January 10, 2008

Hillary, R.I.P.

That's Sir Edmund Hillary of Everest, age 88, not the candidate.

The NYT misleadingly headlines:

Edmund Hillary, First on Everest, Dies at 88

Sir Edmund Hillary was the mountaineer who, with Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa guide, was the first to scale the 29,035-foot summit of Mount Everest.

This common notion that Norgay was Hillary's "guide," as if Hillary was some tourist being dragged to the top by the experienced climber Norgay, is an old chestnut. The whole concept of a "guide" makes no sense when you think about it: It's not like Mt. Everest was some secret that only local guides knew the path to. It was the biggest mountain in the whole world and nobody had ever climbed it before.

The correct term for Hillary and Norgay is "partners," but that word is being taken over by the gays, so we're back to "mountaineer" and "guide."

There were no tourists and no guides anywhere near Everest back then The Sherpas, due to their genetic knack for high altitude living, were employed as specialist high altitude porters, but they did not have a culture of climbing mountains until the British had arrived and led them up onto the peaks.

By 1953, the best Sherpa porters had learned technical climbing skills from the British Commonwealth mountaineers. So, there wasn't much of a distinction between Anglo climbers and the very best Sherpas. Moreover, portering equipment up the mountain is about 95% of multi-stage expedition climbing, which consists of planting camps in relays higher and higher up the mountain, with the more expendable members of the party doing the heavy lifting, while the leader tries to arrange the workload so his best climbers just have to get themselves up the mountain, in order to be rested for the summit dash.

Of the 400 people in the expedition, Hillary and Norgay were designated early as one of the two possible summit teams.

Hillary, a big man, had greater upper body strength than Norgay, so he generally took the lead to carve out steps with his ice-ax. Although Indian and Nepalese politicians promoted the story that Norgay made it to the top first, it was always most plausible that Hillary reached the top a few seconds before Norgay. The two men were admirably vague about the exact order, rightly insisting that they made it as a team. Finally, in 1999, after Norgay's death, Hillary confirmed the he had led, hacking footsteps in the ridge until it stopped going up and he found himself standing on top of the world.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Why do I think if Edmund Hillary was either a female or black male, that he'd be a great deal more famous in this day and age?

I know, I know, Im cynical.

Anonymous said...

Better to appreciate Hillary's real achievements than get worked up over hypothetical situations, surely?

Anonymous said...


We have created a memorial page to pay tribute to those loved ones who have passed away and to pay tribute and remembrance to those who have touched our lives. A special page has been created for Sir Edmund Hillary at http://www.people-to-remember.com/wiki/index.php/Sir_Edmund_Hillary


Anonymous said...

Mountaineering began to evolve at the same time as modern science and in the same region. Are they both expressions of an urge to explore and dominate released by the decay of Christianity? As God retreated, man advanced.


Compare caving and deep-sea and polar exploration: white men have claimed the highest, lowest and coldest points on earth. They were the first on the moon too. No wonder they're envied and hated.

Anonymous said...

Did you know that Edmund Hillary was named after Hillary Clinton? And that his middle name was Rodham?

Bruce Charlton said...

That description of the arrival at the summit is a lovely bit of scene-painting-in-words Steve - memorable!

Anonymous said...

The other obvious problem with "guide" is that the word implies someone who has been there before. A guide to Rome has been all over Rome; a guide to Everest would have been to the summit already. Norgay and Hillary were both explorers and pioneers: there was no guide to the top.

Anonymous said...

Is this time - during the heat of a presidential election involving Hillary CLinton - a good time to remember that Hillary Clinton (b. 1947) - once claimed to have been named after Sir Edmund, who wasn't famous until 1953?

I think it is.

Unknown said...

