Americans are lucky to have Neil Armstrong as a native example of a rare specimen: the superbly modest hero. He mixed quiet determination with curiosity, nerve and good humor, and when he was done tackling the moon, Armstrong went back to Ohio and taught aeronautics.
New Zealanders were luckier still to have Sir Edmund Hillary. Hillary has died at age 88, just about 55 years after he and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to set foot atop the highest mountain in the world. Yet somehow, having been the first to stand five and a half miles high, Hillary resisted the chance to wave his vertical bragging rights over the rest of mankind.
Instead he formed the Himalayan Trust and raised millions of dollars to build schools and clinics in Nepal. He made dozens of visits back to Nepal — his first wife and a daughter were killed in a plane crash there in 1975. Hillary was, in his own words, “an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals… not terribly bright, perhaps, but determined and practical in what I do.”
In that part of the 20th century there were still some grand ‘firsts’ to be had, and the men and women who achieved them didn’t always cash in on their fame. A year after Hillary claimed Everest, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile — then finished medical school and went on to a life as a distinguished neurologist. (For that matter, Colonel John Hunt, not Hillary, was leader of Hillary’s expedition — and he too went on to a life of public service.)
These days it’s hard to imagine that such people didn’t become television commentators or create their own line of sports gear. In Hillary’s group there were no North Face logos, no phones or video cameras, and no corporate sponsors.
Not to say that Hillary wasn’t famous. He was knighted almost immediately by the new Queen Elizabeth II and was much in demand as a speaker. He appeared around the world to much acclaim. He’s now the face on New Zealand’s five-pound note — a position reserved, on the U.S. five-dollar bill, for no less than Abraham Lincoln. By all accounts he was competitive, ambitious, and hard-headed in pursuit of his goals.
Still, it’s a sign of Hillary’s essential modesty that there’s no photo of him atop Everest — because he was busy taking Tenzing Norgay’s photo instead. (Armstrong was likewise behind the camera, not in front, for the famous shot of Buzz Aldrin on the moon.)
Turns out that Hillary and Armstrong actually went on a brief adventure together in 1985, as part of a small group that flew to the North Pole. That was the trip that made Hillary the first man to stand at both the North and South Poles as well as on the highest point on Earth.
His 1955 book about the Everest climb, High Adventure, is a wonderful read. He has a story to tell and he gets right to it. It includes his famous description of reaching the top: “Another few weary steps and there was nothing above us but the sky.”
He was quite a guy. Good luck on your next climb, Sir Edmund, wherever it may be.