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My Story: Edmund Hillary

Meet Author/Host
Whitney Stewart

Author Whitney Stewart writes fiction and nonfiction for young adults and has a special interest in Himalayan countries. Her writing is an extension of her spiritual beliefs, her love of adventure, and her desire to help young readers explore the lives of others. She has traveled to Burma, China, India, Nepal, and Tibet for her research. She has also trekked with Sir Edmund Hillary in Nepal, lived with a Tibetan refugee family in India, and interviewed the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi in their homes.

W. Stewart

Photo: Neil Alexander  

Her books include the following:

To the Lion Throne: The Story of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Snow Lion)

The 14th Dalai Lama: Spiritual Leader of Tibet (Lerner)

Sir Edmund Hillary: To Everest and Beyond (Lerner)

Aung San Suu Kyi: Fearless Voice of Burma (Lerner)

Read the interview with Stewart, and learn about Sir Hillary from his good friend.

Whitney Stewart Interview
(October/November 1996)

Whitney Stewart has written a book about Sir Edmund Hillary and even trekked with him in Nepal! Here are her answers to questions from students.

Question: How did you get interested in the Himalayan Mountains? Have you been a mountain climber? Did you get sick or anything when you went to the highest altitude? I would like to go some day, but I am scared about getting sick.

Answer: I became a mountain climber when I was in elementary school. My best friend, Sue, and her parents took me hiking in New Hampshire over many weekends during the year. On my 14th birthday I took my first ice-climbing lesson from Sue's brother, a ski patroler and first-aid technician. Sue and I wore crampons on our boots, hooked ourselves onto ropes held tight by Sue's brother and another young instructor, and rappelled down over a short icefall. I was hooked!

Before I went to the Himalayas, I had experience hiking, rock climbing, and ice climbing in America and in Switzerland. In 1986 my mother and I went to the Everest region of the Himalayas with a trekking group. We were both in great shape, but I became ill with altitude sickness and a lung infection. I returned to Nepal with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1990. Each trip was spectacular, but I realized I could not climb as high as I wanted without having trouble with altitude.

I don't believe high-altitude climbing is for everyone. You must train yourself physically and emotionally before going to high altitude. Learn all you can about climbing and then set your goals AND limits. Don't let your ego push you beyond your ability. Enjoy and respect the mountains!

Question: Why did they need so many people on the team?

Answer: That is a very good question. The British sponsors for the 1953 expedition first wanted team leader Eric Shipton. However, Shipton wanted a small team. The sponsors wanted to send over several scientists, doctors, lots of new equipment, plenty of nutritious food, and many strong climbers. The sponsors believed that more was better. They also believed that if the climbers could eat good food, sleep in good tents, and have good oxygen systems, then they would stay strong enough to reach the top. In order to get the equipment and food up the mountain, the team had to hire over 100 local porters.

In the end, the sponsors let Shipton go and hired John Hunt. Hunt agreed with the sponsors' theories. The team carried the best in high-altitude boots, windproof clothing, lightweight but sturdy tents, special radios and walkie-talkies, Primus stoves, aluminum-alloy ladders for crevasses, ropes, and oxygen tanks. In many cases the team brought different types of equipment to see what worked best. This was just the beginning of the production of mountain gear. I hope this answers your question.

Question: Is the monastery occupied year-round? If so, how are supplies delivered?

Answer: Yes, the monastery is occupied by monks all year. A few years ago, it burned down because of an accident with a space heater. Donations were made from the Sherpa community and from people and foundations from all over the world. Then Tengpoche was rebuilt. Supplies are carried up to the monastery by porters who come from the Katmandu Valley. Sometimes equipment is flown to Lukla Airport (about 9,000') and then Sherpas and other porters carry things on their back. Sometimes yaks are also loaded with equipment and led to the monastery. Mail from abroad can take two months to reach the monks at Tengpoche.

Question: I am in the fifth grade and live in the city. Where and how could I learn to climb? I have been to camp in the summer, but nobody does climbing. Do you know any organizations that can teach young people about climbing? Also, how did you get in shape to climb in the Himalayas? How old were you when you first went?

Answer: I checked the Internet and found many mountaineering schools listed. You could start by searching the Net (under mountaineering school or rock-climbing school) and then ask schools for their brochures. Caution: Find out about a school before you sign up with them. Ask for references. Talk to your parents or guardians about this.

Another way to find a mountaineering school or camp is to ask your athletic coaches, teachers, or at sporting goods stores. You could write to tourist bureaus in such mountainous states as Vermont, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Colorado, Utah, or California (to mention only a few). They could send you brochures about mountaineering camps.

I was 27 when I first went to climb in Nepal. My mother and I went together; she was 51.

I live in a flat city with no hills so I could not practice high-altitude climbing. Still, I biked 20 miles per day, sometimes more, went running, did stretches and exercises at home, and wore my hiking boots around everywhere. Never go climbing with stiff, new boots. Break them in before you depart.

Question: How do you think your adventures with Sir Edmund Hillary have affected you?

Answer: If you are from Washington DC, I am doubly pleased you wrote. I was living in DC when I wrote my book on Sir Edmund Hillary. You pose an interesting question. When I first went to Nepal with my mother, I was on a mountain tour. I did not learn a great deal about the life of the Sherpas in the Everest region. I only learned about climbing at high altitude and about the scenery.

When I trekked with Sir Edmund, I was introduced to many Sherpas, several of whom became my friends. From watching Sir Edmund, I learned a great deal about his generosity to the Sherpas, and about theirs to him. By staying in the homes of Sherpas, I began to understand both the joys and the hardships of the famous mountain guides and their families. I departed with a feeling of warmth for the people who gave and gave and gave. I also departed with a feeling of shame over the environmental destruction that has taken place for me and all the other tourists who want to climb in the Himalayas.

I think often about the Solu-Khumbu that I love so much, and about my Sherpa friends, with whom I correspond regularly. Hillary's care and compassion inspired me to teach children about the people who live under Chomolungma.

Question: Has tourism brought "anything" good to the Sherpas? Better livelihood? And even more important, is there anything we can do from this country to help with the situation of both the land and the people? Is enough known about these people? Maybe a book should be written about these generous, laughing, gentle people.

Answer: There are a few books written about the Sherpas, and Tenzing Norgay wrote an autobiography called Tiger of the Snows. Still, few people know much about their culture. Yes, the tourism has hurt their ecology, but it has brought employment to many Sherpas who would otherwise remain farmers and yak herders. Sir Edmund Hillary has set up his Himalayan Trust in order to finance schools and hospitals for the Sherpas. Anyone interested could donate to his trust or volunteer as a carpenter, doctor, or teacher in one of the Sherpa facilities. Thanks for asking!

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