I had the privilege of meeting Sir Edmund Hillary twice, once in Colorado and once in Namche in the Everest region where I used to lead treks to the base camp. He dedicated his life to helping the Sherpas who were such a critical part of his first ascent. Beyond the Summit is the first work to dramatize their lives in fiction. Hillary's work in the area is mentioned frequently as well as his climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay.
Details of Sherpa culture and religion are interwoven in a tale of romance and high adventure. The story has something for everyone: a love affair between an American journalist and Sherpa guide, conflict between generations as the modern world challenges centuries of tradition, an expedition from the porter’s point of view.

Below are selections from reviews. To read the complete ones and excerpts go to [www] beyondthesummit-novel.com

Beyond the Summit, is the rare gem that shows us the triumphs and challenges of a major climb from the porter’s point of view. The love of two people from diverse cultures is the fiery centerpiece of a novel that leads its readers through harshly beautiful and highly dangerous territory to the roof of the world. Malcolm Campbell, book reviewer

Conflict and dialog keep this gripping story of destiny, romance and adventure moving from the first page to the last paragraph. LeBlanc has a genius for bonding her readers and her characters. I found I was empathizing in turn with each character as they faced their own personal crisis or trauma.
Richard Blake for Readers Views.

A gripping, gut-twisting expedition through the eyes of a porter reveals the heart and soul of Sherpas living in the shadows of Everest. EverestNews.com

A hard-hitting blend of adventure and romance which deserves a spot in any serious fiction collection. Midwest Book Review

LeBlanc is equally adept at describing complex, elusive emotions and the beautiful, terrifying aspect of the Himalayan Mountains. Boulder Daily Camera

LeBlanc’s vivid description of the Himalayas and the climbing culture makes this a powerful read. Rocky Mt News Pick of the Week

A rich adventure into the heart of the Himalayan Kingdom. Fantastic story-telling from one who has been there. USABookNews.com

This is the book to read before you embark on your pilgrimage to Nepal. The author knows and loves the people and the country, and makes you feel the cold thin air, the hard rocks of the mountains, the tough life of the Sherpa guides, and you learn to love them too. This is a higly literate, but also very readable book. Highly recommended.”
– John (college professor)

Memorable characters and harrowing encounters with the mountains keep the action moving with a vibrant balance of vivid description and dialogue. Literary Cafe Host, Healdsburg, CA

This superbly-crafted novel will land you in a world of unimaginable beauty, adventure, and romance. The love story will keep you awake at night with its vibrant tension and deep rich longing. Wick Downing, author of nine novels

Such vividly depicted images of the Everest region and the Sherpa people are the perfect scenario for the romance and adventure feats narrated. It’s a page-turner, so engrossing you end up wanting to visit Nepal! Not just novel, but perfect for those seeking to get acquainted with the culture of this country.
By Claudia Fournier (América, Bs. As., Argentina)

Available through Barnes and Noble, Borders, amazon.com, Chesslerbooks.com, and the web site

Anonymous said...

It's kind of embarrassing that it's even an issue which of the two of them first stood on top. They were a team, and if they'd let pride and jealousy get between them I'm not sure they would have made it. It's kind of like the moon landing in that way; could Armstrong have made the first step on the moon without his fellow crew members?

I thought one of the most glorious things about these triumphs of human achievement is the teamwork involved, but it seems that we've degenerated into such a petty society that most can't imagine that Hillary and Norgay weren't each striving to one-up the other.

This attitude is why our national basketball team keeps losing.

Anonymous said...

"anonymous":HA! If Hillary was black,he would be the greatest man who ever lived! But dont wory,in a few years,the Afro centrics will HAVE him as Black!! (God forbid he has any ancestors who are other than pale! ) If Hillary was a woman,ditto...but how could a girl climb a mountain before a man???

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to seem PC, but I always thought if anything, "guide" had the opposite connotation - that Hillary was the brains of the operation but needed a native assistant to help with the basics of local geography. "Partners" is best; I think most people would be smart enough to infer non-gayness from the context (as they do with a law firm or a writing team; if necessary we could say "climbing partner" as we say "law partner" or "writing partner.")

