Ethics Hero Emeritus: Sir Edmund Hillary 1919-2008
(January 2008)

In 2006, the Ethics Scoreboard quoted the reported remarks of Sir Edmund Hillary, the explorer famous for conquering Mt. Everest, regarding the horrific incident that year in which 40 climbers on the way to Everest’s peak had allowed a fellow climber to collapse and die without stopping their progress to assist him. Hillary had said that his expedition in 1953 “would never for a moment have left one of the members or a group of members just lie there and die while they plugged on towards the summit.” Pressing the article’s (“Death on Everest: An Ethics Lesson,” 6/7/06) point that seeking non-ethical goals like being the first to reach a mountain top can make even ethical people lose sight of basic values, the Scoreboard commented:

Maybe that is true; certainly Hillary believes it, and he is an extraordinary man. But it is deceptively easy for Hillary to say this now, when his quest is safely completed. Would he really have stopped his attempt to become the first man on Everest’s peak to help a man who seemed “as good as dead?” We will never know, and Sir Edmund should count himself as fortunate that he never faced that choice.

Well, that was written in relative ignorance of the life of Sir Edmund Hillary. He died on January 9th of this year, and the opportunity to read the various accounts of those who knew him and his life’s accomplishments made it very clear that, not for the first time, the Scoreboard was dead wrong. For Sir Edmund Hillary was clearly a man who held fast to ethical values long after most people would abandon them. He would have stopped his historic quest if it meant saving the life of another human being, because he was an Ethics Hero to the core.

When Hillary and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first humans to stand on Everest’s peak, 29,035 feet up, he knew that as a New Zealander, a white man and an English speaker he was poised to garner most of the fame for his expedition’s success. But he took a photograph of Norgay standing at the peak, not the other way around. That was the picture that became a famous Life Magazine cover, and Hillary always stated that the Sherpa, not the Kiwi, had been the one to set the first foot on the top of Mount Everest. It was the ultimate act of modesty, respect and generosity, designed to ensure that a fellow mountaineer who happened not to be Western or white would not be shunted aside by the media and forgotten by history. And it was the epitome of an ethical lie: Hillary had been the first on Everest after all, as Norgay revealed shortly before his death in 1986. Yes, it’s true, admitted Sir Edmund, but it was a team effort. It shouldn’t matter who was “first.”

Hillary took the fruits of his achievements — there were more high-profile adventures, a knighthood and other honors; he became the best-selling author of thirteen books, and was in constant demand as a speaker — and dedicated them to helping Norgay’s native Nepal, one of the poorest countries on earth. He established the Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust, raising millions of dollars that built more than 30 schools, a dozen clinics, two hospitals, airfields, and countless foot bridges, water pipelines and other facilities for the Sherpa villages in Nepal. Appropriately, Nepal conferred honorary citizenship upon Sir Edmund in 2003, the first foreign national to receive that distinction.

It is difficult to imagine the United States producing someone like Sir Edmund Hillary in the 21st Century, when one noteworthy accomplishment is likely to produce a contract with the William Morris agency, a line of clothes and shoes, a reality show, ghostwritten autobiographies, and an ego larger than Ecuador. He never sought fame and didn’t revel in it, shared credit with those who made his successes possible, and converted his celebrity into tangible, life-altering and life-saving assistance for a desperate population that most Americans barely know exist.

Sir Edmund Hillary was a sublimely ethical man who achieved the Everest of a well-lived life by putting the welfare of others above his own comfort and gratification. Now, as during his lifetime on the mountain trails and off of it, he is someone to follow, if we can find the strength and character to do it.

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