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Summit Cum Laude

Jan. 21, 2008
Jan. 21, 2008

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Jan. 21, 2008

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Summit Cum Laude

Remembering the climber who conquered Earth's final frontier

THE MAN who first stood on the highest point of the earth, triumphing over, really, man's last geography, was actually a most unassuming chap. He sort of stumbled into mountain climbing, and was still pretty much unknown in the upper echelons of the sport when he was chosen for the British expedition to Everest in 1953. Sir Edmund Hillary—or just "Ed," thank you, whenever you were in his company—still primarily thought of himself as a beekeeper when he and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay stood first among humankind on the summit, 29,035 feet up, on the bright, clear Himalayan morning of May 29, 1953.

This is an article from the Jan. 21, 2008 issue

Hillary, who died of heart failure last Friday at age 88, had a lantern jaw and unruly hair. Jan Morris, the British writer who wrote the first account of Hillary's ascent for the London Times, remembered him as moving "with an incongruous grace, rather like a giraffe." Hillary recalled his younger self to me this way: "I'm just a big hulk, but I knew I could perform. If there were far better-looking sorts, I was stronger and faster going uphill."

I loved that: reducing standing atop Everest simply to being uphill.

He could be wry too. George Mallory, the British climber famous for his "because it is there" reason for scaling Everest, disappeared on the mountain in 1924. His body was found in 1999, but it was unclear whether he died in ascent or descent. Would it bother Sir Edmund to find out he really wasn't first? "You know," he replied, "to mountaineers, it's one thing getting to the top, but another getting back to the bottom. I'll settle for that."

When he and Norgay did reach lower terra they allowed the story that Norgay had actually reached the summit first. Hillary was happy to, for it gave greater pride to the Nepalese, whom he loved and dedicated most of the rest of his life to with good works. Indeed, his first wife, Louise, and daughter Belinda died in a plane crash leaving Kathmandu in 1975, leaving him inconsolable. It was he, the explorer, the man of daring, who should die young.

But he lived on nobly, a wise and benevolent presence, New Zealand's grand old man. (Well, maybe the world's grand old man.) After Norgay revealed, just before he died in 1986, that in fact Hillary had reached the summit a few steps before him, Hillary also acknowledged that fact. But, he said, it really didn't matter who was technically first. It was a team game. After all, the first words he uttered, gaily, as the other members of the expedition came out to greet him and Norgay as they walked back down the mountain were, simply enough, "Well, we knocked the bastard off."

Titletowns (and Loservilles)

TO BORROW from Dickens, these are the best of times in Boston, they are the worst of times in Miami. The Red Sox are world champs and the Pats and the Celts look to be headed in that direction. The Marlins, meanwhile, were last in the NL East; the Heat are bringing up the rear in their conference; and the 1--15 Dolphins didn't exactly run the risk of hurting themselves celebrating.

But has it ever been any better or worse for the fans of a city? SI looked at every season in the big four sports since 1966—the Super Bowl era—giving cities points for winning (five for a championship, three for a conference title, one for a division title) while deducting one for a last-place finish, two for being worst in the conference and three for having the worst record in the league.

The winner? Philadelphia in 1980, thanks to the Phillies' only World Series title, a Super Bowl appearance by the Eagles and finals berths for the Sixers and the Flyers. And the worst time and place to be a sports fan? New York City in 1966, when the Yankees finished last in the AL, the Giants were 1--12 and the Knicks and the Rangers were cellar dwellers. It would have been worse, but the Mets got out of last place for the first time.

THE BEST

1. Philadelphia 1980 14 pts

2. Boston 2004 11 pts (MLB title, NFL title, NHL div. title)

T3. Baltimore 1970 10 pts (MLB title, NFL title)

Pittsburgh 1979 10 pts (MLB title, NFL title)

New York 2000 10 pts (Yankees MLB title, Mets NL title, Giants NFC title, Islanders last in div.)

THE WORST

1. New York 1966 -10 pts

T2. Houston 1983 -6 pts (worst in NBA, worst in NFL)

New Orleans 1975 -6 pts (worst in NBA, worst in NFL)

NFL points are awarded for the calendar year of the regular season; NBA and NHL points are awarded for the year of the playoffs.

PHOTOROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY (HILLARY AND NORGAY)MOUNTAIN MEN For years Hillary (left, and in 1993, inset) was coy about who was first to the top, he or Norgay (right).PHOTOJOHN VAN HASSELT/CORBIS (HILLARY)[See caption above]PHOTOJOHN IACONO (FANS)PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (MCGRAW)PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (DILLON)