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A god in Nepal: second only to the Dalai Lama
The Dominion POst[Saturday, January 12, 2008 15:07]

WELLINGTON: It is country in the shadows of the world's highest mountains, its valleys so deep that the towering peaks seem closer to the sky than the earth from which they rise. But in Nepal one shadow casts further and longer than any other. Here Sir Edmund Hillary is a god.

In a place often in political turmoil and geological upheaval, love for the New Zealander is one constant. By standing on a tiny patch of snow on top of the world's highest mountain, he gained a country. And from Hillary Nepal gained much more. His influence - and that of his Himalayan Trust is everywhere.

His picture hangs in homes, schools and monasteries, often near Buddhist shrines, and in the 46-year-old Khumjung School, which he helped found and build during his first foray into charitable work.

The school has since produced doctors, lawyers and pilots. It is an incredible, inspirational place.

Long after his most famous visit to this country in 1953, during which he conquered Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, Hillary frequently returned to Nepal.

He will be mourned in villages like Pheriche, Monjo and Dengboche, along the trail to the Everest base camp, with the lighting of incense and in puja, spiritual offerings in which deities are satisfied. Other people will take to the mountains and hang prayer flags.

His death will almost certainly be felt in the house of Lhakpa Sonam, a Sherpa who once helped save Hillary's life by leading him down to the thicker air of the Himalayan valleys when he fell ill with altitude sickness.

Sonam runs a teahouse and museum above the hanging village of Namche Bazaar, a great trading post for Nepalese and Tibetans along the Solu-Khumbu trail that leads to the foot of Everest.

When I met Sonam, who completely lost his hearing to meningitis more than 20 years ago, he became animated when he realised Hillary was being discussed. He showed me photographs of him with Hillary, his eyes sparkling.

"To us, Hillary is a living god. Because of him, we have access to schools and medicine. Without him, how could we have this? He climbed Everest, yes, but to us he did much more," he said.

In Kunde and Khumjung, there are hospitals and schools. In Tengboche, there is the Buddhist monastery he helped rebuild after fire destroyed much of it in 1989.

Inside temples throughout the Solu-Khumbu, Hillary is considered a spirit. The Sherpa call him the Godfather, a truism rather than a nickname. In a recent poll of Nepalese children Sir Edmund rated second behind the Dalai Lama as a hero. The Dalai Lama once pronounced himself a Hillary fan.

During an interview in May 2003, not long before flying to Kathmandu to mark the 50th anniversary of his and Norgay's climb, Hillary said his feats on Everest and at the South Pole did not stand out as personal highlights. "I haven't any doubt that the most worthwhile things I have done have not been climbing mountains or going to the Poles or so on," he said.

"It has been helping my Sherpa friends, building the schools and medical facilities. I think that is what I would like to be remembered for."
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