The British knighted Sir Edmund Hillary for going where no one had gone before. Hillary was the New Zealand mountain climber who, along with Tenzing Norgay of Nepal, became the first to climb the highest mountain on earth, Mount Everest, in 1953.
Until Hillary came along, the summit of Everest was considered insurmountable, and not just because, at 29,028 feet, it was at the same altitude most people associate with the announcement, "We have reached our cruising height; you are now free to walk around the cabin and lower your seatbacks and tray tables."
For climbers, a lack of oxygen wasn't Everest's biggest problem. That paled to a nasty stretch of ice and rock just below the summit that served as a kind of Everest Roadblock. The ice and rock sits at the top of a thin, forbidding mountain spine that, on a clear day, affords (so they say) fantastic views of Nepal and China. One is five miles to the left, the other five miles to the right. Straight down.
This spiny stretch of ice and rock frightened, and stumped, mountaineers for decades. They didn't know what to do with this "rock step," as Hillary called it in his book Adventure's End. Accomplished climbers would get this far and then, stumped, they'd stop, their goal just around the corner, but still out of reach.
Then along came Hillary. As he recounts in his book:
"We were fast approaching the most formidable obstacle on the ridge-a great rock step. This step had always been visible in aerial photographs, and . . . we had always thought of it as the obstacle on the ridge which could well spell defeat. I looked anxiously up at the rocks. Planted squarely across the ridge in a vertical bluff, they looked extremely difficult, and I knew that our strength and ability to climb steep rock at this altitude would be severely limited . . . Search as I could, I was unable to see an easy route up to the step or, in fact, any route at all. Finally, in desperation I examined the right-hand end of the bluff. Attached to this and overhanging the precipitous East face was a large cornice. This cornice . . . had started to lose its grip on the rock and a long narrow vertical crack had been formed between the rock and the ice. The crack was large enough to take the human frame, and though it offered little security, it was at least a route. I quickly made up my mind-it was worth a try."
And so Hillary went where no man had gone before. He gave something new a try, and once he'd used that "crack" to maneuver himself beyond the great rock step, the top of the world stretched out in front of him as if with open arms.
That portion of the final assault up Everest has been known as the Hillary Step ever since. It serves as a kind of litmus test to gain entrance to the earth's throne. One last awkward, challenging climb to make sure you've paid for the view. It's not easy. Getting to the top of the world-in anything-rarely is. But it is possible. That was Sir Edmund Hillary's gift to the world. He showed it could be done. In the half-century since he maneuvered his way through that rock step, more than seven hundred people have conquered Mount Everest.
Of course, just knowing that something is reachable in no way guarantees its accomplishment. For proof of that, ask the more than five thousand climbers who have tried and come up short on Everest even after Hillary established his Step; or witness the well publicized tragedies of those who came ill-prepared.
The positive experiences of others not only shows us what's possible, but by looking at their performances we can also understand what's necessary to get where they went. Whether we want to pay the price they paid is our own decision. But at the very least we have evidence of what has been done, and more importantly, what can be done.
Peter Vidmar, Olympic Gymnastics Champion, is a speaker on personal achievement, risk taking, and innovation. He is also the author of Risk, Originality, and Virtuosity: The Keys to a Perfect 10.