30 May 2013

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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