Sir Edmund Hillary: Stuck on Everest, waiting for a hero

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Twenty-five years ago I found myself in the Himalayas on the 30th anniversary of the ascent of the world's highest peak. Sir Edmund Hillary was there too, building schools for Sherpas around Everest. So I came up with the wheeze of interviewing him on what, I insisted, should be the lower slopes of the mountain.

Arrangements were made, and I flew into Lukla, 10,000ft up. Hikers have made it the busiest internal airport in Nepal, but back then it was just a grassy strip, sloping steeply to an alarming 2,000ft drop to the valley below. I made it, but the great man didn't, for reasons I never discovered. That was the first problem. The second was that it started to rain heavily, and the plane due to take me back did not turn up. Worse, this was the start of the rainy season, when there could be no planes for months.

The only alternative was to walk, but I was warned that I should set off fast as parts of the footpaths could soon be washed away, leaving me stranded. I decided to stay, since in those days before satellite phones, there was no way of telling my family what I was doing – and they would be worried if the flights resumed and I did not appear. Fortunately the skies cleared and a plane came.

Three years later I did catch up with the conqueror of Everest – but without much more success. We were climbing the hilly streets of Assisi, during the World Wildlife Fund's 25th anniversary celebrations in St Francis's town. I found it distinctly exercising – but was delighted to see that the then 66-year-old legend was almost equally puffed. Searching for an opening gambit, I said how reassuring I found his shortness of breath. Wrong move. The conversation ended before it began.

Eventually I was third time lucky. Six years ago, he described to me how he had first seen snow at the age of 16, on a school trip to Tongariro, New Zealand's first national park. "It absolutely transformed my life. I loved the mountains and their beauty and revelled in the sense of challenge. From then on I spent every day I could among the great peaks."

He told of his delight in mountain sunsets and sunrises ("snug in my sleeping bag I would peer out of the tent door until the sun sank in a crimson light over the Himalayan ridges"), recounted how he and Tenzing had "emerged on the summit of the world" and even described how he had built that scary Lukla airstrip ("we hacked the slope into shape with spades and mattocks and pounded the surface into reasonable firmness") to bring in materials to build a hospital for the Sherpas to whom he devoted much of his life after its unprecedented peak.

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