Overview of life
Sir Edmund Percival Hillary, KG, ONZ, KBE (20 July 1919 – 11 January 2008) was a New Zealand mountaineer, explorer and philanthropist. On 29 May 1953, Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers confirmed as having reached the summit of Mount Everest. They were part of the ninth British expedition to Everest, led by John Hunt. Hillary was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
Hillary became interested in mountaineering while in secondary school, making his first major climb in 1939, reaching the summit of Mount Ollivier. He served in the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a navigator during World War II. Prior to the 1953 Everest expedition, Hillary had been part of the British reconnaissance expedition to the mountain in 1951, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to climb Cho Oyu in 1952. As part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition he reached the South Pole overland in 1958. Subsequently, he also travelled to the North Pole.
Following his ascent of Everest, Hillary devoted most of his life to helping the Sherpa people of Nepal through the Himalayan Trust, which he founded. Through his efforts, many schools and hospitals were built in Nepal.
Hillary was born to Percival Augustus Hillary and Gertrude Hillary, in Auckland, New Zealand, on 20 July 1919. His family moved to Tuakau (south of Auckland) in 1920, after his father (who served at Gallipoli in the 15th North Auckland) was allocated land there. His grandparents were early settlers in northern Wairoa in the mid-19th century after emigrating from Yorkshire, England. Hillary was educated at Tuakau Primary School and then Auckland Grammar School. He finished primary school two years early and at high school achieved average marks. He was initially smaller than his peers there and very shy so he took refuge in his books and daydreams of a life filled with adventure. His daily train journey to and from high school was over two hours each way, during which he regularly used the time to read. He gained confidence after he learned to box. At 16 his interest in climbing was sparked during a school trip to Mount Ruapehu. Though gangly at 6 ft 5 in (195 cm) and uncoordinated, he found that he was physically strong and had greater endurance than many of his tramping companions. He studied mathematics and science at the University of Auckland, and in 1939 completed his first major climb, reaching the summit of Mount Ollivier, near Aoraki/Mount Cook in the Southern Alps. With his brother Rex, Hillary became a beekeeper, a summer occupation that allowed him to pursue climbing in the winter. His interest in beekeeping later led Hillary to commission Michael Ayrton to cast a golden sculpture in the shape of honeycomb in imitation of Daedalus’s lost-wax process. This was placed in his New Zealand garden, where his bees took it over as a hive and “filled it with honey and their young”.
World War II
Hillary in RNZAF uniform, during WWII, at Delta Camp, near Blenheim. Upon the outbreak of World War II Hillary applied to join the air force, but withdrew the application before it was considered because he was “harassed by religious conscience”. In 1943 Hillary joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a navigator and served in 6 then 5 Squadron RNZAF on Catalina flying boats. In 1945 he was sent to Fiji and to the Solomon Islands where he was badly burnt in a boat accident, after which he was repatriated to New Zealand.
Hillary, with first wife, Louise, and son, Peter, 1955.
Hillary married Louise Mary Rose on 3 September 1953, soon after the ascent of Everest. A shy man, he relied on his future mother-in-law to propose on his behalf. They had three children: Peter (*1954), Sarah (*1955) and Belinda (1959-1975). In 1975 while en route to join Hillary in the village of Phaphlu, where he was helping to build a hospital, Louise and Belinda were killed in a plane crash near Kathmandu airport shortly after take-off. In 1989 remarried, to June Mulgrew, the widow of his close friend Peter Mulgrew. His son Peter Hillary has also become a climber, summiting Everest in 1990. In May 2002 Peter climbed Everest as part of a 50th anniversary celebration; Jamling Tenzing Norgay (son of Tenzing; Tenzing himself had died in 1986) was also part of the expedition. Hillary had six grandchildren.