Anonymous said...

Hang on, Hillary was famous - my wife's house at her school was named after him - but perhaps not so famous in America, because he wasn't American. New Zealand is the most British of our old colonies, so over here in England he was regarded as one of ours. In NZ he was God, of course.

Anonymous said...

Everyone knew that Hillary would do it years before he did. How else to explain La Clinton's claim to have been named after him, some years before 1953?

Anonymous said...

Utterly fascinating. You have explained the business of mountain climbing and Sherpas as I have never seen it explained before.

Anonymous said...

Anon. you first commenter you:

Equality! Shower the nonperformers or underperformers with extravagant praise; slight the performers with mere backhanded acknowledgement at best, criticism usually. That way, everything will iron out to be on an equal, high level (except it's neither). This is our crummy credo; democracy's faith. Thus "diversity."

As for Hillary, however, he, pace Steve, got justice; he was widely known and lived on his mostly stellar reputation. I know all about him just from cultural osmosis (a number of TV specials, etc.) and don't even care about mountain climbing. ESPN did a relatively long, respectful obit piece. The NYT isn't claiming that the strong, wise man of color (Norgay) led the weak pale male (Hillary) up to Norgay's winter home atop the peak, is it? I'm sure it would like to!

The NYT's confreres in Hollywood might do a new movie on Hillary now...a "Brokeback" kind of thing...or the myth outlined above. Right up their gas: crapping on white men ("privileged" oppressors and blue-eyed Nazis all).

Anonymous said...

That's a good catch on the NY Times article!

I'm an amateur climber myself (bit of an overstatement!), and have climbed a few big peaks with guide services.

I agree with your point - Tenzing Norgay definitely is biologically more adapted to the mountain than Hillary, no question there. But Hillary was definitely the "lead" and the "brains" on the climb, and had far more technical expertise than Norgay did. But they both needed each other in order to summit.

(To paraphrase the Pet Shop Boys song "Opportunities" - "I've got the brains, you've got the lungs, let's summit Mt. Everest" - Sorry, couldn't resist!)

From what I've read and heard from mountain guides, many of the Sherpas still lack the technical mountaineering skills to compete with the western guides. The Sherpas don't have the background in "first responder" medical techniques, treating illnesses such as altitude sickness, pulmonary and cerebral edema, etc., and many don't have the technical backgrounds in building snow anchors, building pulley systems to pull climbers out of crevasses, etc.

But they are getting there, I've seen a couple Sherpas guiding outside Nepal - Mingma Sherpa on Mt. Elbrus in Russia, Lakpa Rita Sherpa on Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina.

The perspective on climbing is definitely different. Usually most of the western guides climb because it's their passion - many of them spend years living in vans, or shacking up with girlfriends. The old joke is: "What do you call a mountain guide without a girlfriend? - Answer: Homeless!". But the Sherpas mainly climb for the money - they can earn a hell of a lot more than the average Nepalese from a couple months guiding, serving as a porter, cook, etc. on Everest. I don't think the Sherpas really have the same perspective/"passion" for mountaineering westerners do. If you live in a country where the average life expectancy is about 60 years old, with an average per capita GDP of about $1,500, going out and climbing a mountain doesn't make a whole lot of sense unless you're getting paid!

Anonymous said...

The two men were admirably vague about the exact order, rightly insisting that they made it as a team.

This is an excellent example of Anglo-Saxon good sportsmanship and skill at taking credit for success with charming modesty. Americans used to be fairly good at it, although much less so than the English. Alas, today, I'm pretty sure that an American Hillary would be trumpeting his personal "win" on every gabfest on TV while his guide claimed that he was being overlooked because he was a "person of color."

Anonymous said...

I did some climbing as a kid, but have since rejected it as a bourgeois pursuit (actually, I thought it was terrible drudgery).


Anyway, I was thinking about how the conquest of Everest happened roughly the same time men first made it into space. No coincidence IMO.

