Feature

Obituaries

Sir Edmund Hillary and Philip Agee

Sir Edmund Hillary
1919–2008

The mountaineer who was the first to conquer Everest

On the morning of May 29, 1953, a 33-year-old New Zealander was poised to make history on the highest place on Earth. In prior decades, dozens of experienced climbers had died trying to conquer the 29,035-foot Himalayan peak named for the British geographer George Everest, killed by 100 mph winds, uncharted crevasses, lack of oxygen, or subzero temperatures. Now, after bivouacking overnight in minus-30-degree weather at 27,900 feet, Edmund Hillary was up and ready for the final push.

The going was treacherous, said The New York Times. At one point, a huge area of snow under Hillary broke off. “It was a nasty shock,” he said. “I could look down 10,000 feet between my legs.” Then Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, encountered “a sheer face of rock and ice 40 feet high.” But by 11:30 a.m., Hillary was on the summit. “Nothing but space in every direction,” he recalled. “Tenzing quickly joined me and we looked round in wonder.” Hillary extended his hand; Norgay hugged him. Hillary deposited a crucifix; “Norgay, a Buddhist, buried biscuits and chocolate as an offering to the gods of Everest. Then they ate a mint cake, strapped on their oxygen tanks, and began the climb down.”

The 6-foot-5 Hillary “first saw snow at 16, when he went on a school skiing trip to Mount Ruapehu on New Zealand’s North Island,” said the Los Angeles Times. “I knew right away that this is what I wanted to do—spend my life among the mountains and the snow and the ice,” he recalled. Dropping out of engineering school to tend to his father’s beekeeping business, he soon began scaling New Zealand’s major peaks. After serving as an air force navigator during World War II, he tackled the Alps and made his first trip to the Himalayas in 1951. In conquering Everest two years later, Hillary and Norgay weren’t alone; they were part of a 50-man expedition. Only when the first two-man team was forced to turn back, though, did they take over the ascent. When Hillary and Norgay returned, looking much the worse for wear, everyone assumed they, too, had failed. But “Hillary’s first words, to fellow climber George Lowe, were, ‘Well, George, we knocked the bastard off!’”

Overnight, Hillary became synonymous with courage, endurance, and adventure, said the London Independent. “In Britain, the conquest was announced—by chance—on the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The two events did much to restore public confidence and distraction after the weary war years.” Knighted two months after his return, Hillary was feted the world over but remained modest. “I may not have produced much joy or happiness in the world,” he wrote his mother, “but at least I’ve helped make the Hillary name a bit famous.”

Hillary was an adventurer for the rest of his life, said the London Evening Standard. In 1957, he was part of the first team to cross Antarctica; three years later, he returned to the Himalayas in search of the Abominable Snowman. He also journeyed to the source of the Ganges and flew in a twin-engine plane to the North Pole. Retiring from beekeeping in 1970, he served as New Zealand’s ambassador to India, Bangladesh, and Nepal in the 1980s. He also founded the Himalayan Trust—which built many schools, clinics, airfields, and hospitals for the Sherpas in Nepal—to which he returned more than 120 times. “But tragedy struck during one visit in 1975, when his wife, Louise, and daughter Belinda were killed in a plane crash.” He is survived by his second wife, June, and two children.

In later years, Hillary became increasingly disturbed by Everest’s commercialization. “When you’ve got people just streaming up the mountain—well, many of them are just climbing it to get their name in the paper, really,” he said. “It’s all bulls—t on Everest these days.” Hillary had been in declining health since April, following a fall during his last visit to Nepal.

Philip Agee
1935–2008

The CIA officer who spilled his agency’s secrets

Philip Agee was an eight-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1965 when, during a meeting at police headquarters in Montevideo, Uruguay, he heard moans and screams from an adjoining room. “I knew we were listening to someone being tortured,” he recalled. The victim, it turned out, was someone Agee had suggested the authorities keep an eye on. Appalled, he was slowly transformed from CIA loyalist into one of the spy agency’s biggest headaches. Agee would eventually publish Inside the Company, a memoir that would expose many of the CIA’s secret policies and the identities of some 250 of its officers, fronts, and foreign agents.

A philosophy graduate of Notre Dame, “Agee had initially seemed perfect CIA material: bright, sharp-witted, bilingual, and cultured,” said the London Guardian. For 12 years, he held postings in Ecuador, Uruguay, and Mexico. “When I joined the CIA, I believed in the need for its existence,” he recalled. But he soon became “disgusted” with the agency’s Latin American skullduggery, which he said was replete with torture, executions, and coups. Resigning in 1969, he “decided to blow the whistle” on his superiors with a tell-all account. “Millions of people all over the world had been killed or at least had their lives destroyed by the CIA,” he said. “I couldn’t just sit by.”

Published in 1975, with mistrust of the government in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate at its height, Inside the Company was a cause célèbre among liberals and the counterculture, said The Washington Post. But “what Agee and his political allies saw as moral imperative, his former colleagues saw as reckless and venal betrayal.” Critics said he had fatally compromised many CIA operations; some called him a traitor. Agee’s reputation suffered further when, shortly after publication, Richard Welch, the CIA’s Athens station chief, was assassinated. (Agee had not disclosed his identity.) Three years later, Congress passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, “making it illegal to knowingly divulge the identity of covert CIA officers.”

Agee, who wrote several other books, moved to Europe after receiving numerous death threats. At the behest of the U.S., he was expelled, in turn, from England, France, Holland, West Germany, and Italy. After living for a time in Grenada and Nicaragua, he settled in Cuba, where he ran a travel Web site. Agee, who died of peritonitis, is survived by his second wife and two sons from his first marriage.

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