Sir Edmund Hillary – lessons in accomplishment

This is an edited and updated version of an article that originally appeared in InSight Issue #15 on 17 January 2008
 
 

Last week marked the 60th
anniversary of the first successful summit of Mt. Everest. On 29 May, 1953 Sherpa
Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary reached the top of the highest mountain in
the world, after a dozen-plus previous failed attempts since the first assault on
Everest’s summit occurred in 1922.  

 
Growing up in
1970’s Hobart, I can’t remember specifically learning about Sir Edmund Hillary’s
conquest of Mt. Everest on 29 May 1953 – it just seems to have been something I
always knew. In the next 25 or so years, I didn’t expand my knowledge about Sir
Edmund or his feats. For me, it just remained a 20th century event, like landing
on the moon or President Kennedy being shot, that sat non-specifically in my
knowledge bank.

 

 

I was awakened
from this historical slumber during a holiday in Nepal at the end of 1995. At
the suggestion of my (Kiwi) girlfriend at the time, we signed up for a 2 week
trek in Nepal (Annapurna Dhaulagiri region, North West of Kathmandu, Everest is
East). The trek was a real eye-opener. Not having been bought up in a “camping
holiday” family, it was a bit of a shock to pitch and sleep in (very cold) tents
each night, thousands of feet above sea level.

 

The highest I
climbed on that trek was about 4,000 metres above sea level (Everest is 8850
metres) and for my effort and perseverance, I “achieved” the most painful
headache of my entire life and nearly got killed by a lightening strike as we
quickly descended to camp to avoid a fast approaching storm.

 

Over the 2
weeks of the trek, as I observed the Sherpas and porters do their jobs,
experienced my own aches and pains and watched the weather and climbing
conditions change rapidly and violently, I came to appreciate (some) of what it
took to be a successful mountaineer in Himalayan conditions.   The level of
courage, perseverance, skill, ambition (and luck) that successful mountaineers
must possess to enable them to realise their dreams and return safely, was
clearly at a whole new level compared to what it took to succeed in the
corporate or organisational world. 

 

Having read
much more about mountaineering since that Nepal holiday and watched, with
fascination, various DVDs on the subject, I now view Sir Edmund’s feat with awe.

 

I will never
conquer Everest (nor do I want to), but there is much to learn from Sir Edmund’s
feat in conquering Everest, and his life in general, in pursuing a life of
accomplishment. Here are some of my observations:

 

1.
Dream big, unrestrained by what others think is possible  

Prior to
Hillary and Norgay’s conquest of Everest there was much evidence to suggest the
mountain was unconquerable. Dozens of experienced mountaineers had perished in
previous attempts on the summit. Hillary was undeterred by other people’s
failures.

 

2.
Prepare thoroughly  

Hillary’s
expedition had 12 climbers, 35 Sherpa guides and 350 porters carrying 18 tonnes
of food and equipment.

 

3.
Surround yourself with a range of skilled people  

Unlike many
current commercial expeditions on Mt Everest, Hillary’s expedition included
skilled and experienced mountaineers and support personnel who all contributed
to the successful conquest by performing their specific role to the best of
their ability.

 

4. Take
your opportunities when things go your way  

Two other
climbers from the same expedition as Hillary, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans,
had got within 100 metres of the summit only a couple of days before Hillary and
Norgay’s attempt. Bourdillon and Evans were driven back by a storm and oxygen
tank failures. The day of Hillary and Norgay’s summit attempt dawned fine so
they rapidly ascended to the top of Mt Everest while the weather stayed on their
side.

 

5.
Don’t forget who helped get you there  

After he conquered Everest, Hillary
formed a humanitarian foundation – The Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust, which
raised millions for the Nepalese Sherpa communities. The Trust’s activities
financed the construction and furnishing of more than 30 schools, 12 clinics and
2 hospitals, amongst many other smaller village-based facilities.

 

6.
Nothing worth achieving happens overnight  

Hillary
started climbing at age 16.  It took 17 more years of slowly building his
mountaineering skills until, at the age of 33, he stood on the top of the world.

 

7. Once
you achieve a goal, set new goals  

Hillary
never attempted to summit Everest again. He set new goals. He was part of a team
that was the first to cross Antarctica (in 1958) and in 1960 he led a search for
the Abominable Snowman and disproved all existing “evidence” of the alleged
creature’s existence.

 

8.
Don’t get full of yourself no matter what you’ve accomplished  

Sir Edmund
was knighted, was feted by an adoring public everywhere he went and was
undoubtedly one of the 20th Century’s most famous men yet he continued to list
his occupation as ‘beekeeper’, preferred to be known as ‘Ed’ and his home
telephone number remained listed in the Auckland White Pages.

 

Right up until his death,
on 11th January 2008, Sir Edmund’s humility and community work remained a
shining light in a society obsessed with reality TV stars, fallen pop princesses
and ego-inflated, substance-fuelled sportsmen.

 

Long may his
example shine.

 

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