In July 1981, Sir Edmund Hillary visited Spokane three weeks before John Roskelley and Kim Momb would leave for a shot at what many experts considered to be the most dangerous route ever attempted up Mount Everest.
Hillary was 61, a few decades past top climbing form, but willing to flex the muscle of his reputation to help raise the $271,000 needed to launch the 15-man American East Face Expedition.
“I’m going to buy a collapsible aluminum chair in Hong Kong,” Hillary told me during a barbecue at Roskelley’s home. “And with my binoculars, I’ll direct the climb from a comfortable spot below. I’ll be able to get up in the morning and say on the radio, ‘Now John, let’s get on with it.’
“It’s going to be a tremendous experience for me seeing all those hot-shot young fellows rushing around up there.”
Hillary had been there, done that, yet he hadn’t lost the enthusiasm or sense of humor that took him to the top of the world in more ways than one.
He made the first ascent of Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953, the year I was born.
My face-to-face impression of the New Zealander was so moving I talked my wife into naming our daughter after him.
He was a layman who became an idol; a modest beekeeper knighted for believing and succeeding, doing what nobody else had done in 32 years of trying.
Hillary was matter-of-fact about his place in history. There are many “firsts” left for young climbers, he said, but “there’s nothing a young climber can do to claim the fame I found. My moment came at a fortuitous time.”
Of all the climbers who have followed his footsteps to the summit of Everest, none had given back so much to the Sherpas who are the backbone of Himalayan mountaineering.
By the time I was able to shake his hand 27 years after his pioneering Everest climb, Hillary had raised funds to build 17 Sherpa schools, two hospitals and other facilities in Nepal.
The 1981 American East Face Expedition was not successful, but Momb and Roskelley later made the summit of Everest. Hillary was an enthusiastic cheerleader. “No man has walked to the face of the mountain from this direction,” he told me. “There are aerial photos, but nothing compares with going there and rubbing your face in it.”
I couldn’t help but ask Hillary the question: “Why?”
“I’m constantly asked to justify adventure,” he said. “But really, can’t they understand adventure is truly worthwhile for its own sake?”
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