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On Sir Edmund Hillary

Sir Edmund Hillary died this past week.  I suspect that my daughter doesn’t even know who he was.  But for some of us of a certain age, he was a hero.

Growing up on the plains, I developed a fascination with mountains.  I had the good fortune of having an aunt who lived on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, so I had the opportunity to get my “mountain fix” every summer.  Hillary, Norgay and Everest were mystical figures to me.  As a kid, I only understood, in a small way, the physical challenge of climbing Everest.  It was much later in life that I began to understand how truly phenomenal overcoming the mental and psychological challenges of Everest for the first time was.

From the Telegraph:

Normally we ascribe qualities of humility, modesty
and resolution to such people, and, sure enough, the tributes paid to
the conqueror of Everest came as swiftly as a Himalayan avalanche. We
were left in no doubt that the New Zealander was not only a man who had
known greatness in his 88 years, but – much rarer – somebody who
actually was great.

Such folk are not always
humble but, if they are, humility tends to magnify their deeds. In
Hillary’s case, he wore his fame (not celebrity, please) with dignity,
and had little truck with the trappings of what is considered to be
fashionable society. “I met the well-connected, the powerful, and the
rich,” he wrote. “It was tremendously entertaining, although I saw
little to envy or, indeed, much to admire.”

The author (Michael Henderson) also talks about how the way we perceive heroes has changed over the years:

It was also the week when a very different kind of
Hillary, Clinton of that ilk, had a jolly good blub on the stump in New
Hampshire, and was rewarded with victory in the Democrat primary. It
was a slice of choreographed self-pity that ought to have brought her a
firm clip round the ear, but, where taste is concerned, the Clintons
have always run their own race. It led Bill from Arkansas to the White
House, and it will be no surprise to see the Pickford’s van trundling
down Pennsylvania Avenue one more time.

The modern
world pardons such lapses of taste. There’s even a phrase for it:
“Emotional literacy”. Hillary of Everest, like most other members of
his generation, was illiterate in that regard, and saw no reason to
repine. Look again at that unyielding face. A man like that could not
tell you a lie. Hillary was a hero, and heroism of his kind has been
debased so horribly that the word no longer resonates as once it did.
It still carries meaning, just, but our world does not always recognise
it, or acclaim it properly when it does.

Henderson’s piece ends this way:

And one fine morning Sir Edmund Hillary stood atop Everest, and the
world held him in awe. That’s more than fame. That’s immortality.

Indeed.

(via Samizdata)

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