To the Editors:
Edmund Hillary, the first Westerner to climb Mount Everest, died on January 11. Over the years I had the chance to meet him several times, first in 1967 in Nepal where I had visited the schools and medical clinics he made possible for the Sherpas, the people originally of Tibetan origin living on the southern slopes of Mount Everest who have become famous as climbers. He loved the Sherpas and they him. In this respect there is something about the 1953 British expedition to Everest that is not often discussed. There was a snobbery toward the Sherpas on the part of British climbers. The Sherpas resented it, and it took all the diplomatic skills of Tenzing Norgay, the head Sherpa and the leading Sherpa climber, to keep them from quitting before the expedition left Kathmandu. Without the Sherpas who carried equipment to very high camps, the British would have had no chance to climb the mountain.
Tenzing knew more about the mountain than any of them and had nearly climbed it the year before with a Swiss team. On that expedition he had been treated like a member and not a glorified hired hand. On the British expedition none of the climbers, other than Hillary, would have shared a tent with a Sherpa. It was just not done. But Hillary, a New Zealander, was an outsider too and impervious to the prejudices of race and class. It is fitting that these two outsiders were the first to climb Chomo-Lungma—the Goddess Mother of the World.
February 14, 2008