KATHMANDU The death of Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed Mount Everest along with Nepal's Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, has orphaned the Sherpas, one of his close friends from the community said on Monday.
Hillary, who died on Friday in New Zealand at the age of 88, never turned his back on Nepal after his 1953 feat.
His Himalayan Trust set up in the early 1960s raised $250,000 annually, helping build 26 schools, two hospitals, an airport and pipelines in the remote Solukhumbhu district beneath Everest.
"We the Sherpa community as a whole have become orphans as we have lost our second father," said Ang Rita Sherpa, 47, who went to a school opened by Hillary in Khumjung village, towered over by the 8,850-metre (29,035-feet) peak, the world's highest.
"If our father gave us birth, he helped us build our lives, made us fit to live like human beings," Ang Rita told Reuters on the sidelines of a special service held for Hillary.
Sherpas, who are of Mongoloid origin like Tibetans across the border, are traditionally farmers and yak herders known for their special climbing skills.
There are about 100,000 of them in Nepal, mostly around the Everest area east of Kathmandu. An ethnic minority, they have been underprivileged and, until Hillary's effort in their area, had no access to schools and hospitals.
Ang Rita's late father, Mingma Tshering, worked with Hillary for decades and the climber lived with their family during his many visits to the region to oversee development projects.
Hillary drank chang, a popular alcoholic drink brewed locally from rice, and ate potatoes for meals.
"He was a very simple man. He had no special preferences and lived a simple life," said Ang Rita, a forestry graduate who works for a Washington-based environment protection group.
For the Sherpas, he said, Hillary was dearer than the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. "Every house in the region has Hillary's picture hung from its wall by the side of that of the Dalai Lama".
Hillary's ascent shot Nepal into the limelight as a popular destination for trekkers and mountain climbers. Tourism now accounts for four percent of the desperately poor country's
Special prayers to pay respect for the "Bada shaheb" or the big boss, as many Sherpas called Hillary, were good but more was needed to keep his memory alive, Ang Rita said.
"Therefore, the Lukla airport must be renamed after Hillary so that he is remembered for all times to come," he said, referring to a village known as the gateway to Mount Everest.
"I remember him as our big father and want him to be reincarnated in Nepal so that he can continue the unfinished work he began for our people," he said, as Sherpas gathered around him agreed.
(Editing by Y.P. Rajesh and Roger Crabb)