The technology necessary to conquer the world's highest peaks wasn't available until high-altitude bombing made it necessary. That's the most important edge the Anglosphere had at the time. If it weren't for the war, I'll bet an Austrian would have been the first, and probably several years earlier.

Anonymous said...

A bit of, uh, deep historical background here. Apparently it was not until the Renaissance that Europeans climbed the top peaks of the Alps, which only go to about 13,000 feet and are not snow-covered in summer. But trolls and other unpleasant creatures were thought to dwell in the upper reaches.

Leonardo da Vinci climbed, or rather walked up puffing a bit, one of the highest peaks, when he was in his 40s. Leonardo was, along with his more trivial gifts, a pretty good athlete when young.

Steve Sailer said...

And before then, the Italian poet Petrarch climbed a mountain about 6000 feet tall. He found the view from on high a rather conflicting experience, exalting but was worried that it contravened Christian humility.

In general, almost nobody climbed mountains for the sake of climbing mountains until, say, the 18th Century, with the conquest of Mt. Blanc coming late in the century. Mountain climbing is the quintessentially romantic sport and it didn't appeal much to the Enlightenment.

South American Indians climbed big peaks to offer human sacrifices. We don't know whether they sometimes climbed them just for fun.

Anonymous said...

In Yunnan, there has been some serious tension between Tibetan Buddhists and climbers. One of the mountains at the corner of Tibet and Yunnan is sacred in Tibetan Buddhism, and the abandonment of corpses on the mountain is considered sacrilege.

I spent some time at the Labrang monastery in Gansu, which is in the Tibetan sphere of influence (actually, "sphere" is the wrong word -- it should be "tier"). These are the best pictures I could find of the place. Notice the blue eyes on some of the Buddhist sculptures -- very interesting. I saw people there you wouldn't believe were in Asia. It was at about 10,000 feet, which is evidently nothing to Tibetans. I got winded walking up stairs and suffered a headache from drinking only one beer (but that might be because it was Huanghe (Yellow River) beer, which I'd never seen before.

The monks asked me to stay with them because I spoke both Chinese and English, and I should have done so, but in my sorry, adolescent state I could only think of a girl back in the city.

Just describing the trip up there, through Linxia and the hills where I saw the various tribes of that remote region would require volumes. Most Western travelers probably don't understand the significance of the ethnic differences due to not speaking Chinese. It is probably better for them, because my notions of what constitutes that part of the world were turned upside-down.

From this perspective, it is hard for me to see contemporary climbers in the Himalayas as much more than loud, rude tourists, throwing refuse and corpses across a sacred landscape. Certainly, if it weren't for Tibetans such as Norgay who were willing to work with Hillary, the conquest of Everest would be seen as just another example of colonial imposition. Perhaps we can thank the Chinese, who drove the Tibetans into an alliance with the British, for that.

Anonymous said...

The Hunt expedition was in a bit of a rush in 1953, as there were German and Austrian expeditions well on their way to planning ascent attempts. The British government was pressuring Hunt as well, wanting an ascent of Everest to announce for Elizabeth II's coronation. Hunt's first team had failed in their attempt, and the second team was Hillary and Tenzing. The ascent was accomplished in time to be announced the day of the coronation ceremonies.

Brigadier John Hunt was created a Knight Bachelor (then later Baron Hunt, then Knight of the Garter,) Edmund Hillary was created Knight Commander of the British Empire, but Tenzing Norgay was merely given the George Medal, which angered Hillary. All of the photographs of the 1953 summit were of Tenzing Norgay, and when asked why that was so Sir Edmund said that he was the only one who knew how to operate a camera and the top of Everest was no place to give lessons in photography.

The British Empire, once again being itself, pressured Hillary to state that it was he, a white British man (from New Zealand, certainly, but that could be overlooked for the occasion) who had been the first to stand on Everest's summit. Annoyed that Tenzing had not been given a knighthood, Hillary refused to comment on the subject. Tenzing supported him in this until 1986, when prior to dying at age 71, finally admitted that Hillary was first to reach the summit.

