Sir Edmund Percival Hillary, KG ONZ KBE

George Band

(With assistance from Stephen Goodwin)

Edmund Hillary, (1919 -2008)formed with Tensing Norgay one of the most celebrated partnerships of the 20th century. The beekeeper and the Tibetan-born Sherpa were the first human beings to set foot on the highest point on earth - the 29,035 ft (8850 m) summit of Everest. Both were ambitious enough to snatch this ultimate prize in mountaineering, but neither had any idea of how their success would resonate in the public mind for decades to come and dictate the rest of their lives.

Hillary was one of the two New Zealanders on the 1953 British Everest expedition led by John Hunt. He described his arrival at the summit at 11:30 am on 29 May in plain words: 'I looked up to my right and 40 ft above me was a rounded snow cone. A few blows of the ice-axe, a few weary steps, and I was on the top. My first reaction was that of relief. I then took off my oxygen apparatus and photographed Tensing as he stood on top.'

He then took photos of the surrounding peaks and, even where he stood, wondered if there might be a possible route up the giant fang of the unclimbed Makalu (8470 m) to the south-east. In contrast. Tensing left an offering of sweets and biscuits for his Buddhist gods, and looked down to the valleys of Tibet where, as a boy, he had tended yaks for his father.

When they returned triumphant to the South Col that evening, Hillary broke the news to his fellow Kiwi, George Lowe, with typical nonchalance: 'Well,' he announced, 'we knocked the bastard off.'

Although I was not particularly aware of it at the time, Hillary has since related how he was keen to establish who he might partner if picked for one of the summit pairs. We were chosen by Hunt as a team of ten climbers, each potentially able to go to the top, plus Tensing who had already been higher than any of us the previous year with the two Swiss expeditions. Hillary thought that Hunt would probably not want the two New Zealanders together, so he deliberately built up a good, friendly climbing relationship with Tensing and they made a strong pair. Each recognised the determination in the other, and Hunt recognised it too: 'They were outstanding at the time, climbing faster and more strongly than any of us'. We had always hoped that one of the best Sherpas might have a chance for the summit, in recognition of their enormous contribution to the expedition.

Sir Edmund Percival Hillary

Sir Edmund Percival Hillary

In the event, John Hunt chose Charles Evans, his deputy, and Tom Bourdillon, the expert on the still experimental closed-circuit oxygen equipment whichthey would both use, as the first pair; Hillary and Tensing using the simpler more reliable open-circuit oxygen, as the second pair, with the rest of us allocated equally essential tasks in the build-up for the assault. The rest is history. Evans and Bourdillon climbed higher than man had ever been before in reaching the south peak, but it was Hillary and Tensing who made the successful summit 'touchdown' on behalf of the team. It was a privilege just to be part of it.

For Hillary, Everest proved a passport to an agreeable lifetime of globetrotting - on expeditions, including to the South Pole, lecture tours, award ceremonies, book signings and doing good work for the Sherpa people of Nepal. It was the last of these that he came to regard as his most important achievement; building schools, hospitals, clinics and bridges in the Khumbu valley on the trekking route to Everest. The Himalayan Trust he founded has helped give many Sherpas the education and ability to cope with the social and economic upheaval wrought in their homeland as hundreds of thousands of trekkers and climbers have followed in Hillary's footsteps - at least part of the way.

It began with 'the schoolhouse in the sky' built in 1961 for 40 pupils at Khumjung. Since then, Hillary and his enthusiastic volunteers in the Himalayan Trust, including many New Zealanders and former Everest hands, established 26 schools, two hospitals and 13 health clinics. Water has been piped to villages, bridges built across the Khumbu's torrents and more than one million trees planted. Hillary was instrumental in establishing the Sagarmatha National Park for the Everest region and in rebuilding the magnificent Buddhist monastery at Thyangboche following a fire in 1989. The emphasis now is more towards teacher training, grants and scholarships for further study, and the annual supply of teaching materials to 63 supported schools.

A year after Everest, Hillary returned to Nepal, leading an expedition up the Barun valley and exploring the upper slopes of Makalu (8470 m). However, he had three ribs crushed by a rope while carrying out a crevasse rescue and eventually turned back weak and in pain at 6700 m. He would lead more expeditions in Nepal during the 1960s, but his days climbing at high altitude were effectively over. In the meantime he had a three-year engagement with Antarctica.

