Journalists, politicians, and travel writers worldwide are talking about Hillary’s thirst for adventure, his ranking among the great explorers of our planet, his determination and skill, and how these qualities have inspired adventurers and travelers and mountain climbers for decades.
There are two things bothering me about the accolades. The first is epitomized by the remembrance on BBC America last night, a flashback to the Queen’s Coronation Day and the announcement that “Everest has been conquered.” Our way of thinking about nature, mountains in particular, hasn’t changed much since 1953. The thought of “conquering” Everest still gives thousands of people a thrill every year, their fascination etched in heart-stopping detail in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Think Air. We’ve only recently allowed the concept of humans being part of nature creep back into our mindset.
Don’t get me wrong. I love hiking, and have even been known to climb a few mountains. But the challenge implied in the word “conquer” has always confused me. Why does nature have to be something you have to beat? Oh, sure, I know, people now say it’s all about the personal challenge. But it’s not. Not if you look at the language used to describe intrepid travelers chuffing up unmoveable peaks or baring their teeth against raging rivers. “I’ll beat her if it’s the last thing I do” pretty much sums up the attitude.
Sir Edmund Hillary had a better understanding of his relationship with the natural world. Yes, he wanted to climb Everest “because it’s there,” but he also had a reverence for it. He respected it. The generations of climbers who came after him to throw their trash at the mountain’s foot and have Sherpas drag them up to the top just to say they’d done it annoyed the heck out of him.
But more importantly, travelers and adventurers for decades now have missed Hillary’s most important work: not conquering Everest, but using all that skill and determination and passionate drive, as well as the influence he gained through being a public figure, to try to improve the lives of those who lived in Everest’s shadow.
The inspiration here is not about throwing yourself into a foreign world, or against a death-defying natural force, but in realizing that to go is no longer enough. Anybody can go. Anybody can travel. Anybody can come back with fascinating personal experiences and a new understanding of the world around them. But there are few people (Kira Salak is one) who take that extra step that brings travel beyond a selfish personal interest. Until we start seriously exploring space, the age of exploration and adventure is over. It’s humanity that needs exploring, not quirky customs of foreign cultures; the search now is for solidarity.
That’s the true legacy of Sir Edmund Hillary. It’s not enough to climb the mountain, to go home and write your book and pay your bills and nestle back into your consumer society. If you’re intrepid enough to pull yourself up Everest, you can use that energy and determination to make a difference in the lives of the people whose cultures so fascinate you.