The news that Sir Edmund Hillary had died of a heart attack at the age of 88 on Thursday in New Zealand didn’t particularly come as a shock to me—I’d been afraid of hearing the news since reading of his failing health over the past few years. But it did bring back a vivid memory. Reading the tributes (a few found here), I remembered a surreal afternoon about eight years ago when I sat up bolt-straight in a wooden chair, and, over a phone line, heard his voice crackle through the earpiece. “Ed Hillary,” he said. I nearly froze.
It was late summer, 2001, and I was just about to sell my old car with 300,000 miles on the odometer and move to New York from New Mexico. I’d pitched a magazine story about the kingdom of Nepal opening new peaks to climbers, and somewhere along the way I’d gotten the hairbrained idea that Sir Edmund himself would care to comment on a story I hadn’t even sold. Wrapping up an internship at the time (starting wage: $5.25/hr.), it was bold call for me to make, but I didn’t have much to lose. What I didn’t expect was the gracious response that Hillary would give me that day. It was a conversation that electrified me at the time, and it’s one I will never forget. His comments added much-needed depth and perspective to my first story for Men’s Journal (the eruption of war in Central Asia following the attacks of 9/11 postponed its publication date for about a year).
Around that time I began to read more about his life, collecting books on the Himalayas and the annual opera (farce?) that is Mount Everest today. At the time I didn’t realize how much Ed meant to another community other than climbers: the Sherpas. But after the move and over the next six years, I would come to know the New York Sherpa community that has long revered him as a saint.
There was the party in the spring of 2003, for example, at Five Star Banquet in Long Island City, held to honor his achievement with Tenzing on Everest in ‘53. There the Sherpas—some of whom had known or met Hillary personally before moving to the States—drained inordinate amounts of red wine and Heineken, chanted his name in joyful songs, and danced into the wee hours. I brought a few friends to join in the fun; we still talk about the party to this day. It was transporting, and it introduced me to a New York subculture like no other.
The last chance I had to speak with him was in the fall of 2007. I’d heard he had taken a fall in Kathmandu a few months before while visiting Apa and Lhakpa Sherpa (whose all-Sherpa team of Everest climbers later succeeded on Everest in historic fashion), and I worried that I should reconsider. On the last two occasions I’d come away awash in vague tides of guilt. The stories I had been assigned weren’t substantial; I felt petty, overreaching. But Ed graciously assisted both times, ever a gentleman, and those doubts receded, for a time.
And so I picked up the phone to ask Hillary about the topic of a new piece I was writing for Outside, on the Sherpa migration-in-progress to New York City. And, as I had three times before when calling him, wondered what I was doing here. At least the drill would be the same: his beloved wife June—or, Lady Hillary, I should say—would ask me what the question was, and I’d attempt to calm my nerves. Muffling the phone, she’d call out to him across the room. Then time would seem to slow a bit as he assented, surely leaving some more comfortable spot to take the call. That day he took more time than usual to answer; once on the line he was tired, his voice warbled and scratchy. Lady June sat by his side, reminding him at one point what his drift had been after a momentary digression. Then he responded with a searching observation about the Sherpas and their fealty to the Everest region I hadn’t quite expected, but one that made perfect sense. I had nothing more to ask. As ever, he kindly thanked me for calling.
RELATED: New York’s Sherpa community will host a public ceremony commemorating the life of Sir Edmund Hillary this Sunday in Queens. Details and information can be found here. Expected to attend: Hundreds of members of the Sherpa, Nepalese, Northern Indian and other related communities based in New York, monks, and well-wishers. Also invited: members of the Nepal Mission to the U.N., the New Zealand Consulate, the New York State Legislature, graduates of the Khumjung School (founded by Sir Edmund), and representatives of the Himalayan Trust and American Himalayan Foundation, and New York media.