Hillary led a New Zealand party supporting Vivian Fuchs on the first-ever crossing of the Antarctic continent through the South Pole. The press billed it as 'the Last Great Journey in the World', then it became another 'Race for the Pole' as Hillary decided to press on beyond the line of supply depots he established for Fuchs and make a dash for the Pole himself. Hillary had started from Scott Base and Fuchs from Shackleton Base. Deaf to instructions to turnback, Hillary and his team, on three adapted Ferguson tractors, arrived at the Pole on 4 January 1958 - 16 days ahead of Fuchs.

He acknowledged that, unlike Fuchs, he had collected no scientific data and simply shown that with enthusiasm and good mechanics you could get a farm tractor to the South Pole. Yet for this they had risked their lives in crevasse fields and freezing winds. Hillary said he just had to go on and would have despised himself otherwise.

The origins of Hillary's great determination may be traced back to his austere childhood, walking barefoot to Tuakau Primary School, as did most pupils. 'As a youngster I was a great dreamer', he wrote, 'reading many books of adventure and walking lonely miles with my head in the clouds.' His father, a newspaperman turned beekeeper, was a strict disciplinarian. At Auckland Grammar School he had a growth spurt around 14, and went on to the University where he joined a tramping group for winter walks in the Waitakere ranges, pushing himself at any opportunity. But he dropped out after a couple of years preferring to work full time with his father, and brother Rex, managing 1600 hives on dairy land south of Auckland and manhandling the 80 lb boxes of comb honey. Ironically, in later years he was awarded five honorary degrees, wrote numerous books and proved adept at organising expeditions!

In 1944 he was called up from this reserved occupation and became a navigator on Catalina flying boats, on search and rescue duty in the Pacific. He was now becoming hooked on mountaineering. An early notable ascent was Mount Tapuaenuku (2885 m) on South Island, tackled solo on a weekend off from air force training. Back in civilian life, he took every opportunity to slip off climbing, skiing or tramping. He learnt his craft from the great New Zealand guide Harry Ayres and then teamed up with George Lowe and others to create brilliant first ascents like the south ridge of Mount Cook (3764 m) and the north ridge of Mount Elie de Beaumont.

In May 1951 the four man team of Hillary, George Lowe, Ed Cotter and Earle Riddiford formed the first New Zealand expedition to the Himalaya organised by Riddiford. They made the first ascent of Mukut Parvat (7242 m) in Garhwal, and five other new ascents. Hearing about the plans for the autumn reconnaissance of the southern approach to Everest, to be led by Eric Shipton, the NZAC President wrote to the Everest Committee recommending that some members of the team should join Shipton' party. Shipton, recalling his friendship with the New Zealander Dan Bryant on Everest in 1935, invited two to join him: Riddiford and Hillary. And so began Hillary's association with Everest. The party pioneered a route through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall and, from a viewpoint high on Pumori, traced a possible line up the Lhotse Face towards the South Col. A new route to the summit was open! But the Everest Committee failed to submit an immediate application to the Nepalese authorities for Everest and had to endure a year of suspense. The Swiss got permission first and made two courageous but unsuccessful attempts in the spring and autumn of 1952, reaching much the same height, about 300 m short of the summit, as the British pre-war teams had done on the north side.

A permit was promised for Everest in 1953, and to fill in time and gain experience, a team of potential Everest climbers, led by Shipton, tackled Cho Oyu on the Nepal-Tibet border. But the best route involved crossing into Tibet without permission, which Shipton was unwilling to risk, so the attempt was abandoned in favour of more tempting exploration of the kind that Shipton relished. A quick sally by Hillary and Lowe over the hazardous Nup la to explore the north side of Everest, underlined their fitness to be included in the 1953 team, but in the end it was up to John Hunt, the military planner, whom the Everest Committee decided should replace Shipton, to pick the final team. And so the stage was set for the first ascent of Everest, which was to immortalise the names of Edmund Hillary and the Sirdar Tensing Norgay.

Lord John Hunt (right) with Sir Edmund Hillary. (George Band)

Lord John Hunt (right) with Sir Edmund Hillary. (George Band)

The wider public significance of what they had done began to register as the expedition straggled back to Kathmandu. James (now Jan) Morris, The Times correspondent, had cleverly contrived to get the news back on the eve of the Coronation. I was on the trail with Hillary and Lowe one afternoon when a runner delivered a scribbled note addressed to Sir Edmund Hillary KBE, with the initials underlined three times! It was from Hunt who had been similarly honoured. Hillary professed his distaste for titles - the knighthood had been accepted by the New Zealand prime minister on his behalf - though his attitude to gongs must have mellowed as he was showered with them over the years: the newly created Order of New Zealand in 1989, and the highest of all knightly orders: a Knight of the Garter in 1995, along with another strong-willed individual, Margaret Thatcher, who he partnered at the ceremony in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.

