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Vienna | 11.1.2008 | 13:13 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

A Hero to Believe In
  I'm not hugely into pilgrimages, to be honest, but some people really are worth it. So last time I was in Wales, I forced my very highly reluctant 4 gear Ford Fiesta up the steep roads from Capel Curig to the Pen-y-Gwryd pub and hotel.

It's a squarely-built drinking hole in the shadow of Mount Snowdon (or Eryri in Welsh) that once served as the training base for the unforgettable achievement of the most gracious of heroes.

In the dark, wood-paneled bar you can still see a length of the rope that he used, as well as his bug-eyed old goggles; and his name is even scrawled on the ceiling: Sir Edmund Hillary, who has sadly died in New Zealand at the age of 88.
"Well, George, we've knocked the bastard off."
  Returning to Everest base camp, those are the unceremonious words that Edmund Hillary reportedly used to announce a feat that many had considered impossible. It was the 29th May 1953 and he and his Sherpa companion Tenzing Norgai had become the first men to climb the highest peak in the world. This is how he described the feeling:

"Being on top for me was nowhere near as tremendously exciting as many people would expect. We were tired. We'd laboured up the last slopes. We were now on top. I felt a quiet satisfaction and a little sense of surprise."
Massive Celebrations
  Although Hillary was a New Zealander, he was a citizen of the Commonwealth and the expedition was from the UK, so the Brits celebrated the achievement, announced on the morning of Queen Elizabeth's coronation, as their own.

When news of the ascent arrived at the Pen-y-Gwryd pub at 1am, for example, the owner woke his guests, insisting that anyone not in the bar with a glass of Champagne to hand within 10 minutes would be thrown out the following morning.

 Foto: dpa/PA/epa/A0200 epa Pa
A Friend of the Sherpas
  To his immense credit, Edmund Hillary, soon to become Sir Edmund Hillary, shunned the publicity and gave the lion's share of the credit to his Sherpa companion Tenzing. He insisted that it was a joint effort and that they had arrived at the top simultaneously. When on the summit of Everest, he took the famous photo of Tenzing posing with his ice-axe, but refused Tenzing's offer to take one of him in return. So his own ascent went unrecorded.

It was a selfless gesture and it came at a time when many top mountaineers treated the Sherpas as mere servants. For me, it explains why the messages of condolence flooding in from around the globe today are not just respectful but uncommonly emotional.

George Band was on that 1953 expedition. He says his close friend Edmund Hillary was a 'wonderful person' who dedicated much of his life to the mountain folk of the high Himalayas.

"What he would like to be remembered for more than anything in his life was the work he did to improve the situation of the Sherpas for some 40 years afterwards, building schools, hospitals and clinics and helping them when they met with disasters.

He founded a charity called Himalayan Trust in 1964, carrying out humanitarian work in the high mountains, and urged his fellow Kiwis to continue to projects when he 'kicked the bucket', as he phrased it.

Because of his engagement he was made an honorary Nepalese citizen 4 years ago, when on the 50th anniversary of his achievement, he turned down an invitation from the Queen, so that he could instead travel to Kathmandu to celebrate with the Sherpa people he had come to respect and love so much.
Climate Change Concerns
  He remained politically engaged until the very end, urging world governments to protect the Himalayas from climate change, pointing out that the temperature in the Himalayas has increased noticeably in the half-century since his famous climb, causing several severe floods from glacial lakes and terrible destruction for the local population.

And he also criticized some of the more recent conquerors of Everest, who, he said, paid their way to the summit, didn't respect the environment and behaved "as though they are lords of the area. They don't consider the welfare of the local people." He complained that most of the new waves of climbers (In one 1993 expedition, 40 people reached the peak in the course of a day) just want to see their pictures in the papers.
'Quintessentional Kiwi'
  Well never mind the papers, in New Zealand Hillary's face is now emblazoned on the 5 dollar note; and world-wide he held six honorary degrees. Not bad for a shy kid who flunked out of university and planned to be a bee-keeper.

In his home country he was loved for his directness and honesty- today Prime Minister Helen Clarke called him 'a quintessential Kiwi'.

Although he was never a man of great words, he did leave us with a simple piece of two-penny philosophy that is worth quoting today :

"Life's a bit like mountaineering," he famously said, "never look down."
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