He spent most of his life (when not away on expeditions) living in a property on Remuera Road in Auckland City, where he enjoyed reading adventure and science fiction novels in his retirement. Hillary also built a bach at Whites Beach, one of Auckland’s west coast beaches in the former Waitakere City, between Anawhata and North Piha. Bob Harvey, mayor of Waitakere, and friend of Hillary’s from the early 1970s, said that “the West Coast was Sir Ed’s second home. Anawhata was his favourite beach; a place he called the most beautiful on the planet.” Harvey said that the bach was Hillary’s place of solace, where he would go when the media attention became too much including after his return from conquering Everest. “Building the cottage at Whites Beach he told me was one of his greatest pleasures.” Aside from the bach, Hillary also co-owned a large piece of land in Karekare Valley in the 1970s with fellow climber Mike Gill. The Hillary family has had a connection with the West Coast of Auckland since 1925, when Hillary’s father-in-law, Jim Rose, built a bach at Anawhata. The family donated land at Whites Beach that is now crossed by trampers on the Hillary Trail, named for Edmund (see Tributes, below).
That is the thing that international travel brings home to me – it’s always good to be going home.
This is the only place I want to live in; this is the place I want to see out my days.
Harry Ayres, along with Mick Sullivan, led Hillary and Ruth Adams up the south ridge of Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak, on 30 January 1948. Hillary was part of a British reconnaissance expedition to Everest in 1951 led by Eric Shipton before joining the successful British attempt of 1953. In 1952 Hillary and George Lowe were part of the British team led by Eric Shipton that attempted Cho Oyu. After that attempt failed due to the lack of route from the Nepal side, Hillary and Lowe crossed the Nup La into Tibet and reached the old Camp II, on the northern side, where all the pre-war expeditions camped.
1953 Everest Expedition
The route to Everest was closed by Chinese-controlled Tibet, and Nepal only allowed one expedition per year. A Swiss expedition (in which Tenzing took part) had attempted to reach the summit in 1952 but was turned back by bad weather and exhaustion 800 feet (240 m) from the summit. During a 1952 trip in the Alps, Hillary discovered that he and his friend George Lowe had been invited by the Joint Himalayan Committee for the approved British 1953 attempt and immediately accepted. Shipton was named as leader but was replaced by Hunt. Hillary considered pulling out, but both Hunt and Shipton talked him into remaining. Hillary was intending to climb with Lowe but Hunt named two teams for the assault: Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans; and Hillary and Tenzing. Hillary therefore made a concerted effort to forge a working friendship with Tenzing. The Hunt expedition totalled over 400 people, including 362 porters, twenty Sherpa guides and 10,000 lbs of baggage, and like many such expeditions, was a team effort. Lowe supervised the preparation of the Lhotse Face, a huge and steep ice face, for climbing. Hillary forged a route through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall. The expedition set up base camp in March 1953. Working slowly it set up its final camp at the South Col at 25,900 feet (7,890 m). On 26 May Bourdillon and Evans attempted the climb but turned back when Evans’ oxygen system failed. The pair had reached the South Summit, coming within 300 vertical feet (91 m) of the summit. Hunt then directed Hillary and Tenzing to go for the summit.
Edmund Hillary greets Tenzing Norgay, circa 1971.
