Thursday, August 04, 2005

Meeting Ed.

In 1980 I was a young writer just starting out on a career as a journalist. An anthology of my observations about life in rural Ontario had just been published, and as part of the book promotional tour, I was scheduled to appear on an early morning news and variety show on the local television station in London, Ontario.
In addition to being a budding journalist I was also an amateur rock-climber with climbing experience in Ontario and Maine. Not surprisingly, I was a devoted fan of many of the famous and accomplished climbers and adventurers such as Jon Krakauer and Royal Robbins. But the man I admired most was Sir Edmund Hillary who, on May 29, 1953, along with the Nepalese Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, set human foot for the first time on the summit of Mount Everest in the Himalayas.
I would have given just about anything to meet Sir Edmund, so imagine my surprise when, as I made my way back from the television studio to the “green room”, I saw the Great Man himself striding down the hallway towards me. I had only a few seconds to decide what to do – to think how I could have a few words with the him, but at that moment the journalist in me fell away, and I was reduced to stammering fan.
I stand about six feet tall, but Sir Edmund towered over me by at nearly a foot, and his great, craggy face hung above me like majestic cliff overhang.
“Excuse me,” I managed, as he came to a halt in front of me. “I am a great admirer. Could I have your autograph?”
Instead of simply walking around me, or having someone in his entourage deal with me, Sir Edmund looked down at me benignly. “I’d be happy to,” he said with a warm smile.
While he was signing the scrap of paper I had handed him, he said, “So, what do you do?”
I had forgotten all about my career, my book and everything else in my life. All I could think of was that here I was, having an actual conversation with my hero, and at that crucial moment, all I could blurt out was “Well, I climb too…”
Now, having scaled a few 150 foot cliff in Ontario did, technically, qualify me as an amateur rock-climber, but to try to put myself in the same category as the Conqueror of Everest was, well, ridiculous.
But Hillary looked at me with genuine interest. “Oh? And what do you climb?”
As he spoke, I could practically hear roar of the wind blowing thin air, snow and ice around the 29,000 foot summit of the mountain, and I thought by way of comparison of the sun-drenched afternoons I had spend leisurely making my way up a warm, southern Ontario cliff-face, and said the only appropriate thing: “Never mind.”
Sir Edmund shook my hand, gave me the paper with his autograph, and resumed his journey.
I still have the autograph. It reads simply “Ed Hillary” and it’s a wonderful memento of a moment spent with a great achiever, and a lesson learned about keeping my mouth shut.
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