Hillary revered and admired by locals | AspenTimes.com

Hillary revered and admired by locals

The late Sir Edmund Hillary with fan and local climber Cameron Burns at an autograph signing in Telluride. (Courtesy Cameron Burns)

ASPEN ” Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mount Everest, left a mark on mountaineering more complex than just standing on the roof of the world.

On May 29, 1953, Hillary, alongside Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa of Nepal, was the first to climb to 8,850 meters (29,035 feet). He was later knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

On Friday, Hillary died at age 88 in an Aukland City Hospital in New Zealand after a long bout with pneumonia, according to The Associated Press.

Aspen area mountaineers said they’ll remember Hillary’s boldness, his efforts to help people in developing countries, and his humility. A few local climbers had a chance to meet the climbing legend.

“I first met him in the fall of 1967 trekking in Nepal,” said Jeremy Bernstein, a part-time Aspen resident, high-altitude trekker and author of a handful of books on climbing.

“I was happy to meet him. He was very straightforward. I would say ‘shy,’ or at least ‘reserved,’ but friendly,” Bernstein said. “There was something about him. You admired him.”

And what impressed Bernstein most was not Hillary’s feats on the mountain, but the many schools and hospitals he sponsored among Sherpa communities in rural Nepal.

“He and the Sherpas had a very straightforward relationship; they liked each other,” Bernstein said. Unlike many of the aristocratic climbers in the early 1950s, Hillary was “very democratic” about his relationship with high-altitude porters.

“I think he was a great man,” said Bob Wade, owner of the Ute Mountaineer in Aspen. “For him to go out and work on Sherpa villages in the early 60s was clearly giving back.”

Hillary did so at a time when it wasn’t especially “politically correct,” Wade said.

Local climber Cameron Burns spent some time with Hillary in 1993 and remembered him as a “nice, quiet gentleman. A real regular guy. Those are the best kinds of people in the mountains.”

One impression that sticks with Burns is that Hillary climbed an 8,000-meter peak with the most simple gear (compared to today’s equipment) at a time when many people believed it was humanly impossible to climb that high.

Burns believes Hillary’s legacy will be defined more by his efforts to help people in developing countries, as the former climber championed causes from AIDS in Africa to educational initiatives in Asia.

Larry Jones of Snowmass Village attempted Everest, but quipped, “I didn’t get quite as far.”

To Jones, Hillary was an inspirational person.

“He just became so much more than the first person to get up on top of Everest,” Jones said. Climbing mountains earned Hillary his recognition, but humanitarian work will be what people remember, Jones said.

Bob Slozen, who summited Everest three times himself, received a letter of congratulations from Hillary after a 1991 expedition, and said Hillary visited Aspen around that time.

“I never really met him,” Slozen said, noting that he’ll remember Hillary as determined, driven and persistent. “I admire him.”

Local climber Ted Mahon, who summited Everest in 2003, said it was Hillary’s humility that stands out.

“I think that the nice thing about him is that he was careful not to demand full credit for what he did,” Mahon said, noting that Hillary was careful to credit Norgay’s role as well as his entire team’s role in the climb.

“It wasn’t all about him,” Mahon said. “I think it’s a good model for others to go by.”

Sharing credit is something that many peak baggers could learn from in a climbing culture in which many are out for individual achievement, Mahon said.


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