Hillary made Nepali citizen on Everest anniversary.

30 May 2003 12:00pm NZ Heral

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KATHMANDU - Nepal celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest on Thursday by making Sir Edmund Hillary an honorary citizen.

Sir Edmund, who reached the summit with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay at 11:30 on the morning of May 29, 1953, was spending the day in Nepal's low-lying capital Kathmandu, at the age of 83 no longer able to handle the lack of oxygen in the mountains.

His son Peter, who has also scaled Everest, celebrated in the mountains at the Tengboche Buddhist monastery, where teams are blessed en route to the 8850-metre summit.

"My father would love to be up here," Peter Hillary told Indian television. "Just before we left on this trip, he was lamenting that now he can't come up to altitudes.

Solo Russian climber Sergey Larin radioed his support team to say he had made it to the top on Thursday from the Chinese side, the only climber so far to claim the summit on the anniversary.

"I am standing at the summit of Everest and setting our flag," expedition leader Alexander Abramov wrote on leading Everest website www.everestnews.com.

Larin's climb has not yet been officially confirmed. Nepali officials said two US-led teams would try for the summit on Thursday from the South Col route in Nepal pioneered by Sir Edmund and Tenzing.

However, one reported on the same site it would wait a day due to impossibly high winds. It is due to try again within hours. There was no immediate word from the second team.

Events in Kathmandu were relatively muted after almost a week of street parades and celebrations.

Prime Minister Lokendra Bahadur Chand handed Sir Edmund a certificate making him an honorary citizen at a ceremony for summiteers before the former beekeeper met the monarch of the world's only Hindu kingdom, King Gyanendra.

"It's been an absolutely marvellous day. I feel completely overwhelmed," Sir Edmund told reporters after being welcomed to the ceremony by a group of monks and fanfare of alpine horns.

He was to end the day with a dinner with hundreds of Sherpa friends before heading to London on Friday for further events.

About 450 summiteers joined the celebrations, which Nepal hopes will help revive a tourism industry shattered by a bloody Maoist revolt.

More than 1200 people have now climbed Everest.

But where Sir Edmund and Tenzing cut their own way, most climbers today pay guides up to US$65,000 ($114,000) to lay ladders across the gaping crevasses of the Khumbu icefall and rig ropes along the Hillary Step just below the summit to help them reach the top.

Equipment has also changed dramatically, with climbers using ultra-light titanium oxygen bottles developed as part of the Soviet space programme, and lighter and warmer clothing.

Sir Edmund and other pioneering climbers are scathingly critical of the commercialism that has taken over the mountain.

"There's even a booze tent at base camp," Sir Edmund told Reuters this week.

"If I were 33 again, young, fit and a bit of a dynamo as I think I was in those days, I simply wouldn't want to join the queue that is scrambling to get up the mountainside."

However, while it is easier than in Sir Edmund's day, climbing the world's highest mountain remains dangerous.

Over the years, 175 people have died -- including nine in one day in 1996 -- and many of their bodies remain frozen on the mountain. On Wednesday, two people died when a helicopter crashed as it came into base camp.

Fifty years ago, former Reuters correspondent Peter Jackson trekked for two weeks into the mountains to get the first interview with Sir Edmund and Tenzing. On Thursday, he recalled asking Hillary how he felt at the top.

"I felt bloody good," Sir Edmund said. "It was almost a surprise seeing the top, a firm snow cone forming a perfect summit." Hillary made Nepali citizen on Everest anniversary