According to an old Sherpa saying, a close neighbour is more useful than a distant relative. Sir Edmund Hillary, who passed away on 11 January, started off as neither, yet the bond that formed between him and the people of the remote Himalayas could hardly have been stronger. The legacy he leaves behind is far greater than that of simply being in the first team to reach the world's highest mountain.
As a young student in Thame in 1962, I had met very few westerners, so the rangy white man in a carpenter's apron I saw hammering nails into the school rafters made a deep impression on me. He quite literally changed my life.
After opening the first school and hospital in Khumjung and Khunde, he listened to requests from other villages and returned each year to start new projects and check on the old ones. On every visit children welcomed him with songs and dances, and offered him khatas. Sir Edmund would kneel to receive garlands as villagers offered him the full range of local brews. Hillary Sahib felt obligated to drink some of each offering, and miraculously survived the heady cocktails.
His relationship with the Sherpas in Solukhumbu was not always without tension, but his personal integrity and ability to think ahead have proved the test of time. When he wanted Khumbu declared a national park to combat the environmental impact of increased tourism, local leaders complained: "Sir Edmund first put salt in our mouths but is now spraying chilli in our eyes."
But years later, when I was interviewing people about the national park, a carpenter said: "Had the park not been established, all the large trees would have been cut down to build lodges and it would now be hard to even find an axe handle in our forests."
As with Sagarmatha National Park, so many other ideas of his that the Himalayan Trust has implemented over the years have produced amazing results. From building airstrips and hospitals to improving trails and bridges, he had the ability to see the larger picture.
He was also closely attuned to community needs and did not presume to have all the answers. Typically, when it became clear that educating children only in Nepali and English was beginning to erode the Sherpa language and culture, he countered the problem by investing in monastic education and recruiting teachers of Sherpa origin from as far away as Darjeeling.
He always expected his efforts to be met with equal commitment from the local population. Students received his scholarships to study far from their home villages on the understanding that they would return home to make their own contributions-which saw me becoming a primary school headmaster at the age of 18.
Over the past 40 years, Sir Edmund helped me mature while I saw him age. He metamorphosed from a passionate adventurer to a compassionate, humanitarian worker. More recently, he became a respected diplomat and elder who consistently achieved more than any one else around him. Every stage of his life has been a lesson for me, including the impermanent nature of life itself.
His vitality weakened with age but his determination remained strong. His body's gradual loss of the ability to tolerate high altitude was hugely frustrating to him as it prevented him from returning to the people and mountains he loved. Two years ago, wearing an oxygen mask and accompanied by a Sherpa doctor, he flew in a helicopter to Khumbu for the last time, to meet people and see the work he had supported for so long.
In April last year, Sir Edmund came to Kathmandu again. We talked about the future of the Himalayan Trust and all his various projects. As we chatted, we both knew it would be his last visit, so I took the day off to secure a special pass and wheeled him to the airport's VIP lounge for his flight back home to New Zealand. It was my personal farewell to a man whose life had become so tightly interwoven with mine.
Last week's Buddhist memorial service in Boudha, with nearly 1,000 people present, was testament to the great affection he had earned from the people of Nepal. Still, it is the work that he achieved that will stay with us, and we will be forever lucky that he swapped his mountaineers' goggles for a carpenter's
Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa has a PhD in Forestry and works for conservation and development in mountain areas.