Snow and wind held the pair up at the South Col for two days. They set out on 28 May with a support trio of Lowe, Alfred Gregory and Ang Nyima. The two pitched a tent at 27,900 feet (8,500 m) on 28 May while their support group returned down the mountain. On the following morning Hillary discovered that his boots had frozen solid outside the tent. He spent two hours warming them before he and Tenzing attempted the final ascent wearing 30-pound (14 kg) packs. The crucial move of the last part of the ascent was the 40-foot (12 m) rock face later named the “Hillary Step”. Hillary saw a means to wedge his way up a crack in the face between the rock wall and the ice and Tenzing followed. From there the following effort was relatively simple. Tenzing Norgay stated in his narration “The Dream Comes True” that Hillary had indeed taken the first step atop Mount Everest, despite Hillary quoting that both had reached the summit at the same time. They reached Everest’s 29,028 ft (8,848 m) summit, the highest point on earth, at 11:30 am. As Hillary put it, “A few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow, and we stood on top.” They spent only about 15 minutes at the summit. Hillary took the famous photo of Tenzing posing with his ice-axe, but since Tenzing had never used a camera, Hillary’s ascent went unrecorded. However, according to Tenzing’s autobiography ‘Man of Everest’, when Tenzing offered to take Hillary’s photograph Hillary declined “I motioned to Hillary that I would now take his picture. But for some reason he shook his head; he did not want it”. Tenzing left chocolates in the snow as an offering and Hillary left a cross that he had been given by John Hunt. Additional photos were taken looking down the mountain in order to confirm that they had made it to the top and that the ascent was not faked. Hillary (left) and George Lowe (right) with Governor-General Sir Willoughby Norrie at Government House, Wellington, 20 August 1953. The two had to take care on the descent after discovering that drifting snow had covered their tracks, complicating the task of retracing their steps. The first person they met was Lowe, who had climbed up to meet them with hot soup. Well, George, we knocked the bastard off. Edmund Hillary, first words to lifelong friend George Lowe on returning from Everest’s summit
News of the expedition reached Britain on the day of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and the press called the successful ascent a coronation gift. In return, the 37 members of the party received the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal with MOUNT EVEREST EXPEDITION engraved on the rim. The group was surprised by the international acclaim that they received upon arriving in Kathmandu. Hillary and Hunt were knighted by the young queen, while Tenzing received either the British Empire Medal, or the George Medal from the British Government for his efforts with the expedition. It has been suggested that Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused permission for Tenzing to be knighted.
Hillary in the cockpit of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition’s DHC-2, 1956
Hillary in 1957 after accompanying the first plane to land at the Marble Point ground air strip, Antarctica
Hillary climbed ten other peaks in the Himalayas on further visits in 1956, 1960-1961, and 1963-1965. He also reached the South Pole as part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, for which he led the New Zealand section, on 4 January 1958. His party was the first to reach the Pole overland since Amundsen in 1911 and Scott in 1912, and the first ever to do so using motor vehicles. Hillary narrowly missed becoming a victim in TWA Flight 266 from the American midwest in the 1960 New York air disaster, having been late for his flight. In the summer of 1962, he was a guest on the television show, “What’s My Line?” The panellists were blindfolded for his appearance. He stumped the panel, Dorothy Kilgallen, guest panellist Merv Griffin, Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf. In 1977, he led a jetboat expedition, titled “Ocean to Sky”, from the mouth of the Ganges River to its source.
True, why make a fuss over something that’s done anyway? I was never one to obsess about the past. Too much to do in the future!
Edmund Hillary, reaction to the destruction of one of the jetboats by his friend Jim Wilson Between 1977 and 1979, Hillary commentated aboard several Antarctic sightseeing flights operated by Air New Zealand. He was scheduled to commentate on 28 November 1979 Air New Zealand Flight 901, but had to pull out due to work commitments in the United States, and was replaced by his close friend Peter Mulgrew. The aircraft crashed into Mount Erebus in Antarctica, killing all 257 on board. Hillary later married Mulgrew’s widow.
Hillary took part in the 1975 general election, as a member of the “Citizens for Rowling” campaign. His involvement in this campaign was seen as precluding his nomination as Governor-General, with the position instead being offered to Keith Holyoake in 1977. However, in 1985 he was appointed New Zealand High Commissioner to India (concurrently High Commissioner to Bangladesh and Ambassador to Nepal) and spent four and a half years based in New Delhi. In 1985 he accompanied Neil Armstrong in a small twin-engined ski plane over the Arctic Ocean and landed at the North Pole. He thus became the first man to stand at both poles and on the summit of Everest.
Hillary was highly critical of the decision not to try to rescue David Sharp, an Everest climber who died on the mountain in 2006, saying that leaving other climbers to die is unacceptable, and the desire to get to the summit has become all-important. He also said, “I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying. The people just want to get to the top. It was wrong if there was a man suffering altitude problems and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say good morning and pass on by”. He also told the New Zealand Herald that he was horrified by the callous attitude of today’s climbers. “They don’t give a damn for anybody else who may be in distress and it doesn’t impress me at all that they leave someone lying under a rock to die” and that, “I think that their priority was to get to the top and the welfare of … a member of an expedition was very secondary.” Australian mountaineer Adam Darragh in turn considered Hillary’s criticism of Inglis and his team as too harsh, and Inglis himself, while maintaining that he remained on good terms with Hillary after the incident, noted that Sharp was “almost frozen solid” and “effectively dead” when the team found him in the difficult terrain on their descent. In January 2007, Hillary travelled to Antarctica to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Scott Base. He flew to the station on 18 January 2007 with a delegation including the Prime Minister. While there he called for the British government to contribute to the upkeep of Scott’s and Shackleton’s huts. On 22 April 2007 while on a trip to Kathmandu he was reported to have suffered a fall. There was no comment on the nature of his illness and he did not immediately seek treatment. He was hospitalised after returning to New Zealand.