The Everest celebrations in London over, Hillary returned to New Zealand in August 1953, stopping off in Australia to propose to Louise Rose who was studying atthe Sydney ConservatoriumofMusic. Marriage seemed to complete Hillary's good fortune. Louise accompanied him on lecture tours, and while he continued expeditioning, brought up their two daughters, Sarah and Belinda, and son Peter, destined in May 1990 to follow his father's route up Everest.

Hillary, the most famous of all New Zealanders, after his Everest and Antarctic adventures, was now a top draw celebrity - though an outwardly unassuming one - and was able to explore for the Yeti, climb in the Himalaya and in 1977 jet-boat up the Ganges, with the generous sponsorship of two Chicago corporations - Sears Roebuck, for whom he was an adviser on outdoor gear, and the publishers of the World Book Encyclopaedia, for whom he did lecture tours.

He was very conscious that in the Khumbu's very attractiveness to mountaineers and trekkers lay the seeds of its destruction as a Shangri- La. In 1963 he had organised the building of a mountainside airstrip at Luckla - personally helping stamp out the sloping runway on which thousands of climbers and trekkers would make a white-knuckle landing. He admitted to being racked by guilt at the changes wrought in the Sherpa way of life, but believed it was inevitable and the Trust was providing people with the means to adapt.

Hillary was bereft when, in 1975, Louise and Belinda were killed in a light aircraft crash near Kathmandu. After their deaths he had five years of depression and misery until his long friendship with June, the widow of his close Antarctic and climbing friend Peter Mulgrew, blossomed into a much warmer relationship. In 1985 Hillary was appointed New Zealand's High Commissioner to India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Lacking a hostess, he was delighted when June agreed to accompany him as his official companion. It amused her no end to have the letters OC after her name on official correspondence, but this proved a most happy and successful arrangement. In November 1989 they were married in their Auckland home with all their children, grandchildren, relations and friends gathered around.

Hillary deplored the commercialisation of Everest. However, he still loved to spend time with the Sherpa people and when, in 2003, the golden anniversary of the first ascent came round, he understandably decided he would rather be with them on the 29th, celebrating in Kathmandu, than with the Queen and his fellow climbers from 1953 at a gala in Leicester Square. He flew to London a few days later in time for the Coronation anniversary service at Westminster Abbey.

He died of a heart attack on 11 January 2008 in Auckland, at the age of 88. We offer our deep sympathy to Lady June and members of the Hillary and Mulgrew families. As New Zealand's most famous Kiwi he was given a moving state funeral on 22 January normally only accorded to Governor-Generals and Prime Ministers dying in office. This was complemented by the memorial service in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 2 April, when his personal banner as a Knight of the Garter was taken down and laid on the high altar before being returned to the family. On the following evening, as Chairman of The Himalayan Trust UK, I arranged a special celebration of his life at the Royal Geographical Society at which his son Peter, and Tensing Norgay's son Norbu, both spoke. I pledged our continued commitment and support as long as required to the work of Sir Edmund Hillary's Himalayan Trust, which he created to help improve the lives of the Sherpas and hill people of Nepal. Even more than Everest, he has said he would like this to be a perpetual memorial to his life and achievements. Let him have the last word:

'I have had the world lie between my clumsy boots and seen the red sun slip over the horizon after the dark Antarctic winter. I have had more then my share of excitement, beauty, laughter and friendship.' 'Each of us has to discover his own path - of that I am sure. Some paths will be spectacular and others peaceful and quiet - who is to say which is the most important? For me the most rewarding moments have not always been the great moments - for what can surpass a tear on your departure, joy on your return, or a trusting hand in yours?'


Tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary, who passed away in 2008. He was Honorary member of The Himalayan Club. Author acknowledges assistance from Stephen Goodwin in writing this article.

Sir Edmund Hillary, mountaineer and author: born 20 July 1919, Auckland NZ; educated Auckland Grammar School; apiarist 1936- 43 and 1951-70, RNZ^iF navigator 1944-45, British Mount Everest Expedition 1953, leader of NZ Antarctic Expedition 1957-58, NZ High Commissioner to India, Bangladesh and Nepal 1985-88, founder Himalayan Trust; Books include High Adventure (1955), Nothing Venture, Nothing Win (1975) and View from the Summit (1999); married twice, 1st 1953 Louise Rose (died 1975), one son two daughters (one died 1975), 2nd 1989 June Mulgrew (nee Anderson). He died in Auckland, NZ, 11 January 2008.