Sir Edmund Hillary has died. Likely, this isn’t the first place that you’ve heard this. It’s made the world news and tops most news pages tonight. He was considered by many worldwide to be a hero for being one of the two people – and the first white male – to climb Mount Everest. Always humble, he didn’t consider himself to be a hero. Rather, he said that he took a walk with his friend Tenzing Norgay, and wound up on top of the world. It wasn’t until after Tenzing’s death that Hillary revealed which one of them had actually stepped first onto the summit of Everest. We should remember that they did it together.
All climbers today should pause in memory of Edmund Hillary, although not because of what he accomplished on Everest. More than this one thing, Hillary earned worldwide respect for what he did after reaching the summit of Everest. He went on to found dozens of schools and a few hospitals in the Himalayan region, and – in particular – in Nepal. He gave back to the mountain region that changed his life, and in the process he changed too many lives to count.
Giving back is an important thing to do. We should all be grateful for our station in life. Most of us who have access to this blog were born in one of the most powerful nations ever created, at a time when technology makes life easier than ever before. In many ways, being born in the United States is the equivalent of winning the lottery. I’m not a great patriot, but from a practical perspective it’s difficult to think of swapping being born here with being born in – say – Darfur or Somalia. We have it pretty good, and we should remember this as Hillary did by giving what we can to others.
Giving back has unexpected consequences. For instance, personally I can share that if Hillary hadn’t climbed Everest I may not be writing this now. One of the main people who brought me into climbing – one of my mentors, Courtney Skinner – was trained by Hillary in both climbing and expeditionary travel while they were stationed together in Antarctica in the ‘Sixties. In turn, Courtney taught me – and Todd Skinner, as well as dozens of other prominent climbers – how to manage ourselves in big-mountain environments. Hillary chose to give back to others by teaching what he knew, and – if he hadn’t – we all probably wouldn’t be here, now.
I’m saddened for this loss, and I’m happy that Hillary lived to a ripe old age. I was fortunate: I once met Hillary and even went to dinner with him. He came to see a production of “K2” that I helped to produce in college. I have fond memories of that evening, as well as photos and – yes – even an autograph on something personal. More than this, Hillary taught me that we all have our own personal Everests. Only some people actually climb the mountain, but millions of others go for their own dreams and achieve them. As Hillary showed, the journey doesn’t stop there: Once dreams are achieved, it’s a duty to help others to achieve theirs.
Think about this – and Sir Edmund – the next time that you decide to go whole-hog for something that at first brush seems impossible. Then, when you achieve it – or even if you fail – remember to give back. This is what puts you on top of the world, ultimately.