Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

Like a god to Nepalese

Hillary's legacy is perhaps most revered at the Schoolhouse in the Clouds, in Khumjung. Photo / File
Hillary's legacy is perhaps most revered at the Schoolhouse in the Clouds, in Khumjung. Photo / File

So you think New Zealanders know a thing or two about the adoration of Sir Edmund Hillary? You should see the Nepalese.

"Here, he's like a god," says Sonam Sherpa.

Sonam, born in Dingboche high in the Himalayas, has seen the region change in his 28 years. Much of the good, he says, has come through the Himalayan Trust, established in part by Hillary. Today Sonam works as a guide and 60 years after Sir Edmund and Tenzing Norgay stood at the peak of the world, he sees marks left by the great New Zealander.

At fundraisers around the world and on Himalayan building sites - hammer in hand, sweat on brow - Sir Edmund built schools, medical clinics and bridges the locals still use today.

His legacy is perhaps most revered at the Schoolhouse in the Clouds, in Khumjung, where the kids run past a statue of Sir Edmund on their way to class daily. "I have seen all the changes that Hillary brought to the region," says Sonam.

"Especially the effect of the schools."

Today, children run in neat school uniforms, sharing rough tracks with summiters making their way down now that Base Camp is closing and yaks and porters carrying gear between villages.

"He's deified," says Greg Mortimer, the first Australian on Everest and a friend of the Hillary family. "And rightly so, because of the simple principles of the Himalayan Trust. They just wanted to give back."

There are 285 kids at Khumjung School, where the playground is dominated by the Hillary statue. The Himalaya Trust supports 63 schools in the region and a number of medical clinics.

"Because of his philanthropic work, people of this region have gained a lot," says Mahendra Khatet, the headmaster at Khumjung School.

Pertemba Sherpa, who entered local legend when he became the first Sherpa to climb Everest up the southwest face in 1975, was in the first intake at Khumjung School in 1961. "Hillary is our godfather," says Pertemba, who is now a local trustee of the Himalaya Trust. "The godfather for all Sherpa people."

Kami Temba Sherpa, a local doctor who runs the Khunde Medical Centre, says the Himalaya Trust's assistance with inoculation programmes helped to bring communicable diseases under control in the region.

"The hospital is still funded by Hillary's charity," says Dr Kami. "The long-term goal has always been to have local people run the hospital."

Hillary's footprint on the top of Everest left a lasting mark in our national consciousness - and it's matched by an ongoing impact in the Himalaya region. The New Zealander was the first of many to the summit and every Westerner who follows brings tourism money to the guesthouses and work for the porters.

If in the West we sometimes worry about the impact of tourism on previously undeveloped communities, the Nepalese are more pragmatic.

"He brought modern tourism here," says Sonam. "And that means jobs and money.

"Before, there were only small teahouses - now people have big teahouses, better food and the internet."

•Winston Aldworth travelled to Nepal as a guest of World Expeditions and with assistance from Cathay Pacific.

- NZ Herald

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