Sir Edmund Hillary: The First Man to Climb Mt Everest

The ultimate mountaineering conquest: Everest
The ultimate mountaineering conquest: Everest | © Gunther Hagleitner / Flickr
Photo of Joe Coates
23 June 2018

New Zealand is a fairly dinky country when compared to other nations around the world, but its inhabitants have achieved some truly enormous things when it comes to the annals of history. Read on to find out more about one humble Kiwi, Sir Edmund Hillary, whose passion for mountaineering ended with him scaling the tallest mountain on the face of the earth before anyone else.

A little background

Only one word will really do to describe the man Sir Edmund Percival Hillary was: extraordinary. Born in Auckland in 1919, he took an interest in climbing whilst at high school and started trekking up and down the mountains of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. After military service in World War II, he resumed climbing and became determined to scale Mount Everest – the tallest mountain on the face of the earth. The fact that he set his sights on conquering the tallest peak on our planet illustrates not only Hillary’s own enormous determination, but also that classic Kiwi attitude.

A statue of Sir Ed gazing at Mount Cook | © Jonathan Keelty / Flickr

The ascent of Mount Cook’s difficult south face was Hillary’s first great mountaineering achievement, and also became the training ground for his Everest and Antarctic expeditions. Mount Cook is almost exactly half the height of Everest and has all the difficulties that a mountaineer can expect to encounter on higher peaks, at a lower altitude.

Dawn over Mount Cook | © Bernard Spragg. NZ / Flickr

Conquering Everest

Of course, the first thing that leaps to mind when we hear the name Edmund Hillary is his historic first ascent of Mount Everest with Tibetan mountaineer Tenzing Norgay. But Hillary and Tenzing, in fact, almost weren’t the first men to reach Everest’s summit. Another two-man exhibition failed to reach the top two days before they made their attempt.

Sir Edmund Hillary | © fredsharples / Flickr

However, the other party failed and early on May 29th 1953, Hillary and Tenzing set off to have a crack at it themselves. By late morning they were standing on the summit. The two shook hands, then Tenzing embraced his partner. Hillary took photographs, and both searched for signs that George Mallory, a British climber lost on Everest in 1924, had been on the summit. Hillary left behind a crucifix, and Tenzing, a Buddhist, made a food offering. After spending about 15 minutes on the peak, they began their descent. They were met back at camp by their colleague W.G. Lowe, to whom Hillary reputedly said, “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.” He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his efforts when the expeditionary team returned to London.

Hillary and his Nepalese fellow climber were the first men in history to reach the summit of Everest | © / Flickr

As if that wasn’t enough

Most people are in the know when it comes to who reached the peak of Everest first. Hillary is famous, as he very well should be. However, if you were to think that he’d be content to sit back and relax a little bit after completing this remarkable feat, you’d be dead wrong. There are a few other little achievements he managed to knock off in his lifetime too.

He was in charge of the New Zealand section of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition from 1955 to 1958. What did that mean? Well, really, it was just another day at the office for this legendary Kiwi and it involved crossing the entirety of Antarctica via the South Pole… No biggie.

In 1977, he led the first jet boat expedition up the Ganges River. Funnily enough this endeavour was made possible by another clever Kiwi, Bill Hamilton, who handily invented the jet boat engine.

He also casually reached the North Pole, with none other than astronaut Neil Armstrong! This feat made him the first man in history to have stood on the top of Mount Everest and also reached both poles.

Humanitarian efforts

In 1960, Hillary founded the Himalayan Trust, which he led until his death in 2008. The foundation helped establish schools and hospitals in the most remote parts of the region. He became so involved with the Himalayan peoples of Nepal, so concerned with their well-being and enthusiastic in helping them improve their quality of life that, in 2003, as part of the observance of the 50th anniversary of his and Tenzing’s climb, he was made an honorary citizen of Nepal.

The pinnacle of the world | © Global Panorama / Flickr

There can be no denying that Sir Ed lived one hell of a life, fitting more into his 88 years than most people can ever hope or imagine – even if they were to live 100 years longer. He was the personification of steadfast courage and resolve, of determination in the face of great adversity. Not just physical peril – something that all mountaineers experience – but also mental anguish. Not many people are aware that he tragically lost his first wife and his daughter in a plane crash.

He was a man who walked with death most days, and he cheated it on a couple of notable occasions. The first was when he missed a flight out of New York due to running late. The plane subsequently crashed into another passenger plane, killing everyone on board. The second was when he agreed to act as a celebrity commentator on a sightseeing tour of Mount Erebus but had to pull out at the last minute due to other commitments. This plane then went on to crash into the mountain. There were no survivors.

Sir Edmund Hillary was endowed with all the qualities we should strive to attain through our own lives. He was an example of what we can accomplish when we put our hearts and minds to any task. As he sagely put it:

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

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