Hillary, Sir Edmund Percival

The first person of European descent, Edmund Percival Hillary, to reach the summit of Mount Everest was born on 20 July 1919, and grew up in Auckland, New Zealand. While he made his living as a beekeeper he became interested in mountain climbing, and started mountain climbing as a teenager in New Zealand, then in the Alps, and eventually in the Himalayas, where he climbed 11 different peaks of higher than 20,000 feet each. By now he was ready to take on the world’s highest mountain.

During World War II he served as a navigator in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. In 1951 and again in 1952 he joined a New Zealand reconnaissance expedition party to survey a route up the southern side of Mount Everest. British Army officer Sir John Hunt organized the 1953 expedition in which he reached the summit. These efforts brought him to the attention of Sir John Hunt, leader of an expedition funded by the Joint Himalayan Committee of the Alpine Club of Great Britain, and the Royal Geographic Society to make the onslaught on Mt. Everest in 1953.

The party reached the South Peak in May, and all but two of the group who had come this far had to turn back due to exhaustion at the high altitude. On 29 May 1953 at 11:30 in the morning Hillary and the Nepalese mountaineer, Tensing Norkay, reached the 29,028-foot (8,846-meter) summit of Mount Everest. They were the first to accomplish this achievement, and for this feat Hillary was knighted, and Tensing was awarded the George Medal – Great Britain’s highest civilian award. It is of passing interest that the conquest of Mt. Everest was announced to the British public on the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

Subsequent expeditions in the Himalayas took place in 1956, 1960-61, 1963, 1964, and 1965. Getting to know the Nepalese people, he returned to Nepal in the 60’s, to aid in the development of the society, building clinics, hospitals and 17 schools. Between 1955 and 1958, the now world famous Hillary, led the New Zealand group of the British Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, and reached the South Pole on 4 January 1958. During a later Antarctic expedition in 1967, Mount Herschel (10,941 feet; 3,335 meters) was conquered for the first time.

In 1961, a year after he embarked on a search for the abominable snowman, he suffered a mild cerebral stroke while climbing Mt. Makalu in Nepal. Hillary lost of his wife and daughter in a plane crash in 1975. He later remarried and continues to occupy himself with environmental causes.

Hillary returned to Central Asia in 1977. He led the first jet-boat expedition up the Ganges River, and climbed the Himalayas to the river’s source. His adventures are told in High Adventure (1955), The Crossing of Antarctica (1958), and ‘No Latitude for Error (1961). His autobiography, Nothing Venture, Nothing Win, was published in 1975. Immediately after he conquered Everest, Hillary and Sir John Hunt published their account of the expedition in The Ascent of Everest.

He was named New Zealand’s high commissioner to India in 1984. Sir Edmund died in Auckland, New Zealand on 11 January 2008.