, is an example of this trend. Hillary and Tenzing are fresh in our memories 54 years after the event, and will remain so, a beacon of inspiration to youth. Not so today's cricketers.

(Manohar Singh Gill, MP, is a former president of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and the Himalayan Club.)

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