Tuesday, January 17, 2012

It’s A Long Way To The Top – Sir Edmund Hillary

Sir Edmund Hillary 2004 - Photo by Mariusz Kubik
I’ve always been interested in firsts when it comes to history – the first person to discover an uninhabited land, first person to cross the Antarctic, the list could go on. Milestones are reached everyday; sometimes the achievements are our own, while others go on to obtain milestones that will go down in the annals of history. For me, Edmund Hillary, mountain climber and philanthropist extraordinaire, is someone who never stopped achieving milestones – both personal and professional.

My bookshelves bow from the weight of mountaineering and adventure books I’ve collected over the years, and I’m very proud of my extensive Edmund Hillary collection. As a kid, I read about adventures in far off lands where humans battled extreme elements and their own psyche in order to obtain their dreams. Tenacity and undying passion are what pushed these amazing adventurers along, and Edmund Hillary was no different.

Born in New Zealand in 1919, Edmund Hillary finished primary school two years early and moved on to high school. He didn’t fit in very well, so turned to books and at the age of 16, undertook a school trip to Mount Ruapehu. His passion for climbing was awakened and a few years later, he climbed another mountain in New Zealand, Mount Ollivier, with his brother, Rex. Their desire to climb every winter meant they needed a well-paying summer job, so they entered the bee keeping business.

Over the next few years, Hillary undertook other climbs in New Zealand and in 1951, managed to gain a place on an expedition to Everest, led by Eric Shipton, a renowned Himalayan climber. After a failed attempt in 1952 to reach the summit of Cho Oyu, a mountain that borders Nepal and Tibet, Hillary joined the 1953 Everest Expedition led once again by Shipton.

At this time, the Tibetan route up Everest had been closed by the Chinese, and Nepal only allowed one group of climbers per year up the mountain from their side. The expedition involved 4,000 people, including 362 porters, 20 Sherpa guides and 10,000 pounds of equipment.

In March, the climbers set up base camp and slowly worked their way up the mountain, setting up camps intermittently. The expedition rock stars, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, were slated for the first attempt at the summit but turned back when Evans’s oxygen system failed. They were only 300 vertical feet (91 metres) from the summit. Hillary was paired up with a successful Nepalese climber, Tenzing Norgay, and the men quickly formed a strong team.

Tenzing and Norgay were next in line for the summit bid and on 28 May they headed up the mountain. When Hillary woke the next day he found his boots had frozen solid, and he spent two hours warming them before they started their ascent. With climbing, every minute counts, and late starts can make all the difference between success and failure and, literally, life or death.

Mount Everest - Photo by Pavel Novak
Just below the summit, the pair came across a rock face that is now known as the “Hillary Step”. The men successfully scaled the difficult section and a short time after, they made history. Both Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the highest point on earth – 29,028 feet (8,848 metres).

After years of planning and training, the men spent only 15 minutes on the summit. They took the obligatory photos, but as Tenzing had never used a camera before, the photo didn’t turn out. Hillary left a cross he’d been gifted and Tenzing left chocolates on the summit in respect for his gods. Hillary took additional photos to prove they’d made it to the top and just achieved one of the most amazing milestones in history.

Fame followed and not long after that, controversy. Many people, especially the media, said Tenzing made it to the top first, but Hillary always maintained they stepped on the summit together. Although Tenzing, in his biography, The Dream Comes True, said Hillary had taken the first step.

Both men participated in other expeditions and Hillary documented many of them in his books, including an adventure along the Ganges river, From Ocean To Sky. After hitting such a monumental achievement in Nepal, Hillary devoted much of his time to helping the Nepalese through the Himalayan Trust – an organization devoted to improving the lives of people living in the Himalayas. The trust has built a hospital in Kunde, undertaken a forestry program in various parts of Nepal, and also built a school in Khumjung. Hillary was also an Honorary President of the American Himalayan Foundations, as well as Mountain Wilderness, a company dedicated to protecting mountains around the world.

With all the wonderful milestones Hillary has reached, his private life has not been devoid of tragedy. In 1975, Hillary’s wife, Louise, and his daughter, Belinda, were en route to meet Hillary and help build a hospital. But the plane carrying his wife and daughter crashed near Kathmandu shortly after take-off. Hillary remarried many years later.

Hillary’s son, Peter, followed in his father’s footsteps and became a climber, summiting Everest on the 50th anniversary celebration. And to top things off, so to speak, Norgay’s son, Jamling Tenzing Norgay, was also part of the expedition. In 1990, Peter and Edmund Hillary became the first father and son duo to ascend Mount Everest successfully.

Edmund Hillary passed away in 2008, and the outpouring of love and respect for the man was felt throughout the world. A true adventurer, Hillary touched the lives of many. He used his milestones and engaging public persona to raise funds for communities that desperately needed assistance.

The legacy this adventurer has left behind is legendary. His charity work still lives on, increasing awareness of the plight of poor communities in the countries he travelled to, as well as inspiring climbers of the past, present, and future. Edmund Hillary showed the world that a young, gangly boy with a big dream can achieve monumental milestones. All it takes is determination and passion.

Statue of Edmund Hillary overlooking Mount Cook, NZ. Photo by Johnathon Keelty


  1. Classy guy, that Sir Hillary. What an amazing life. And he gave back to the communities around the world that helped him achieve his life's mission. I like that.

  2. Such an interesting profile! I didn't all this about him. But Alli, as a mountain climber yourself, how did he make a living out of this passion exactly? Who pays you to climb a mountain? Even the philanthropy? Is it from his famous name that he was just able to raise capital to fund these projects and also raise his family etc? Yes, I'm all about the practicalities. ;)

  3. Yes, Sir Edmund was most definitely an amazing man who changed the lives of many. I was lucky enough to work with his son as part of some work in the 90s and my impression is he is very much like his father (and he is heavily involved in community work also).

  4. Ah, Little Miss Practicality! Sponsors are the name of the game. I doubt very much Sir Edmund would have had a problem getting sponsorship for all his undertakings given his achievements. And he wrote many books, and maybe back then authors earned more money than they do now (ha!). As for the philanthropy, I it would be sponsors again.

    The average cost per person these days to climb Everest with a commercial trekking company is around $80-100k so getting a sponsor is a good idea unless you've won the lottery. Although, it's a lot easier to get a sponsor if you're doing a "first" milestone rather than something a lot of others have done (I'm diminishing the amazing effort it takes to climb Everest by any means, it's just that sponsors want to be involved with "firsts" these days).

    I contemplated Cho Oyu (one of the eight tallest peaks in the world) years ago as no other Aussie female had successfully scaled it, but sponsorship was hard to get. And then someone beat me to it! Oh well...

  5. I thought of him when I visited Mt. Cook - I love that he is on the NZ $10.

  6. Thanks for stopping by Philip! It's great that Sir Edmund is honored in so many ways.