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Story: Hillary, Edmund Percival

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Hillary, Edmund Percival


Beekeeper, mountaineer, philanthropist

This biography, written by Shaun Barnett, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.

Early life

On 29 May 1953 New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepali Tenzing Norgay, as part of a British team, reached the 8,848-metre summit of Mt Everest, the world’s highest mountain. This was the culmination of 12 serious attempts since 1921, including nine British expeditions. It coincided with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, adding to the media attention generated by the royal event.

Climbing Everest was a life-changing experience for a man with a humble background. Edmund Percival Hillary, born on 20 July 1919 at Auckland, was the second of three children of Percival Augustus Hillary and his wife, Gertrude Hillary, née Clark. The family lived in Tūākau, in rural South Auckland.

Percy Hillary founded and edited the Tuakau District News, and as a sideline, took up beekeeping on land allotted to him after service in the First World War. He believed in healthy eating and exercise and had strong egalitarian beliefs. Percy was also a strict disciplinarian, and the young Edmund found his beatings for misdemeanours humiliating and often unjust. However, in his mother, Gertrude (a teacher), he found a more gentle and nurturing parent.

After attending Tūākau Primary School Edmund went to Auckland Grammar School. Small and shy with a poor self-image, he nursed secret desires for adventure, and read books about mountains and the Antarctic on the long train journeys to and from school.

In his middle teenage years Hillary grew tall, and through boxing found some physical confidence. A school ski trip to Mt Ruapehu in 1935 gave him his first experience of mountains. ‘I returned home in a glow of fiery enthusiasm for the sun and the cold and the snow – especially the snow.’1 That year the family moved to Remuera Road, Auckland, although Percy still had more than 1,000 beehives on South Auckland farms.

After leaving school Edmund spent two unsuccessful years at Auckland University College, then in 1938 joined his father and brother as a full-time beekeeper. He read widely and considered his beliefs. Hillary absorbed some of his father’s passion for social justice and Christian ideals, which he later tempered into an agnostic but compassionate and optimistic world-view.

Early mountaineering

The heavy beekeeping work made Hillary fit. Despite its demands, he made excursions into the Waitākere Ranges with the Radiant Living Tramping Club, an adjunct of the School of Radiant Living, which taught a holistic philosophy of physical, psychological and spiritual health. Here, Hillary discovered joy in the outdoors, love of the bush and the ability to carry a heavy pack. But by 1940 he was ready for higher hills. On a short Southern Alps holiday he made a modest scramble up Mt Ollivier (1,933 metres) on the Sealy Range above Mount Cook village: ‘the happiest day I had ever spent’.2 It was his first ascent.

Early in 1944, Hillary joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force. He had first applied in 1939, but had doubts, withdrew his application and registered as a conscientious objector. RNZAF training camps in Blenheim and New Plymouth provided him with opportunities to climb Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku (in the Inland Kaikōuras) and Mt Taranaki. His solo climb of Tapuae-o-Uenuku demonstrated formidable physicality: a 32-kilometre walk up the Awatere Valley, a long tramp up the Hodder River and a 14-hour climb, followed by the Hodder and Awatere walks in reverse – all in a weekend.

Hillary qualified as a navigator and was posted in 1945 to Fiji and then the Solomon Islands, where he was badly burnt in a boating accident. After a fast recovery, and the end of the war, he returned to New Zealand and climbed his first 3,000-metre peaks – Mts Malte Brun and Hamilton in the Southern Alps.

Despite his ability and superb fitness, Hillary still lacked technical mountaineering proficiency. However, in 1946 he met Harry Ayres, probably the most talented mountain guide of his generation, and over the next three summers the pair climbed several peaks including New Zealand’s three highest – Aoraki/Mt Cook, Mt Tasman and Mt Dampier. Under Ayres’s tutelage Hillary became one of the country’s best climbers. During his career he ascended 16 of New Zealand’s 34 peaks over 3,000 metres.

