Editor’s note: Dr. Surry Roberts, an entrepreneur and retired physician who lives in Raleigh, has traveled the world as an outdoorsman and explorer. A U.S. Army volunteer who served in Vietnam, Roberts has long admired men such as the late Sir Edmund Hillary.

Unfortunately, Dr. Roberts recalls, he missed out on an opportunity to meat Sir Edmund, who died on Jan. 11 at the age of 88.

Local Tech Wire asked Dr. Roberts to offer his thoughts about the example Sir Edmund set for explorers and entrepreneurs who dare to go where men have not tread before.

“One evening while working at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland, I was invited by the doctor overseeing my ward, who was a close friend of Hillary, to join the two couples for dinner, and now, regretfully, I turned down the invitation because I felt I needed to finish my work at the moment,” Dr. Roberts recalled. “I felt at the time that Hillary must be an ancient old man. He was 54!”

However, Dr. Roberts did get the chance to meet Sir Edmund’s Sherpa guide for the Everest Trek – Tenzing Norgay.

“When on the way to Gangtok for a trek in Sikkim in 1980, our leader and friend, the Australian mountaineer Warwick Deacock stopped to see his friend Tenzing Norgay, who arranged a small reception for our group in moments,” Dr. Roberts said. “Tenzing was shy and wore sunglasses indoors, but was open and interested when talking about mountaineering and old friends.”

RALEIGH – Among the mountaineering community, Sir Edmund Hillary stands very tall.

He actually was the first person to step atop the highest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest (29,028 feet at that time) on May 29, 1953, and has retained his peak of high esteem to the present.

Worldwide sadness has occurred with the passing of Sir Edmund Hillary on Jan. 11, 2008 in Auckland, New Zealand at age 88. His 88 years encompassed a life devoted to exploration, adventure, his family, his country and his allegiance to the Sherpa people of Nepal.

His companion at the top of Everest, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay was a mountaineer of distinction who like Hillary preferred action to celebrity, and retired to a quiet life in Darjeeling, India.

Following in the ill fated footsteps of George Lee Mallory and Andrew Irvine who may have made the top in 1924 but died, Hillary and Tenzing, among other worthy climbers, were chosen to seek the summit in good health and in good weather. Remarkably, their ascent occurred on the eve of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth and news via radio and telegraph from remote Nepal permitted both events to capture the imagination of a global audience.

Hillary, the Kiwi beekeeper, always preferred a low profile, but his distinguished presentations immediately cast him as a public figure and a renowned representative of exploring, mountaineering, the Himalayas and his beloved Sherpas.

Following Mount Everest, Hillary was Knighted, became married to Louise Mary Rose, returned to beekeeping and published his first book, “High Adventure,” in 1955. In 1958, shortly after helping establish the New Zealand Scott Base in Antarctica, Sir Edmund led a team which became the first group to reach the South Pole since Robert Falcon Scott in 1912.

In 1960, Sir Edmund began the Himalayan Trust through which he followed his passion to improve the lives of the Sherpas, particularly building some 20 schools, two hospitals and multiple health clinics in the mountains of Nepal.

Elizabeth Hawley, age 84, of the Trust, said Sir Edmund would want to be remembered for his Trust work, rather than his footprint on Mt. Everest, “He did it from his heart and not just as a do-gooder, because he had a deep affection for these people and they for him.”

His book, “Schoolhouse In The Clouds” (1965), is a classic in revealing the right way to help indigenous peoples help themselves. His wife Louise, who was very much involved in Nepal as well, died there with daughter Belinda in a plane crash in 1975.

Following a few years of reserve and depression, in 1979 in pursuit of further high adventure, Hillary, with his son Peter, joined an expedition from the mouth of the sacred river Ganges by jet boat to its source in the Himalaya’s.

New Zealand named Hillary High Commissioner to India (1985-1989).

Tenzing died in 1987 and revealed in his autobiography that Hillary had actually been the first to reach the summit of Everest, amid long years of speculation.

In 1989, Sir Edmund married June Mulgrew, widow of a close mountaineering friend, Peter Mulgrew, who died in a plane crash in Antarctica. He was taking Hillary’s place on this flight. Son Peter who joined his father with the same passion for the Sherpas also summitted Mount Everest in 1990.

Having been the only living person depicted on New Zealand bank notes, Sir Edmund was also honored in 1995 as one of only 24 living people chosen as Knights of royalty’s elite, The Most Noble Order of the Garter.

Control of the Himalayan Trust was handed over to the Sherpas in 2002, active and well funded. There were celebrations at home and abroad in 2003, marking the 50th anniversary of the ascent of Mt. Everest. Sir Edmund flew to Antarctica in 2007 to mark the anniversary of his historic journey there and the beginning of Scott Base. Shortly there after, in April 2007, he visited Nepal for the last of his over 100 visits to view the work of his Trust and to encourage climbers to keep the mountains clean.

With news of the passing of Sir Edmund Hillary, the flag at Scott Base and the flag above the New Zealand Parliament in Wellington were lowered to half-mast. At the Scott Base, Dean Petersen (senior representative) revealed that on Sir Edmund’s visit last year, they presented him with a climbing axe. Sir Edmund simply signed it and gave it straight back. Petersen said, “He was a gentleman who had a huge amount of tenacity and, of course, willpower. This was in someone incredibly gentle and caring—an extremely rare combination of qualities.”

Sir Edmund’s family accepted an offer of a state funeral from the country’s Prime Minister, Helen Clark, who described Hillary as a “colossus”, and said, “He was a heroic figure who not only ‘knocked off’ Everest but lived a life of determination, humility and generosity.” His widow, Lady June said the funeral would be appropriate “recognizing the impact (Hillary) has on all New Zealanders.”

In times past, Hillary even described himself as “In some ways I believe I epitomize the average New Zealander: I have modest abilities, I combine these with a good deal of determination, and I rather like to succeed.”

Indeed, a colossus.