| Sir Edmund Hillary in Kathmandu. (Reuters)
Kathmandu, May 26 (Reuters): As he marks the 50th anniversary of reaching the roof of the world, a now grey-haired and stooped Sir Edmund Hillary doesn’t care if he really was the first to the top of Mount Everest. What counts, he says, is that he and his Nepali climbing mate, Tenzing Norgay, were the first to come back.
One of the first things Hillary did after reaching the summit of Mount Everest half a century ago on Thursday was to look for signs if an ill-fated expedition almost 30 years earlier had beaten him to it. There were none. “It’s a great mystery,” he said in Kathmandu today, “but it seems to me that it will probably be a mystery that will never be solved.”
In 1924, British climbers George Mallory — the man who said he wanted to climb Everest “because it’s there” — and Sandy Irvine set out for the summit from a high staging camp.
They were last seen making good progress. Although Mallory’s body was found in 1999, his camera and Irvine’s body have never been recovered and the mystery of whether they died on the way to the summit or on their way back down has never been solved.
“For 40 years, I have been sort of the hero of Everest. So if they now discover that Mallory got there before me, how can I complain'” asked Hillary, now 83, and walking slowly with the aid of a telescopic hiking stick.
“I’ve had 40 years of being a heroic person. That’s not too bad.
“Who knows, Mallory may have reached the summit. Probably he didn’t. But he certainly did not reach the bottom. So, whatever happens, although he is a heroic figure, he didn’t quite complete the job.”
A rough and ready one-time beekeeper, Hillary is a warm, modest gentleman with bright eyes and a ready smile, mixing humility with frank confidence in his and Tenzing’s skill.
“I almost feel I just don’t deserve it,” he says, sitting outside the head office of his Nepali charity, dressed in a grey shirt and dark grey braces.
“I'm just a rough old New Zealander.”
Half a century on, Hillary is scathing of the commercialism and“sham mountaineering” now surrounding Everest.
”If I were 33 again, young, fit and a bit of a dynamo as I think I was in those days, I simply wouldn't want to join the queue that is scrambling to get up the mountainside,” he said.