Hillary and Ayres’s most significant ascent was the South Ridge of Aoraki/Mt Cook, its last major unclimbed ridge, with Mick Sullivan and Ruth Adams in 1948. Three days later, the same four were nearing the summit of nearby Mt La Perouse when a rope snapped and Adams fell, badly injuring herself. Hermitage Chief Guide Mick Bowie decided to evacuate the party down the rugged Cook Valley. This involved dozens of rescuers, many of whom were needed to cut a track down the heavily gorged river.

The episode brought several leading mountaineers into contact; significantly, Hillary met Earle Riddiford. Two years later, Hillary was to spend a storm-bound week in the Haast Hut with Hastings teacher George Lowe, with whom he discussed Himalayan climbing.

After Hillary’s father retired in 1949, he continued as a beekeeper, but brother Rex held the business together during Hillary’s increasingly long mountaineering absences.

In April 1950, flush with money after a bumper honey harvest from the season before, Hillary sailed to England to meet his sister, June, who had married an English doctor and was living in London. They toured Europe with their parents and Hillary scaled some 4,000-metre peaks in the Alps before returning to New Zealand.

The Himalayas

Hillary’s Himalayan aspirations were realised in 1950 when New Zealand climber Earle Riddiford invited him to tackle some of the world’s highest peaks. Riddiford had made first ascents in remote parts of the Southern Alps in the late 1940s. He also recruited George Lowe and Ed Cotter. Ambitious and organised, Riddiford used his persistence and legal skills to gain permission to climb in the Garhwal Himalaya of India.

On a training climb in January 1951, Riddiford, Hillary, Lowe and Cotter made the first traverse of the testing Maximilian Ridge of Mt Elie de Beaumont in the Southern Alps.

The four climbers left New Zealand in May 1951, and during June trekked into the Garhwal on the first all-New Zealand Himalayan expedition. They climbed five 6,000-metre peaks, with Hillary and Lowe forming perhaps the strongest climbing pair, although it was Riddiford and Cotter who summited the 7,240-metre Mukut Parbat after the other two turned back.

The success prompted the New Zealand Alpine Club to request – while the expedition was still in India – that two New Zealanders join the 1951 Everest reconnaissance expedition, to be led by Eric Shipton. Shipton agreed, leading to an acrimonious debate amongst the New Zealanders. Riddiford and Hillary claimed the two places – to Lowe’s disgust.

Riddiford and Hillary rushed to join Shipton’s team in Nepal and headed into the Khumbu region. The expedition held little hope of reaching the summit through the steep and dangerous Khumbu Icefall; but Hillary and Shipton gained a view from a ridge on nearby Pumori that showed it was feasible, and a route was forced through. Among the expedition’s Sherpas was Tenzing Norgay. Afterwards, Hillary joined Shipton in traversing several passes south-east of Everest, many of them the first crossings.

During the 1950s several European countries sought to climb the 14 8,000-metre Himalayan giants. Nations pinned their pride on specific mountains, with the French first succeeding on Annapurna in 1950. Everest remained the main prize.

Himalayan governments usually allowed only one annual Everest expedition, and prior to 1952 the British enjoyed a virtual monopoly. However, in 1952 a Swiss expedition gained the permit and reached 8,600 metres in a bold and almost successful assault. The British had to be content with a reconnoitre of Cho Oyu, an 8,000-metre peak straddling the Tibetan border. For this expedition they again invited Riddiford and Hillary, with the addition of Lowe, who with Hillary reached 6,800 metres on Cho Oyu before an icefall barred progress. More pass-hopping and exploration followed.


For the 1953 British Everest expedition, Eric Shipton was replaced as leader by Colonel John Hunt, who applied military-style planning to the task. Himalayan climbing was a logistical race against the monsoon, establishing routes for porters to stock successively higher camps with oxygen, food and equipment.

