On May 29, 1953 a New Zealand beekeeper and a Nepalese peasant guide arrived triumphantly on the top of the world, the first humans to master the 29,028-foot summit of Mount Everest. But by the time Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay returned to the expedition base camp, they were international heroes facing lives complicated by their fame and eventually to be darkened by personal tragedy.
In the years after the ascent, a coolness developed between the two proud men (or at least among their xenophobic followers) over the superfluous, press-inflated issue of who was first actually to reach the top. Now Hillary shrugs that the subject “is not of the slightest consequence.” Says Tenzing, eloquent (if still illiterate), “God knows who was first, and that’s enough.” The rift is over, even if they did not reunite for the expedition’s anniversary last week. Hillary celebrated in London, while Tenzing was half a world away in Nepal. “There is a warm feeling,” states Hillary, adding, “we’ve each followed our own way.”
In the interim Hillary, now 58, lost his wife and youngest daughter in a plane crash in Katmandu. That was in 1975, and last year he led a trip from the mouth of the Ganges to its headwaters in the Himalayas that nearly cost him his life. Helicoptered down from 18,000 feet suffering from pulmonary edema, Hillary still feels emotionally exhausted by his failure. With pride he notes that his son, Peter, 23, “a better mountaineer than I probably was,” completed the expedition.
Tenzing, 64—he was 39 when he conquered Everest on his seventh attempt—has since been widowed twice and is “bitter” about his recent forced retirement from the mountaineering school Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru suggested he found in Darjeeling in 1954. “I never got a raise in all those years,” Tenzing complains, “and the pension is not what Nehru promised me.” Yet, like Hillary, he is drawn back to the shadow of the great mountain on the Nepalese-Tibetan border that made his name. Tenzing now plans to relocate to that homeland—where he once herded his father’s yaks—as a tour guide and to start a new mountaineering school. Physically robust and the father of four children aged 8 to 15 by his Indian third wife, he affirms, “I am happy climbing. I am not happy down.”
Hillary, a founder and director of the Himalayan Trust to improve conditions among Tenzing’s fellow Sherpa tribesmen, spends the monsoon months in Katmandu. He is saddened by the “tourist route” that’s taken some 60 subsequent climbers (including two women) up Everest’s once remote slopes—not to mention “instant helicopter” exhibitionists and even skiers. “I don’t think our ascent of Everest was terribly important to the world,” he now muses, more discomfited than elated by the title it won him (“I just am not knightly material”). To Sir Edmund, “the most professionally satisfying time of my life” was rather the harrowing British overland expedition he led to the South Pole in 1958.
He now lives near his daughter, Sarah, and first granddaughter in Auckland. Income from endorsing a line of Sears, Roebuck camping equipment has subsidized his public service, including heading the New Zealand Peace Corps. Though 30 pounds over his prime condition (190 when he went up Everest, 160 when he came down), Hillary walks three miles a day. He rejects any notion of personal heroism, noting, “I’m a very frightened person. Fear adds to the pleasure.” There may be more ahead. “But I can’t say what other things I am thinking of doing,” he smiles, “because someone else might try it first.”