Sandy Irvine could not be reached for comment.

Anonymous said...

Steve Sailer said, "South American Indians climbed big peaks to offer human sacrifices. We don't know whether they sometimes climbed them just for fun."

The Andes aren't really analogous to the big boys on the Tibetan plateau. Aconcagua, the tallest Andean peak is nearly two kilometers shorter than Everest, and there is no subcontinent separating them from an ocean. That's a big deal, because the vertical distance created a huge number of ecosystems and geological environments within a very small horizontal distance. The Sapa Inka in Cuzco, 10,000 feet above sea level, ask to have clams for his dinner. Slaves captured in warfare had courier duty to face.

The Inka also had a road and bridge system throughout the Andes that rivaled that of the Roman Empire. It's really not appreciated by anyone lacking 10k years of genetic selection for high altitude living. Sherpas would have thought it was great, but they didn't have the geography on their side to do the same thing.

The tops of the Andes are inhospitable, but no where near the deathtrap that Everest is. Bill points out that the place is littered with the corpses of Europeans, who are usually pretty good about securing some kind of burial for their fallen comrades. It's just too nasty a place, too far removed from the range of human habitability to guarantee yourself surviving a trip just to rescue a cadaver. So you don't. No one wants to live on top of the peaks of the Andes, but you can climb up there with the reasonable expectation that you're going to come back (unless you're the sacrifice to the mountain, of course.) Hey, you're living at 10k feet above sea level already, what's another 3k among friends? Since it's difficult but not deadly AND it's visible to everyone you know (unlike Everest; there was no Nepalese name for the mountain until the 1960s) the tops of the Andes are obvious places for worship.

I suppose the question is "was there an Inkan Petrarch?" Even if we ever decode the few remaining kipu we may never know.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I should have mentioned the yaks, which are the staple in Tibet.

Not only are they everywhere, and also peaceful animals despite the way they look, but their essence permeates every household and building.

People talk about the "reek" of yak butter, but it isn't that bad. A little rich perhaps, but not even weird if you are a westerner accustomed to milk. Personally, I found the flickering, smoky lamps comforting in the cavernous, windowless halls of Tibetan cathedrals. The vivid colors of the paintings were tamed and made familiar by their dull light, but also somehow more believable by the same.

What is really strange up there is the music. Not just the prayer wheels, but the strange sound of the bone horns, made from human femurs gathered from the "sky burials".

When people die, they are quartered and left on large, flat rocks for the buzzards. After the birds have had their fill, the remains are harvested and turned into instruments with which the monks perform in a sort of musical ossuary. The sound, which comes from behind the monastery walls and dissipates into the pale, wide sky, is very queer and unforgettable.

If you have ever smelled a corpse, the sound is familiar in a strange way; it is at once alarming and fascinating. Supposedly, the left femur of a virgin girl has the most influence with the spirits.

Here is some audio of the horn, but I don't think it does it justice. You have to hear the real thing to really feel the sound.

Anonymous said...

It just reminds me that one can't go anywhere in the world these days without bumping into a bloody Kiwi.

Anonymous said...

kinda sad. The Everests of the west are most assuredly its past, not its future. The future is Eurabia, El Norte -- and East Asia.


Anonymous said...

Re: Anonymous; The future of the West is in tethered pressure capsules spinning at a third g in low earth orbit. A few thousand people averaging two sigmas over mean for IQ coupled with a few hundred years to bump up their population, build orbital solar collectors and lunar mines...

Despite both the Republicans and Democrats siphoning off the collected capital of generations of the American middle class to China in exchange for dribblets withheld for the plutocracy I still have hope for Western civilization. Drop GLOW $ to something reasonable (which NASA, an agent of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has been preventing for decades) and it's a done deal.