Saturday, January 12, 2008

Edmund Hillary: The Human Hero

Yesterday I heard the unfortunate news that Edmund Hillary, made famous for being the first to successfully climb Mt Everest, died of a heart attack. This is understandably an event of considerable importance to both New Zealand and the world, given that his influence spread so far beyond mountaineering. Through his involvement with the Nepalese people, and his relentless desire to inspire young and old to take up active pursuits, he has truly left a legacy that has established his name firmly in the pages of history. Such words, I do not believe, are an overstatement or exaggeration. He has been, and will continue to be, an inspiration to untold multitudes. He is a hero of our age, and I am stoked to even be alive in the same generation.

But there is another side to this man that, in a strange way, makes his feats even more inspirational. Edmund Hillary, though achieving things only dreamt of by most, had the quality of being very ordinary. The man that conquered the world’s largest mountain was also very normal, the man that achieved so much in his lifetime was also clearly very human. I find movies where the underdog comes out on top strangely moving, and Edmund Hillary’s life, in many ways, followed a similar plot. Who would have thought that the boy mocked for his stature and placed in the ‘misfit’ gymnastics class would go on to achieve mountaineering’s greatest prize? The man too scared to propose eventually gets the girl of his dreams. Sir Hillary's story is one that offers hope to fearful boys like me.

That timeless quote most beautifully captures the essence of what I’m trying to say (from the foreword of his autobiography: Nothing Venture, Nothing Win):

The Heroes I admired in my youth seemed to possess abilities and virtues beyond the grasp of ordinary men. My desire to emulate them was very great but I never succeeded in approaching their high standards. Fearful at heart in moments of danger, I found it difficult to produce the calm courage of the heroic mould....

I discovered that even the mediocre can have adventures and even the fearful can achieve...I had the world lie beneath my clumsy boots and saw the red sun slip over the horizon after the dark Antarctic winter. I have been given more than my share of excitement, beauty, laughter and friendship.


Sir Edmund Hillary's passing is a great loss, but I am confident that his story will serve to inspire and enthuse future generations to live adventurously. His was a life well lived, and he rightly deserves to be remembered for generations.

You can read a full biography of his life here.

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