Above the Khumbu Icefall, George Lowe pioneered a route up the steep Lhotse face to Everest’s South Col. From there Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon reached the South Summit, but got no further. The way was open for Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, both of whom had acclimatised well to form a close team.

Hillary carried about 27 kilograms – a heavy load at sea-level let alone in the rarefied air of Everest – to the final camp, whence he and Tenzing set off on 29 May 1953. Beyond the point reached by Evans and Bourdillon they faced an unexpectedly steep barrier (later named ‘the Hillary Step’). Here Hillary wedged himself between snow and rock and wriggled up. The way was clear to the summit.

Upon their safe return, Hillary made an infamous (and later regretted) comment to Lowe: ‘Well George, we knocked the bastard off!’ 3

Few New Zealand mountaineers of the time could match Hillary’s energy and focus. However, there were a number of others who, with the right experience and chances, might have been able to reach the summit of Everest. Hillary’s response to challenges, and some good luck, allowed him to achieve the sought-after climbing goal.

Hillary’s life was changed forever. Before the expedition emerged from the mountains, the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth bestowed a knighthood on the bemused New Zealander. In Britain, he and Tenzing became the subject of media frenzy. They attended formal events and gave lectures to packed halls.

The ascent of Everest enhanced interest in mountaineering throughout the world. In New Zealand, Hillary and Everest helped turn mountaineering from a somewhat fringe activity into something that had new-found respect. More than half a century later, Hillary was still the world’s most famous mountaineer.

Back in New Zealand, Hillary married Louise Rose, whom he had met and climbed with some years previously. The shy man did not have enough courage to ask her directly, and instead Louise’s mother, Phyllis, made the proposal. On 3 September 1953 the wedding took place in the Diocesan School Chapel, Auckland, with George Lowe as best man.

Straight afterwards, Edmund, Louise and George Lowe departed for a five-month speaking tour of England and Europe.

Hillary and Lowe followed this with a New Zealand Himalayan expedition (Hillary’s first test as a leader) with some of the country’s best climbers. The expedition explored the little-known Barun valley, made a reconnaissance of Makalu (the world’s fifth-highest mountain) and ascended 23 peaks including Baruntse (7,560 metres). When two climbers fell into a crevasse, one was badly injured. Hillary broke ribs during the rescue and – after later collapsing from exhaustion – was evacuated.

After Everest

The Hillarys built a house in Remuera, Auckland, using proceeds from Edmund’s first autobiography, High adventure (1955)Although still a partner in the beekeeping business, Hillary was increasingly busy elsewhere. For the rest of his life he made his living largely from expeditions and writing. His spare, understated, and often humorous style made his books highly readable, and altogether he penned or co-authored 10, the last his enormously successful View from the summit (1999).

The Hillarys’ son Peter was born in December 1954 and was followed by two daughters, Sarah (1956) and Belinda (1959). Hillary enjoyed family life and liked gardening (especially roses) – but more expeditions awaited him. Peter was to follow in his father’s footsteps by climbing Mt Everest twice, as well as many other mountains.

In 1955, the Ross Sea Committee asked Hillary to lead the New Zealand contingent of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic expedition, laying depots for British adventurer Vivian Fuchs, who was to make the first crossing of Antarctica. Hillary helped Fuchs to establish Shackleton Base in the summer of 1955–56, and learnt valuable lessons from what he thought was an amateurish and disorganised expedition.

The next summer, under Hillary’s leadership, Scott Base was established on Ross Island (on the other side of Antarctica) and the first two depots were stocked. Hillary and 22 others wintered over in the new base before laying the depots with modified Massey Ferguson tractors. Having completed the task, Hillary, with Peter Mulgrew, Jim Bates and Murray Ellis (dubbed ‘The Old Firm’), dashed to the pole, arriving on 4 January 1958. They were the first to reach the South Pole overland since Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic journey of 1911–12.

