Sir Edmund Hillary, 1919 - 2008, New Zealand mountaineer, author and explorer. Together with Tenzing Norgay, he was the first to summit Mount Everest

Edmund Percival Hillary was born in on July 20 in Auckland, New Zealand as the son of a "strict disciplinarian" father and his wife. Edmund had one older sister and one younger brother. The family moved to Taukau forty miles outside of Auckland where his father Percival worked as an editor for the local paper. He later quit over a dispute with the management and took up pursued his hobby beekeeping instead. Hillary went to school in Auckland so he had to travel two hours in each direction to go to school. In addition to this he was younger than most of his classmates, so it is understandable that Hillary kept mostly to himself. He was shy, read a lot and wasn't particularly interested in sports or exercise. However, already at a young age he dreamt about becoming an explorer; "I would walk for hours with my mind drifting to all these things." 

At the age of sixteen his school made a trip to Mount Ruapehu, and this was the first encounter with both snow and the mountains for your Edmund. This spurred his interest in climbing and he noticed that he was both physically and psychologically well equipped for this. After the school years he followed in his fathers footsteps as a beekeeper before joining the New Zealand Air Force as a navigator. He was eventually discharged by accident during the war, so he returned home. But during his years in the Air Force he had made his mind up and was determined to become a climber. After the was he joined New Zealand Alpine Club and started participating in expeditions. His first summit was Mount Oliver, 2300 meters, in south New Zealand and not long after that followed Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. Just before the war he had told a friend that "Some day I’m going to climb Everest" and by the end of the 1940's he started working towards that goal actively. 

Hillary now prepared himself for Everest by practicing technique and gathering climbing experience in the European Alps. He worked on rock climbing and ice climbing and he took up wrestling to increase his overall strength. In 1951 the 31-year old Hillary joined a British expedition to Mount Everest, which eventually led to his invitation to the successful 1953 expedition. The 1951 expedition was led by Eric Shipton and was exclusively reconnaissance for the forthcoming British attempt at the summit. 

At the time the only 8000-meter (26250 feet) mountain that had been climbed was Annapurna, Mount Everest was a tremendous challenge. Over 15 expeditions had failed and many men had lost their lives trying to climb it. For political reasons, most attempts up to this point had been from the Chinese side of the mountain, since Nepal was closed for foreigners. One early and still the most exciting and heroic attempts at the summit was made by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine who perished on the North Ridge some 900 feet below the summit in 1924. Even if 30 years had passed, the equipment used in the early 1950's was bulky, heavy and prone to malfunction. 

The 1951 reconnaissance expedition offered new possibilities. First, Nepal had opened it's borders and now allowed climbing expeditions. This was important since China did the reverse, restricting access to the mountain. Second, the expedition realized that the Khumbu ice fall and glacier on the south side offered a route to the summit via the South Col and the southeast ridge. Nepali government only allowed one expedition per climbing season and the 1952 slot was assigned to a Swiss team, who would have the first try on the new route. The Swiss 1952 expedition climbed without contained oxygen (!) and stopped just short of the summit, at an altitude of 8600 meters. The Sherpa on this summit attempt was a certain Tenzing Norgay

The 1953 British expedition was nothing but a siege. Led by army officer Sir John Hunt, it brought 350 porters, 20 high-altitude porters and more than seven tons of equipment. The expedition would use the Sherpas to establish no less than nine camps along the route, and the six lead climbers would use these to get used to the altitude and the climbing. The Sherpas would pitch tents and stuff them with oxygen, clothes and food and the climbers would carry a minimum of equipment themselves. This still meant carrying at least 30 kg or more for each climber. 

On the morning of May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay awoke in their bivouac at 8500 meters. They had stopped there for a nights rest after setting out from Camp IX at 7900 meters the morning before. Since Hillary had forgot his boots outside the tent that night, they had had to spend a good two hours thawing them before they could head out. Part of the route from Camp IX had been opened by another team for them, but now they had to make the last part all alone in mostly unknown terrain. Three days earlier the team of R.C. Evans and T. Bourdillon had reached the South Summit at 8740 meters, but had to turn back because they were low on both oxygen and time. Norgay and Hillary reached the South Summit by 9 am, and they passed the very narrow ridge that eventually lead up to what is now called the Hillary Step. This is a 12 meter (40 feet) vertical cliff that presents a tremendous problem at this altitude. At this height most of the climbing is walking in snow and ice, but the Hillary Step makes necessary regular rock climbing using ropes. From the top of the Hillary Step, it wasn't long before they reached the summit at 11.30 am:

"...I then realised that the ridge ahead, instead of still monotonously rising, now dropped sharply away, and far below I could see the North Col and the Rongbuk Glacier. I looked upwards to see a narrow snow ridge running up to a snowy summit. A few more whacks of the ice-axe in the firm snow, and we stood on the top."

After spending 15 minutes on the summit, the two climbers headed back. Returning to the camp at the South Col, Hillary greeted George Cole with the now famous "Well George, we knocked that bastard off!"

The news about the event were published on June 2, the same day as Elizabeth II was crowned the new queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. The queen later knighted Hillary, and the knight returned to New Zealand to take up his beekeeping once again. 

Back in New Zealand, he married his girlfriend Louise Rose, and together they had Peter in 1954 and Sarah in 1955 and in 1958 they also had Belinda. In the decades that followed, Sir Edmund Hillary continued exploring. He undertook several Himalayan journey and also journeyed across Antarctica by tractor in 1957. He also went looking for the Snowman(Yeti), but the success was limited on that expedition.

More recently he has been writing books and have also been involved with the development of Nepal. In 1964 he created the Himalayan Trust, which raised funds for the construction of schools and hospitals. He also helped Tenzing Norgay with his work on building schools for the Sherpa people. While in Nepal in 1975, his wife and youngest daughter were killed in a plane crash. Between 1984 and 1989 he was the High Commissioner to India and he helped put in place regulations and national parks in Nepal, with the intent on preserving the environment there. He remarried in 1990 with June Mulgrew and in the same year his son Peter Hillary summitted Everest. In 1995 he was awarded the Order of the Garter.


Editorial note: Sir Edmund Hillary died in Auckland on January 10, 2008.

Sources: NOVA online,, The New Zealand Edge, various climbing websites