"It was not glory we sought," Col. John Hunt, British leader of the 1953 Everest expedition, wrote of his team, "unless it be the common glory of man's triumph over nature - and over his own limitations."
Neither Edmund Hillary nor Tenzing Norgay, the first men to climb Mount Everest, had come to the world's highest mountain in 1953 expecting personal fame. But because they were the first to set foot on its summit after ten failed attempts, fame had to come to them whether they expected it or not.
In fact, it was the failures of all those earlier attempts that made Everest a special mountain and the feat of Hillary and Tenzing so worthy of fame. This is not to say that the duo was not excited to reach the top of the world.
Neither Hillary, whose end came in an Auckland, New Zealand, hospital Friday, nor Tenzing, who died in his home nearer the Everest over twenty years ago, thought of their feat in the way the world likes to remember it.
"The truth is I'm just a rough old New Zealander who enjoyed many challenges in his life. In fact, as I look back, getting to the top of Everest seems less important, in many ways, than other steps I've taken along the way - steps to improve the lives of my Sherpa friends in Nepal and to protect the culture and beauty of the Himalayas," Sir Edmund wrote on the 50th anniversary of the historic climb.
As for Tenzing, whom I called in his room in New Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences (Aiims) where he was undergoing treatment for chest ailments in the years of his declining health, he simply refused to talk about it. It was as though the Everest feat was just one of those daily chores in any ordinary person's life. Yet, from the hundreds of get well cards strung across his hospital room, you knew it was no ordinary person that you had gone to meet.
Without the simple, sturdy Sherpas like Tenzing, Col. Hunt's expedition would not have been possible. Touched by the plight of these hardy people who made a living from carrying other people's burdens up the mountains, Hillary thought he had to do something. Those who knew him will tell you if he believed he had do something he got down to doing it.
"Tell me," he asked a Sharpa, "if there were one thing I could do for your village, what should it be?"
"We would like our children to go school, sahib," the man answered. "Of all the things you have, learning is the one we need most for our children."
The words went home. The very next year, the story goes, Hillary persuaded a Kolkata company to donate a pre-fabricated aluminium building for a school. That was in 1961. It was a start of movement - about 40 Sherpa children going to school. Now that learning has taken some of them to such jobs as Boeing pilots and company executives.
Well over a thousand people, including women, old and young, have climbed the Everest after Hillary first set foot on its summit. People pay something like $65,000 for permission to climb.
The rush creates pollution, something that Sir Edmund was painfully aware of in his later years, and something he would often complain about in his days as high commissioner for his country in New Delhi.
And our own women climbers like Bachendri Pal and Santosh Yadav have been moved to go on expeditions just to clean up the place. If the beauty and simplicity of the Himalayas remains the way Sir Edmund would have liked, he will rest in peace in his grave.
Everest has claimed 175 lives at the last count. It is better to approach the high mountains with respect and humility, writes Tenzing's son Jamling, who followed his father's example to the top in 1996. "Humans are granted no more than an audience with Everest's summit, and then only rarely and for brief moments."
(K. Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)