Edmund Hillary on the New Zealand five-dollar note
Hillary was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) on 6 June 1953; member of the Order of New Zealand (ONZ) in 1987; and Knight of the Order of the Garter (KG) on 22 April 1995. The Government of India conferred on him its second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, posthumously, in 2008. He was also awarded the Polar Medal for his part in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, and the Order of Gorkha Dakshina Bahu, 1st Class of the Kingdom of Nepal in 1953. His favoured New Zealand charity was the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre Inc. (OPC) of which he was Patron for 35 years. Hillary was particularly keen on the work this organisation did in introducing young New Zealanders to the outdoors in a very similar way to his first experience of a school trip to Mt Ruapehu at the age of 16. Various streets, schools and organisations around New Zealand and abroad are named after him. A few examples are Hillary College (Otara), Edmund Hillary Primary School (Papakura) and the Hillary Commission (now SPARC).
Statue of Hillary permanently gazing towards Aoraki / Mount Cook, one of his favourite peaks. In 1992 Hillary appeared on the updated New Zealand $5 note, thus making him the only New Zealander to appear on a banknote during his or her lifetime, in defiance of the established convention for banknotes of using only depictions of deceased individuals, and current heads of state. The Reserve Bank governor at the time, Don Brash, had originally intended to use a deceased sportsperson on the $5 note but could not find a suitable candidate. Instead he broke with convention by requesting and receiving Hillary’s permission along with an insistence from Hillary to use Aoraki/Mount Cook rather than Mount Everest in the backdrop. The image also features a Ferguson TE20 tractor like the one Hillary used to reach the South Pole on the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. A 2.3-metre (7.5 ft) bronze statue of “Sir Ed” was installed outside The Hermitage hotel at Mount Cook Village, New Zealand, in 2003.
To mark the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Everest the Nepalese Government conferred honorary citizenship upon Hillary at a special Golden Jubilee celebration in Kathmandu. He was the first foreign national to receive that honour. In 2008, the same year he died, the Indian Government conferred him with Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian honour of the country.
Hillary in 2006
In 2005 a poll conducted by Reader’s Digest put Hillary as “New Zealand’s most trusted individual”, beating cyclist Sarah Ulmer and film director Peter Jackson. He kept the title in 2006 and 2007 After his death in 2008 he was succeeded by Willie Apiata VC, a Corporal in the NZSAS.
Two Antarctic features are named after Hillary. The Hillary Coast is a section of coastline south of Ross Island and north of the Shackleton Coast. It is formally recognised by New Zealand, the United States of America and Russia. The Hillary Canyon, an undersea feature in the Ross Sea appears on the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans, which is published by the International Hydrographic Organization. In 1974, Folkways Records released Interview with Sir Edmund Hillary: Mountain Climbing which included his thoughts on the Everest Expedition and the Abominable Snowman.
New Zealand flag at half-mast to mark the death of Hillary
On 11 January 2008, Hillary died of heart failure at the Auckland City Hospital at around 9 am NZDT (10 January at 20:00 UTC) at the age of 88. Hillary’s death was announced by New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark at around 11:20 am. She stated that his death was a “profound loss to New Zealand”. His death was recognised by the lowering of flags to half-mast on all Government and public buildings and at Scott Base in Antarctica. Actor and adventurer Brian Blessed, who attempted to climb Everest three times, described Sir Edmund as a “kind of titan”. He was in hospital at the time of his death but was expected to come home that day according to his family.
