“Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”
Such were the words of Edmund Hillary to his good friend George Lowe upon his return from the summit of Mt Everest. He had succeeded where so many others over three decades had failed, and established himself as an eternal symbol of human fortitude and courage.
But while Everest was the most notable peak in Hillary’s great life, it marked only one of many high points in his adventures as both an explorer and philanthropist.
Edmund Hillary was born on July 20th, 1919 in Auckland, New Zealand. Though his father Percival was a pacifist, he had served in World War I, and so was allocated land in the small town of Tukaku.
The open farmland and hilly overlooks in Tukaku proved an ideal proving grounds for an adventurous youngster like Hillary, when he wasn’t found with his head in stories from the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard or watching Westerns at the local war memorial hall.
A small and relatively shy child, Hillary received average results at school, and during high school spent most of his daily four hour commune to and from Auckland daydreaming about his future as an explorer.
Hillary’s family eventually returned to Auckland when he turned 16. It marked a major turning point in his life. He found courage as he learnt to box, and in that same year saw snow for the first time at Mt Ruapehu. Before long, he was standing tall at 6’5″, and though he wasn’t marvellously coordinated, he was physically strong and tough.
Following high school, Hillary enrolled at Auckland University College to study maths and science, but the scholarly life was not for him. He joined Percival and his younger brother, Rex as a bee-keeper. Beekeeping would remain an interest for the rest of his life; at one point he had English artist Michael Ayrton sculpt a golden honeycomb for his New Zealand garden, which would end up being used as a hive for his bees.
In 1939, he climbed his first peak, Mt Ollivier, which stood at nearly two kilometres tall. From that point on, he was hooked.
“I think I mainly climb mountains because I get a great deal of enjoyment out of it. I never attempt to analyse these things too thoroughly, but I think that all mountaineers do get a great deal of satisfaction out of overcoming some challenge which they think is very difficult for them, or which perhaps may be a little dangerous,” he would later say.
At the outbreak of World War II, Hillary applied to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force, but soon after withdrew the application based on his family’s pacifist principles. Due to beekeeping being considered a reserved occupation (an occupation considered too important to force those involved into service), he was spared, but Rex was not so lucky. He would spend the next four years in a detention camp as a conscientious objector.
Eventually, though, Hillary did join the Air Force, feeling it important to be involved, and became a navigator in the Pacific theatre. In 1945 he was sent to Fiji and the Solomon Islands, where a boat accident left him with such terrible burns that he was sent home.
Three years later, he set his sights on a new challenge: the peak of New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mt Cook. He completed the 3700m climb on January 30th, 1948, before travelling to England for his sister’s wedding and climbing the 4158 metre Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps.
In 1951, after taking part in a expedition to ascend five peaks of 6000m high, Hillary was selected for a British Everest Reconnaissance Expedition. Joining esteemed mountaineer Eric Shipton, the group would chart a potential climbing route that Hillary would use when he next returned to the mountain.
1953. Access to Everest from the Tibetan side was closed at the instruction of Chinese rule, while the Nepalese only accepted one expedition per year. Fortunately, Hillary’s party were the ones accepted. He nearly left when John Hunt took over for Shipton as leader, but he eventually relented to suggestion that he remain.
Hillary was paired with Tenzing Norgay, a Nepalese Sherpa who had attempted the ascent a year earlier. The pair made up one of two teams chosen to lead the expedition forward; an expedition that included 400 people, including 362 porter, 20 Sherpa guides, and a remarkable 16,000kg of baggage.
Base camp was established in March 1953 after Hillary and Tenzing navigated the extremely dangerous Khumbu Icefall. On May 26th, the other team of climbers had come within 91 metres of the summit, but had turned back when their oxygen failed.
Now it was Hillary’s turn.
After waiting for heavy snowfall to abate the pair set out on May 28th. They reached 8500m and set up their tent, with the intention of reaching the summit the next day.
Upon waking, Hillary found his boots had frozen, and had to wait two hours before they finally thawed. They made good progress until they reached a 12 metre rock face, now known as the Hillary Step. Seeing a space in which to wedge himself between rock and ice, Hillary pushed his way up with Tenzing close behind.
“A few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow, and we stood on top.”
At 11:30AM, they finally reached the summit, with Hillary taking the first steps atop the highest point on Earth. They remained at the summit for 15 minutes, taking photos to validate the claims of success they would be making upon their return. Hillary took a photo of Tenzing with his ice axe, but no photo was taken of Hillary himself.
Tenzing left chocolates in the snow as an offering. Hillary left a cross. Then they commenced their descent.
George Lowe was waiting with hot soup upon their return. “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”
The party returned to Kathmandu shocked by the international celebration being held in their honour. News of the successful expedition had reached England on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, and had been treated as a good omen for her majesty’s reign. Hillary was knighted upon arrival in England, while Tenzing received the George Medal for his contribution.
Over the next decade, Hillary would return to the Himalayas and climb ten more peaks. He also reached the South Pole in 1958, and flew to the North Pole in 1985, making him the first person to stand at both poles and at the summit of Everest.
Along with adventure comes danger; danger which would have killed him if not for the intervention of fate. In 1960 he ran late for TWA Flight 266, and did not board in time. The plane would collide with another upon takeoff, killing everyone on both craft. Nearly 20 years later, work commitments stopped him from commentating on an Air New Zealand sightseeing flight over the Antarctic. He asked his friend Peter Mulgrew to replace him. The aircraft crashed into Mt Erebus, killing 257 people.
Many of Hillary’s greatest successes did not lie in exploration. In 1960, he founded the Himalayan Trust, designed to help and support the Sherpa people of Nepal. He oversaw the development of many schools and hospitals in even the most remote regions, and was made Honorary President of both the American Himalayan Foundation – which focused on improving living conditions in the Himalayas – and Mountain Wilderness – an NGO dedicated to the protection of mountains.
“I have enjoyed great satisfaction from my climb of Everest and my trips to the poles. But there’s no doubt that my most worthwhile things have been the building of schools and medical clinics.”
Back in New Zealand, he served as Vice President for the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand, calling for abortion to be made legal, and for women to have unequivocal rights over their bodies.
Throughout his life, he also published 12 books.
Edmund Hillary died on January 11th, 2008. His death was announced by New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, and he received a state funeral.
Today, his legacy stands as strong as ever; a testament to human strength, willpower, and fortitude. Let us not forget his accomplishments, nor his words:
“I think it all comes down to motivation. If you really want to do something, you will work hard for it.”