Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Meeting great mountaineers like Edmund Hillary, Junko Tabei and Tensing Norgay

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: The first page of the six-page article published in Sportsworld magazine. The photo is of British mountaineer Doug Scott; At the seminar in Darjeeling: Tensing Norgay (extreme left) Nawang Gombhu and Sir Edmund Hillary. Nawang, the nephew of Tensing, was an equally illustrious mountaineer. He became the first man to climb Mount Everest twice; The tiny Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei surrounded by fans at Darjeeling 

The other day when a friend asked me who was the most interesting personality I had met in my journalistic career, the images of Edmund Hillary, Junko Tabei and Doug Scott flooded my mind. All of them were members of the Everest brotherhood: people who had climbed the highest mountain in the world.

I met them at a seminar on mountaineering in the hill station of Darjeeling in West Bengal. The date was May 15, 1985. To get an exclusive interview with Hillary I went to the Sinclair’s Hotel at 8.30 a.m. I was told he was having breakfast. So I went outside the restaurant, beckoned a waiter and passed a note requesting an interview. The waiter duly showed it to Hillary, and told me that I could meet the mountaineer after breakfast.

Accordingly, after breakfast was over, I was led in. Hillary was sitting with his second wife June (his first wife Louise and daughter Belinda had died in an aircrash in Nepal in 1975). He was extremely courteous and apologised for keeping me waiting. June smiled encouragingly as nervously I asked my questions.

And Hillary was visibly taken aback when I asked whether he thought of death during his ascent to the top of Mount Everest. I guess he never expected a young man to ask such a question. But his answer was memorable:  “I was frequently frightened. I knew one mistake would result in me plunging to my death. So, the triumph is not only over the mountain, but over all the fears and anxieties that are raging inside you.”

Later, just outside Bhanu Bhawan, I watched all these great mountaineers interacting with each other during a tea break, especially the irrepressible Junko Tabei. She was barely 5’, with shoulder length black hair and bright eyes. There was something schoolgirlish in her behavior and it was hard to believe she had come become the first woman to have climbed Mount Everest, and would later climb the highest peaks on all seven continents.  

Meanwhile, as Junko moved from person to person, she eventually came and stood beside Hillary and said, “My, you are so tall!” Hillary, who was 6’5”, suddenly bent his knees till he reached Junko’s height, and Junko put his arms around him and convulsed in laugher.  And, of course, there was famed mountaineer Doug Scott with his Gandhi specs and shoulder-length hair, who also hugged Junko. Suddenly Doug reached into his bag, took out his camera and passed it to a photographer. He too wanted to preserve the moment forever. And watching all this with an enigmatic smile was Tensing Norgay.

The passage of time results in one unavoidable circumstance: death comes calling. Norgay (1986), Hillary (2008), and Tabei (2016) have all passed away, while Scott, now aged 76, is holding the fort of being one of the first Britishers to have climbed Mount Everest. All of them have been extraordinary people. And in the process of climbing an outer mountain, they climbed an inner one, too. 

(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South India editions) 

#EdmundHillary #JunkoTabei #DougScott #MountEverest #TensingNorgay

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