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Pinnacle of Achievement

May 29, 2003

"To my right, a slender snow ridge climbed up to a snowy dome about 40 feet above our heads," wrote Edmund Hillary. Then, "I waved Tenzing [Norgay] up to me. A few more whacks of the ice ax, a few very weary steps and we were on the summit of Everest."

That is how Hillary described their last steps to the top of the world 50 years ago today in his book "High Adventure."

This was the era of grand national expeditions to the world's highest peaks. The news of Hillary's ascent arrived in London just in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The Brits mounted their first major expedition to Everest in 1921 and came close to reaching the summit in 1924, when George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared high on the north ridge. Everest is still there, even a bit higher than the 29,028 feet calculated at the time; a new survey has fixed the summit at 29,035 feet.

Some 1,300 people have climbed Everest, and one person has died for about every 10 ascents.

Last weekend, a horde reached the summit, including the youngest ever (age 15), the oldest (70), the fastest (in just under 11 hours) and the one to climb it the most times (13). Notably, three of these records were set by Sherpas.

Everest still is no walk-up. Consider the 15 deaths in a 1996 storm. This, and the discovery of Mallory's body in 1999, created surges of public interest in the mountain.

Today at 83, Hillary still eschews the label of hero (Norgay died in 1986). In a preface to the 50th-anniversary edition of his book, Hillary says, "I have always recognized myself as being a person of modest abilities."

Modest perhaps, but remarkable nonetheless. He's celebrating in Nepal now, although he had to be carried off his plane because of exhaustion.

Hillary remarked Wednesday that he regretted the crowds at the Everest base camp "knocking back cans of beer," saying that's not mountaineering. Indeed, Hillary suggested that expeditions on the mountain be scaled back to four or five a year, an idea not very welcome in Nepal, which charges climbers handsomely.

On June 10, he is scheduled to be the featured guest at a San Francisco dinner sponsored by the American Himalayan Foundation -- founded by Richard Blum, husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) -- to raise money for the 27 schools and 13 medical clinics Hillary has established in the Khumbu region, home of the Sherpas.

Hillary did not achieve the first ascent of Everest just to return to his New Zealand home and bask in fame. For half a century, he has given back to the people who made it possible for him and so many others to reach the summit of their lives.

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