May 24, 1976 12:00 PM

The Himalayas have meant both triumph and tragedy for Sir Edmund Hillary. He and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa guide, were the first human beings to stand upon the 29,028-foot summit of Mount Everest in May 1953. The exploit made Hillary world-famous. Then last year the mountains claimed his wife, Louise, and daughter Belinda, 13, killed when their single-engine plane crashed in Nepal. A few weeks ago Hillary, now 56, returned to the Himalayas to carry on a project of love and service to the Sherpa people whose lives have become so bound up with his own.

The occasion was the dedication of a 25-bed hospital at Phaphlu, the second in the region built by Hillary and a group of New Zealand friends and associates. In addition they have put up 19 schools, at least a dozen footbridges—many of them in perilous terrain—and countless water pipelines in Sherpa villages. They also finance the schooling of bright Sherpa youngsters in Katmandu, capital of Nepal.

Hillary’s personal aid program is a combination of Victorian noblesse oblige, inherited from his New Zealand parents, and a deep concern for the mountain people. “I built up a group of friends of whom I was very fond,” he says. “But whenever I came back, I might discover an old friend, or the child of a friend, had died. It was obvious that there were some wonderful aspects of life here, but it was a very tough environment.”

Hillary acted on his concern in 1961. “A group of us were up on the Tulam Bau glacier” he remembers. “We sat around the fire talking about the future of the Sherpas. I asked the senior Sherpa what we should do, and he had no doubts whatsoever. What they wanted more than anything else was a school in Khumjung.”

Hillary coaxed $10,000 out of World Book Company, which had sponsored one of his expeditions. He talked an aluminum company into donating building materials, then persuaded the Swiss Red Cross to fly supplies into a strip that Hillary’s group built 15,000 feet up in the mountains. “It was a hairy airfield,” he recalls, “but they had a good pilot, and it was only two days’ work to carry the stuff from there.” Hillary’s program began to grow. “Constantly, we had villagers coming and saying, ‘We want a school too.’ I’d see a group of elders approaching me with a bottle of arak [a local liquor] or some scarves and I’d think, ‘Ah, another petition coming.’ I knew they couldn’t give us money because they didn’t have any. What they did have was the strength of their hands, their labor, their ability to bring timber and rock.”

Hillary finished his first school before the end of 1961. “Virtually every year since,” he says proudly, “we’ve built things. I’ve always enjoyed building bridges and airfields, probably because I’m a frustrated engineer at heart.” He does less glamorous jobs as well. “Once,” he recalls, “I was on top of a school roof, hammering. Some hikers came by and a doughty lady stared at me and said, ‘You’re Sir Hillary, aren’t you? I never realized you did any of the work.”

Hillary sees his aid program as waging a desperate race with the intrusion of tourism and modernity (“money, graft, a lot more emphasis on material things”), which he fears will disrupt the traditions of the Sherpas. “In underdeveloped countries that become resorts,” he observes, “a stratification tends to take place. The original people become the slum dwellers who get the crumbs. There was no way, if I could do anything about it, that my Sherpa friends would get into that situation.”

The death of Louise and Belinda inevitably has changed his outlook. (In New Zealand, Hillary has a daughter, Sarah, 19, a university student, and a son, Peter, 21, who wants to be a pilot.) “A lot of the inspiration came from my wife,” he says quietly. “My enthusiasm and motivation have faded—considerably. I wouldn’t say my responsibility has.”

It is a true definition of his character. Hillary grew up in Tuakau, 40 miles south of Auckland. Socially awkward and ashamed of his skinny 6’2″ frame as a youth, Hillary learned boxing, jujitsu and fencing, toughened himself by climbing, and painstakingly acquired a social poise, marred sometimes by an undiplomatic bluntness of speech. His father was a journalist-turned-beekeeper, a vocation Hillary pursued even after becoming mesmerized by mountaineering. In 1944, after two years in college, Hillary entered the New Zealand air force. He suffered burns over 40 percent of his body in a boat accident, made a remarkable recovery and went back to bees and mountains. (Along the way he also developed a couple of eccentricities—a passion for bananas and the habit of carrying a ragtag umbrella on every expedition.)

The conquest of Everest made Hillary an overnight celebrity. “We’ve knocked the bastard off,” he exulted, later recalling that his “initial feelings were of relief.” Last year Hillary, whose other great feat was scaling the Himalayas’ 27,790-foot Mount Makalu in 1961, summed up his feelings toward mountains this way: “You really climb for the hell of it.”

In his present quest, Edmund Hillary’s reward is the softly spoken gratitude of the Sherpas. “For me personally,” he said at Phaphlu the other day, “this hospital has brought excitement, hard work and great sadness. I hope there is something worthwhile to show for it all.”

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