Sir Edmund Hillary

I saw snow for the first time when I was 16 years old, and travelled with a school winter party to Tongariro, New Zealand’s first national park. I skied and climbed in the mountains for ten days and it absolutely transformed my life. I loved the mountains and their beauty, and revelled in the sense of challenge.

From then on I spent every day I could amongst the great peaks. My skill increased, and I was soon making the first ascent of ridges and summits. I climbed extensively in the New Zealand Alps and in the European Alps before carrying on to the mighty summits of the Himalayas. Always I felt a deep warmth for the sunrises and sunsets on the beautiful mountains. Snug in my sleeping bag, I would peer out of the tent door until the sun sank in a crimson light over the Himalayan ridges.

In 1953 I was invited to join the British Mount Everest expedition. We struggled up the innumerable crevasses and icewalls of the icefall, pushed our way up the Western Cwm and hacked a stairway up the steep Lhotse face. We established our final depot at nearly 8,000 metres on the cold and windy South Col, and then pushed on for the summit. Sherpa Tenzing and I spent a cold and uncomfortable night in our last camp high on the Southeast ridge. Next day we battled our way up the soft snow to the South Summit, and along the narrow summit ridge. Then I hacked a line of steps in the firm snow with my iceaxe, climbed the Hillary step, and Tenzing and I emerged on the summit of the world. It was a great moment!

I had many further adventures – driving tractors to the South Pole, jet boating up the mighty Ganges river from the Bay of Bengal to the Himalayas, and landing in a small ski plane at the North Pole. But increasingly my attention was being turned to the welfare of my Sherpa friends. Their life was tough and remote, and they lacked all educational and medical facilities. I did not feel sorry for them – far from it – as they did not feel sorry for themselves, but I greatly admired their toughness and sense of humour.
“Tenzing and I emerged on the summit of the world. It was a great moment!”
They realized that their main need was for education, and that is what they asked for. We built our first school in Khumjung village in the shade of the spectacular Amadablam and Kangtega, which my team later climbed. This became a normal procedure – climbing a mountain and building a school. Now we and the Sherpas have built more than 30 schools. Mainly we aim to carry out what local people want – as much of it as we can tackle, anyway. We don’t want to interfere, and we certainly don’t dictate.

Initially all our supplies had to be carried by porters for 17 days over steep hillsides from Kathmandu. So we purchased a sloping block of land in the village of Lukla for an airfield. Sherpas hacked the slope into shape with spades and mattocks and pounded the surface into reasonable firmness so that the first Pilatus Porter could make an effective landing. All the supplies for building a hospital were then flown in.

Lukla quickly became the busiest mountain airport in Nepal. Tourism has become a major business for the local people. It has had a substantial effect on their lives and has certainly improved their economy. I do not believe the impact on the Sherpa culture has been too disastrous; they still retain their strong ties to both culture and Buddhism. If anything, I think their traditional beliefs are getting stronger.

Environmental matters are the most important things we have to deal with. The vast influx of tourists has had a severe impact on the forests. In the 1970s trekkers nearly denuded the area. Many years ago we started replanting local varieties of trees and, though they were slow to develop, growth has now spurted ahead and much of the forest has been renewed. Hopefully the forests will return to how they were when I first saw them 50 years ago

Sir Edmund Hillary is Chairman of Himalayan Trust.

PHOTOGRAPH: Michael Welninski/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Saving the common land | Aiming high | Mighty, but fragile | Walking the talk | Regreening the slopes | For the people | High priorities | Natural beauty | Prospects for WSSD: Towards Johannesburg | Along a steep pathway | The height of trouble | Disneyland or diversity? | Path to discovery | On top of the issue | Peak condition | Swimming upstream | Cloudy future

Complementary articles:
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and ecosystems: Mountains

Complementary report:
Mountain Watch Report