Home Nepal community Edmund Hillary, first to climb Everest and passionate philanthropist

Edmund Hillary, first to climb Everest and passionate philanthropist

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This article is part of Escalation ongoing biographical study of the Who’s Who of the big names in climbing, the best and, in the case of Aleister Crowley, the most notorious.

Sir Edmund Percival Hillary (July 20, 1919 – January 11, 2008) was a New Zealand mountaineer and philanthropist. In the same way Tenzing NorgayHillary was one of the first two people to summit the world’s tallest mountain, Everest (8,848 meters), on May 29, 1953. In addition to climbing Everest, Hillary has traveled by land to the South Pole, flew to the North Pole with astronaut Neil Armstrong, served in World War II and founded the international non-profit organization Himalayan Trust.

Sir John Hunt (L), leader of the British Everest Expedition, and Sir Edmund Hillary (R) arrive at Lancaster House for a reception given in their honour. Previously, they had been received by Queen Elizabeth who had knighted the two men. (Photo: Getty Images)

Early life and military service

Hilary was born in Auckland, New Zealand on July 20, 1919. He experienced rock climbing as a teenager on a school trip to Mount Ruapehu (9,177ft), the largest volcano country asset. He then attended Auckland University College, joining the university’s Tramping Club. (Tramping is Kiwi slang for backpacking.)

By 1938, however, he had given up formal education and returned home to Tuakau, where his family now lived, to become a beekeeper with his father and brother. Hillary worked the hives during the summers, saving for the winter to cut her teeth on the climbs of the country’s Southern Alps. In 1939 he made his first significant summit, the 6,300 foot Mount Ollivier.

At the start of World War II, he applied to serve in the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). He almost immediately withdrew his candidacy due to a crisis of conscience, but in 1943, as the Japanese threat loomed in the Pacific, he signed on as a navigator, serving in both Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

In 1948 he reached the summit of Aoraki (12,218 feet), New Zealand’s highest peak. The same year, he participated in a dangerous rescue operation on the 10,000 foot La Pérouse. Here he met mountaineer Norman Hardie, who would become a lifelong friend and go on to serve on the board of Hillary’s non-profit, Himalayan Trust.

In 1951 Hillary embarked on the British reconnaissance expedition to Everest under Eric Shipton. Although not intended to pursue a summit, the expedition gleaned valuable insight into the terrain south of the mountain and resulted in the successful choice to attempt the now standard route up the mountain via the Icefall of Khumbu, Western Cwm and South Col in 1953.

The following year, Hillary and George Lowe joined another team led by Shipton, this time to attempt the Cho Oyu (8,150 meters). The expedition was a complete disaster, achieving neither a summit nor significant enough weather aloft to properly test oxygen equipment (a secondary objective). As a result, Shipton’s reputation in the mountaineering community plummeted. Due to his perceived lack of leadership during this expedition, Shipton was also replaced by John Hunt as team leader for the 1953 Everest Expedition. Hillary, however, performed well, leading a team of exploration to a high point of 22,400 feet.

1953 Everest Expedition

Hillary was considered one of the leading members of Britain’s Ninth Everest Expedition in 1953, led by John Hunt. Hillary and Sherpa climber Tenzing Norgay were one of two pairs of climbers selected to do summit pushes, the other being Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans (who had both climbed with Hillary on Cho Oyu the previous year ). The latter pair made it just 300 feet from the summit on May 26, but turned back after encountering trouble with their oxygen equipment.

Their efforts to break up the trail and hide the oxygen proved vital, however, when Hillary and Norgay made their summit bid two days later, from a bivouac at 27,900 feet on the southeast ridge. The duo successfully summited the world’s tallest mountain at 11:30 a.m. local time.

Today, they are generally recognized as the first summit climbers. However, some still claim that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine may have been the first to summit Everest in 1924.

Personal life, philanthropy and post-Everest exploits

After Everest, Hillary and Norgay were rocketed around the world. He was knighted on his return to London, in addition to receiving a host of other awards and honours. In 1958 he reached the South Pole as part of the Commonwealth’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition, becoming the first to do so by land since the Amundsen and Scott expeditions of 1911–12. Later, he flew to the North Pole with Neil Armstrong, becoming the first person to visit both poles and the summit of Everest.

Sir Edmund Hillary gets off the plane at the South Pole.
Hillary arrives at the South Pole. South Pole: Sir Edmund Hillary (centre), Lt. Vernon Houk (left) and Major Palle Mogensen stand at the South Pole January 3 after beating Dr. Vivian Fuch’s team to World’s End. Hillary and her four companions, all New Zealanders, had only 20 miles north of fuel left in their tractor when they reached their goal. (Photo: Getty Images)

Hillary served as New Zealand’s High Commissioner to India, Nepal and Bangladesh from 1985 to 1988. He also pursued a variety of philanthropic endeavours, including founding the Himalayan Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated building schools, hospitals, airfields and improving health. , Education and Welfare of the Sherpa People, in 1960. He led the nonprofit until his death.

He published nearly a dozen books during his lifetime, including High Adventure (1955), No latitude for error (1961), Nothing ventures, nothing wins (1975), and View from the top: the remarkable memoirs of the first person to conquer Everest (2000). Along with Norgay, Hillary was named one of the “100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century” by WEATHER in 1999.

Hillary married Louise Mary Rose shortly after her success on Everest. The couple had three children, but Louise was killed in a plane crash near Kathmandu in 1975, along with one of their daughters, Belinda, while traveling to the site of a hospital that Hillary was building for local people through the Himalayan Trust. In 1989 Hillary remarried, this time to June Mulgrew. His son, Peter, became a famous mountaineer and explorer himself, reaching the summit of Everest in 2003 with Jamling Norgay on the 50th anniversary of their fathers’ ascent.

Hillary died of heart failure on January 11, 2008 in Auckland.

Accomplishments, awards and honors

  • Member of the British Everest reconnaissance expedition (1951).
  • Member of the British Cho Oyu Expedition (1952).
  • Reached the first summit of Everest (8,848 meters) with Tenzing Norgay (1953).
  • Recipient of the United Kingdom’s George Medal and Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal (1953).
  • Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1953).
  • Polar Medal (1958).
  • Founder, Himalayan Trust (1960).
  • Namesake of Hillary Coast and Hillary Canyon, Antarctica (1961).
  • First ascent of Mount Herschel in Antarctica [10,941 feet] (1967).
  • Order of New Zealand (1987).
  • First living non-head of state to appear on the New Zealand banknote (1992).
  • Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (1995).
  • WEATHER magazine “100 most influential people of the 20th century” (1999).
  • First foreign national to be named “Honorary Citizen” of Nepal (2003).
  • Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland (2004).
  • Namesake of Nepal’s Tenzing–Hillary Airport (2008).
  • Namesake of Hillary Peak [25,200 feet] (2014).
  • Honorary Chairman, American Himalayan Foundation
  • Honorary Chairman, Mountain Wilderness