JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the man who first conquered Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary. We begin with this report by James Mates of Independent Television News. His story opens with music and footage from a 1953 documentary.
FILM NARRATOR: … the top of the world has been reached.
JAMES MATES, ITV News Correspondent: Half a century ago, it was the ultimate challenge, to go higher than any man before, to climb Everest, where seven previous expeditions had failed.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of their day, men who had dared to take on and then to conquer Earth’s final frontier.
A modest, quietly spoken New Zealander, Hillary’s fitness and ability had made him the choice of the British-led expedition to make the final ascent with Tenzing.
They wouldn’t talk about who first stepped on the summit. The historic photo is of Tenzing by Hillary. Many years later, though, Tenzing did reveal it had been Hillary just a few paces ahead.
SIR EDMUND HILLARY, First Man to Reach Summit of Mount Everest: Tenzing and I always agreed we had done it once, we had done it first. And we had proved that it was possible to do it, because all the physiologists had warned us that it might not be possible, that we might reach the summit, even with oxygen, and collapse and die.
JAMES MATES: With radios out of action, the expedition leader, John Hunt, only found out when the two men returned to camp.
GEORGE BAND, Member of Everest Expedition: Of course, we classic Brits would want to shake hands and pat each other on the back, but that wasn’t enough for John Hunt and for Ed.
John Hunt, who had borne the brunt of the leadership of this whole thing, they just found themselves in each other’s arms. Hunt said it was like being hugged by a great bear.
JAMES MATES: Sir Edmund used his global celebrity for the people of Nepal, building clinics and no fewer than 17 schools. It was there that he was visited by tragedy, losing his wife and daughter in a plane crash.
And Everest was not the end of his adventuring. He was to lead expeditions to the Antarctic and the Yangtze River. But from that day in 1953, his name would be synonymous with one thing only.
Seen as physically impossible
JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez has more.
RAY SUAREZ: And joining us with insights about Sir Edmund and his achievements, we're joined by David Breashears, a fellow climber, filmmaker, and friend of Hillary's. He's reached the summit of Everest five times.
David Breashears, can we sitting here in 2008 even fully grasp what made this such a big deal to the world, at a time when men have walked on the Moon and people go into space as tourists, can we understand now, 50-plus years later, what made summiting Everest such an exciting event?
DAVID BREASHEARS, Mountaineer: Well, let's remember, Ray, that the first attempts were made on Mount Everest by the British in 1921, 1922, 1924, and through the '30s, until World War II broke out. And no one had reached the summit.
In fact, a very famous mountaineer, George Mallory and his companion, Andrew Irvine, had died in 1924 about 500 feet from the summit. So it was looking to be what it was, a pretty daunting challenge.
And finally, when Nepal opened to the West in 1950, expeditions started to try from the south side. And the Swiss got quite high in 1952. In fact, Tenzing was climbing with a Swiss climber, Raymond Lambert, and they got to 28,600 feet and turned around, exhausted. And so there loomed the mountain again.
And, as Ed said in the piece, the physiologists did not know if you could survive at those elevations, 29,028 feet, even with bottled oxygen. And what happened if you ran out of bottled oxygen? Would you just collapse and die on the mountain?
So there were the great challenges of thin air. And there was the challenge of the unknown. What would those last 500 or 600 feet look like? If we got to the top, could we get down?
So there were the unknowns in how they could perform physiologically, and there was the unknown in, could they climb that final bit?
Hillary used fame to help Nepalese
RAY SUAREZ: Sir Edmund Hillary became one of the most famous men in the world at 34 and went on to live a very long life. What was he up to?
DAVID BREASHEARS: Well, he led two lives, really.
You know, the world loves a hero and wants a hero. And he and Tenzing Norgay became heroes shortly after becoming the first two people to climb Mount Everest. And let's point out that Edmund Hillary had a great companion in Tenzing Norgay.
But, you know, something touched Ed about being on that mountain and trekking through the villages of the Sherpas to get there. His relationship with the Sherpas on the mountain, including his relationship with Tenzing Norgay, something -- I think it was very profound for him.
And somewhere along the way, in the years after he made that ascent, he asked the Sherpas, what could he do for them in return? And a Sherpa leader in the community looked at him and said, "Our children have eyes, but they cannot see."
There were no schools; there were no clinics; there weren't proper bridges, no airstrips. And this humble beekeeper, this very noble, generous, laconic man from New Zealand took it upon himself to take that message and do something about it.
And he devoted the rest of his adult life to tirelessly working to improve the lives of the Sherpas. And he started by founding the Himalayan trust, I think in 1961. They built the first clinics, as you saw in some of the pictures, schools.
Airstrips were very important, bridges, reforestation projects. And you could see that that was what really brought a joy and many rewards to Ed's life.
The climb had become just merely a vehicle to use his fame to raise money for these projects. And he was there with his hammer in his hand, nails clenched between his teeth, with his countrymen from New Zealand building these schools in the early '60s.
RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned his devotion to the Nepalese, but he was also worried about the trashing of what had been a pristine environment, wasn't he?
DAVID BREASHEARS: You know, I think when you've been first, like Ed was with that team and with Tenzing Norgay in 1953, there's a wonderful romantic appeal to that ascent and there's a wistfulness with which we look back on that ascent. And I look back on it the same way.
And Ed was also very outspoken, in a charmingly rough, sort of Kiwi way. He said it the way he saw it.
And he was terribly displeased with the advent of commercial guiding on the mountain because he didn't think they were real mountaineers. He thought mountaineering was a passion, a life, a real pursuit, not just something you pay someone and "I'll take to you the top."
And he became concerned about the trash that was left on the mountain because of the commercial expeditions, and he did speak out about it.
Both adventurer and humanitarian
RAY SUAREZ: He was also someone who was still up for a challenge, though, wasn't he? I mean, we mentioned earlier that he went to the South Pole, but I think he was the first man to reach both poles and the top of Everest.
DAVID BREASHEARS: I don't know if he reached the North Pole, although I wouldn't doubt it. And, of course, he could have done it easily. He had the drive, and the determination, and the experience.
He did climb many 20,000-foot peaks after his ascent of Everest. He rode boats up the Ganges River, and he crossed the entire continent of Antarctica.
But I think those were ancillary activities. They were enjoyable and fun and kept him in adventure.
But the Hillary that I know is not a mountaineer or an adventurer. I mean, I know that side of him. The Hillary that I so deeply respect and admire and whose legacy should reach far beyond that of a mountaineer is of the humanitarian, who for no reason other than he felt it was an obligation that he understood, he took care, as good care as he could of the Sherpa people he'd come to know and love.
And when you met Hillary, and you saw him, you know he didn't do it because the world was watching. He did it because he felt it was the right thing to do.
RAY SUAREZ: David Breashears, thanks for joining us.
DAVID BREASHEARS: Thank you for having me.