After I decided not to be a paleontologist, but before I decided to be a marine biologist — and well before abandoning both for greed, money and markets — I was twelve-years-old and set unalterably on becoming a mountaineer. My principal hero? A gangly New Zealander named Edmund Hillary, who was the first man to climb Mount Everest.
I was absolutely fascinated with him and with Everest, and read everything on the subject. Way before Into Thin Air made Everest a travel stop for over-monied tourists, I had marked the mountain on a spinning globe in my room, and could name the main obstacles on the way up Everest — the Khumbu icefall! the yellow band! the Hillary Step! The idea of someone climbing a rock face like the Step at 28,840 feet, wearing rickety leather gear and hob-nailed boots, and doing it for the first time with no fixed ropes and no ladder, was impressive to me then, and it is even more so now.
While not entirely surprisingly, it was still sad news yesterday to hear that Sir Edmund Hillary had died. I long ago abandoned childish thoughts of being a career mountaineer — you can scare yourself silly in the markets on a daily basis while being paid better — but I have never stopped being interested in this driven and uncompromising man, doubly so given the many wonderful things he has done in Nepal since he climbed Everest. While some people think the world shrinks from efforts of pioneers and explorers like Hillary, I maintain the planet grows in depth and fascination. It only shrinks with their passing.
To commemorate Hillary’s death, I see that National Geographic Channel is running on Saturday night an encore of its excellent program Surviving Everest.
The special takes viewers on a remarkable journey back to the summit with the sons of celebrated Everest climbers, including Hillary’s son Peter, Jamling Norgay and Brent Bishop (son of Barry Bishop, a National Geographic explorer and a member of the first American team to achieve the summit). Following the same routes pioneered by their fathers decades ago, the National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition attempts a perilous double-route ascent to meet at the top.
Propelled by the extreme climbing challenges of these second-generation climbers and driven by their unique experiences and life history, Surviving Everest takes an in-depth look at 50 years of tragedy and triumph, including early Everest expeditions and the bitter rivalries to summit the mountain. Shifting between the past and present, Hillary, Norgay and Bishop take viewers back in time, sharing accounts of their fathers’ first ascents, the legendary role of the Sherpa people, and the dramatic events that have swept the region since the first ascent.
I’ll be watching — again.