Sarah Sands: We all have mountains to climb; few have modesty too

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When he resigned as Prime Minister Tony Blair reflected that "1997 was a moment for a new beginning, for sweeping away all the detritus of the past".

Sir Edmund Hillary spoke of his achievement as the first man to conquer Everest with a more modest sense of historical perspective. "Well, George, we finally knocked the bastard off," he said.

Both Hillary and Blair reached their summits relatively early in their professional careers.

Blair remarked ruefully that "sometimes the only way you conquer the pull of power is to set it down". Immediately afterwards, he accepted the job of Middle East Envoy and is still confident that he and his partner-in-diplomacy George Bush can leave a legacy of peace. While his name is still hot, he has also signed up with JPMorgan, for up to £1m a year, as adviser and ambassador. He makes a further £500,000 from speeches and has a £5m book advance for his autobiography.

Sir Edmund Hillary had a story to tell. Jan Morris, who covered the expedition for The Times, said that Hillary's heroic endeavours delighted British audiences, but, she added, "... of course, it was a simpler world".

Blair prided himself on being a moderniser and his trajectory is impressively 21st century. He is a master of communication, which makes him a master of the universe. He is ambitious for glory and recognition and money. Hillary was perhaps the most celebrated man in the English-speaking world when he came down Everest. Yet he showed no interest in cashing in on "the brand". Instead he dedicated his life to building schools and hospitals in Nepal.

Hillary became uneasy about his legacy. He worried that too many climbers were scaling the mountain. Blair talked of the detritus of the past; Hillary fretted about the detritus of the future. That beautiful, terrible mountain is now buried under plastic bottles and litter. Even worse, he saw the character of the climbers change. Wonder, humility, humanity, was replaced by a kind of brisk corporate ambition to reach the summit at whatever cost to other people. "The people just wanted to get to the top. It was wrong, if there was a man suffering altitude problems and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say good morning and pass on by," he said.

Sir Edmund Hillary is sometimes evoked by politicians to endorse their own striving. Hillary Clinton claimed that she was named after him, even though she was born six years before he conquered Everest.

Yet the ascents of Hillary Clinton and of Tony Blair have been motivated by a lust for power and a sense that they personified their countries. Sir Edmund Hillary was far too unassuming to make any such claims. He did what he was inspired to do and then asked to live quietly. He also understood, in a way that Blair has not, that there is a hubris about achievement, however glorious. His dedication to Nepal was a reparation for the unwitting destruction of that which he loved.

When Blair spoke arrogantly about sweeping away a "20th century ideology" and the "old-fashioned world" he inherited, he did not notice this was Sir Edmund Hillary's world. Along with the detested prejudice, intolerance and imperialism, was a cohesion, a sense of respect and of modesty. The Commonwealth was an exemplar of good-natured multi-culturalism.

The beauty of Hillary's character brings a Clintonian tear to my eye: "Another few weary steps and there was nothing above us but the sky," he said. His approach to life and to death.