Edmund Hillary

Edmund Hillary (born 1919) was one of the greatest explorers and mountaineers of the 20th century.

Edmund Hillary was born in Auckland, New Zealand, on July 20, 1919. He spent his childhood in Tuakau, a rural area just south of Auckland where he went to the local primary school. Later he traveled daily to the city for secondary schooling. He discovered his joy in the mountains on a school trip to Mount Ruapehu, and it never left him.

During the 1940s he made many climbs in New Zealand, particularly in the Southern Alps. He quickly became recognized for his daring, strength, and reliability. Then came climbs in Europe which brought the invitation to join Sir John Hunt's expedition to Everest in 1953. It is history that Hillary and his Nepalese Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay (who died in 1986 at the age of 71) were the first to climb Everest, reaching the summit on May 29. On returning to base camp in a state of exhaustion Hillary's laconic comment was, "We knocked the bastard off."

Vivian Fuchs (later to be knighted) asked Hillary to become part of the Trans-Antarctic expedition in 1957 and 1958. Hillary's job was to set up supply dumps from Scott Base towards the South Pole so that Fuchs' party could complete the crossing of Antarctica.

Hillary would have liked to use the sophisticated Snow-Cats available to Fuchs, but he had to settle for Ferguson farm tractors for transport and hauling. When the last dump was established Hillary—on his own decision— headed for the Pole, which he reached with his three tractors on January 4, 1958. He was the first person to come there by land in 46 years.

Through the 1960s and 1970s Hillary continued to explore the Himalayas. He also led a renowned expedition by jet boat and on foot from the mouth of the Ganges to its source. Like his other adventures it was animated by his zest, good humor, and joy.

Out of love, respect, and concern for the Sherpa people, Hillary built hospitals and schools in the mountains of Nepal. He raised the money, bought the materials, and worked on many of the buildings.

His social concerns were also expressed in New Zealand with comments on public issues that were noted for their bluntness and good sense. He was president of Volunteer Service Abroad and patron of an Outdoor Pursuit Centre and of the Race Relations Council. He was also active in the Family Planning Association, in abortion law reform, and in conservation campaigns. He was strongly opposed to nuclear tests and to ocean dumping in the South Pacific or elsewhere.

His achievements were recognized internationally with the award of numerous decorations and honorary degrees, beginning with his knighthood in 1953. They reflect the rare warmth and respect in which he was held. In 1985 he was appointed New Zealand high commissioner to India. He was also honorary president for New York's Explorers Club.

In 1975, Hillary's wife and teenage daughter were killed in an airplane crash. He later remarried, and, after leading one last expedition in 1977, he retired to his bee farm outside of Auckland.

Even in retirement, Hillary remained an important voice in the sport of mountain climbing. He wrote the forward for a book by Helen Thayer titled Polar Dream (1993). In 1996 he reacted to the death of eight mountain climbers in a storm on Mount Everest with the comment to Time's David Van Biema, "I have a feeling that people have been getting just a little too casual about Mount Everest. This incident will bring them to regard it rather more seriously."

Hillary has also kept active in the region where he made his famous climb. The Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust provides funds and expertise to support reforestation, build schools and hospitals, and use technology such as solar power. He personally raised funds for the Nepal people throughout the 1990s through public speaking engagements and lectures in the United States. In a 1995 interview with James Clash, Hillary said, "I think the most worthwhile things I've done have not been on the mountains or in the Antarctic, but doing projects with my friends, the Sherpa people. The 27 schools we've now established, the hospitals-those are the things I would like to be remembered for."


Further Reading on Edmund Hillary

Hillary's own books can be read by all ages with ease and pleasure. They are all autobiographical, but only in Nothing Venture, Nothing Win (1975) is there a lot about Hillary as a person. High Adventure (1955), No Latitude for Error (1961), Schoolhouse in the Clouds (1964), Two Generations (1984), and From the Ocean to the Sky (1979) are splendid adventures. He also wrote East of Everest (1956) with George Lowe, Crossing the Antarctica (1958) with Sir Vivian Fuchs, High in the Thin Cold Air (1962) with Desmond Doig, and Two Generations (1983) with Peter Hillary.

There are some useful biographies of Hillary. In historical order they are: Kenneth Moon, Man of Everest: The Story of Sir Edmund Hillary (1962); Mark Sufrin, To the Top of the World: Sir Edmund Hillary and the Conquest of Everest (1966); Showell Styles, First Up Everest (1966); Faith Knoop, A World Explorer: Sir Edmund Hillary (1970); Julian May, Hillary & Tenzing: Conquerors of Everest (1973); and Terence Bell, Hillary of Everest (1973). Some of the most perceptive comments on Hillary appear in Because It Is There (1959) by his great friend George Lowe. Hillary relates his experiences as a child, a climber, and a diplomat in Architectural Digest (January 1988). Also see Who's Who in the World (1996); Denver Post (June 4, 1991; June 9, 1991); Time (May 27, 1996); and the web site for the Academy of Achievement at http://www.achievement.org.