After Hillary’s death the Green Party proposed a new public holiday for 20 July or the Monday nearest to it. Renaming mountains after Hillary was also proposed. The Mt Cook Village’s Hermitage Hotel, the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre and Alpine Guides, proposed a renaming of Mount Ollivier, the first mountain climbed by Hillary. The family of Arthur Ollivier, for whom the mountain is named, are against such a renaming.
People draped in the Flag of New Zealand at the Auckland Domain as the hearse drives past at Sir Edmund Hillary’s state funeral. A state funeral was held for Hillary on 22 January 2008, after which his body was cremated. The first part of this funeral was on 21 January when Hillary’s casket was taken into Holy Trinity Cathedral to lie in state. On 29 February 2008, in a private ceremony, most of Hillary’s ashes were scattered in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf as he had desired. The remainder went to a Nepalese monastery near Everest; a plan to scatter them on the summit was cancelled in 2010. On 2 April 2008, a service of thanksgiving was held in his honour at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. It was attended by the Queen (but not the Duke of Edinburgh owing to a chest infection) and New Zealand dignitaries including then Prime Minister Helen Clark. Sir Edmund’s family and family members of Tenzing Norgay attended as well. Gurkha soldiers from Nepal, a country Sir Edmund Hillary held much affection for, stood guard outside the ceremony. On 5 November 2008, a commemorative set of five stamps was issued.
There have been many calls for lasting tributes to Sir Edmund Hillary. The first major public tribute has been by way of the “Summits for Ed” tribute tour organised by the Sir Edmund Hillary foundation. This tribute tour went from Bluff at the bottom of the South Island to Cape Reinga at the tip of the North Island, visiting 39 towns and cities along the way. In each venue school children and members of the public were invited to join together to climb a significant hill or site in their area to show their respect for Hillary. Public were also invited to bring small rocks or pebbles that had special significance to them, that would be collected and included in a memorial to Hillary at the base of Mt Ruapehu in the grounds of the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre. Any funds donated during the tour are to be used by the foundation to sponsor young New Zealanders on outdoor courses to continue the values that Hillary espoused. Over 8,000 members of the public attended these “Summit” climbs between March and May 2008.
In January 2008, Lukla Airport, in Lukla, Nepal, was renamed to Tenzing-Hillary Airport in honour of Sir Edmund and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, for their efforts in the construction of the airport. On 23 October 2008, it was announced that all future England vs New Zealand rugby test matches will be played for the Hillary Shield named in honour of Sir Edmund. The shield was contested for the first time on 29 November 2008 at Twickenham Stadium, and was presented to the winning team, the New Zealand national rugby union team, by Lady Hillary. Also on 23 October 2008 the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in New Zealand (formerly the Young New Zealanders’ Challenge) was announced as the youth programme that would take Sir Edmund’s name as part of its brand (at the request of the NZ Govt and the Hillary family). The organisation re-branded on 20 August 2009 as “The Duke of Edinburgh’s Hillary Award”.
On 11 January 2009 at 9 am the New Zealand duo, “The Kiwis” performed their tribute song “Hillary 88” in front of the Beehive in Wellington. This has been recorded as the official world memorial song for Sir Edmund Hillary with the endorsement of Lady Hillary. The band members were Dean Ward and George Watson of Levin.
A four-day track in the Waitakere Ranges, along Auckland’s west coast, is named the Hillary Trail, in honour of Sir Edmund. Hillary’s father-in-law, Jim Rose, who had built a bach at Anawhata in 1925, wrote “My family look forward to the time when we will be able to walk from Huia to Muriwai on public walking tracks like the old-time Maori could do” in his 1982 history of Anawhata Beach. Hillary loved the area, and had his own bach near Anawhata (see Personal life, above). He and his friend, former mayor Bob Harvey, kept Rose’s dream alive, and the track was eventually opened on 11 January 2010, the second anniversary of Hillary’s death. Rose Track, descending from Anawhata Road to Whites Beach, and passing by Hillary’s bach, is named after the Rose family. The South Ridge of Aoraki / Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, was renamed Hillary Ridge on 18 August 2011. Hillary and three other climbers were the first party to successfully climb the ridge in 1948.