Hillary’s radio message of 26 December 1957, ‘We are heading hell-bent for the pole, God willing and crevasses permitting’, caused a furore.4 His role was supposed to be a supporting one only, and by reaching the pole 16 days ahead of Fuchs, he stole British thunder. This devil-may-care approach appealed to many New Zealanders, but some in authority – and some of Hillary’s own team – viewed it as a breach of orders and an arrogant attempt to outplay Fuchs. However, the success of the venture ultimately overshadowed any ill feeling.

Back in Nepal

In 1960–61, Hillary organised and led the Silver Hut Expedition to Nepal to do high-altitude research, make an oxygen-free attempt on Makalu, and search for the mythical yeti. No convincing evidence of yeti was found, but expedition members climbed Ama Dablam. However, Hillary’s friend Peter Mulgrew lost both feet through frostbite after an accident on Makalu, and Hillary himself suffered from altitude sickness. In future years he was increasingly unable to acclimatise at altitude, even in the valleys, and Makalu marked the end of his high-altitude climbing.

During the 1960s, Hillary formed a partnership with two US companies: Field Enterprises Educational Corporation (an encyclopedia producer) and large US outdoor equipment company Sears Roebuck, both of whom helped finance expeditions. He designed and tested Sears Roebuck tents, packs and other gear. His family took several US camping holidays, which Louise Hillary described in her book, Keep calm if you can.

Hillary’s achievements on Everest and in Antarctica were greatly respected, but it was his subsequent humanitarian work that cemented his place as New Zealand’s most revered son.

In 1960, Sherpas in the Khumbu region of Nepal told him that they badly wanted a school. Hillary wanted to improve their lives, particularly as they had put such effort into his expeditions. He asked the British Mt Everest Foundation (which had substantial funds), for money to build a school but was turned down. ‘As the Sherpas have done so much for the British Himalayan expeditions I considered this a miserable response and still have not forgiven them,’ he later wrote.5

Hillary raised the money himself, establishing what became known as the Himalayan Trust, and after the Silver Hut expedition of 1961 he supervised the building of Khumjung School.

Over successive decades, the Himalayan Trust built schools, airfields, bridges, hospitals and clinics in Nepal. It also restored Buddhist monasteries, including the famed Tengboche Monastery after it burnt down in January 1989. All this work was in response to needs expressed directly by the Sherpas, who called Hillary Burra Sahib, meaning ‘big in heart.’

Hillary returned to Antarctica in 1967, leading a team that made the first ascent of Mt Herschel. In 1971 he completed a grand traverse of Aoraki/Mt Cook at the age of 52, and three years later made a first ascent of Troglodyte Peak (1,810 metres) in Fiordland with his son, Peter, to end his climbing career.

Tragedy struck the Hillary family on 31 March 1975, when a plane crash in Nepal killed Louise and their younger daughter, Belinda. The bereft Hillary descended into depression and drinking. Not until two years later did he have energy for another enterprise. In 1977, he led a team of New Zealanders travelling by jet boat from the sea to the headwaters of the Ganges River, where they made a first ascent of Akash Parbat. Hillary suffered a debilitating bout of altitude sickness on the climb.

Disaster struck again in 1979, when Hillary’s friend Peter Mulgrew was killed in the Air New Zealand Mt Erebus crash in Antarctica. Mulgrew’s widow, June, also a friend, formed a closer relationship with Hillary in subsequent years.

Later years

The same year, Prime Minister David Lange invited Hillary to become New Zealand’s ambassador to India, as part of the country’s effort to more closely align itself with Asia. Hillary relished the role. June Mulgrew joined him in New Delhi until he retired in 1989. That year the couple married on 21 December at Hillary’s Remuera home.

In 1987, Hillary was inducted into the Order of New Zealand, and then in 1995 received the British Commonwealth’s highest honour in becoming a Knight of the Garter. He also received honorary doctorates from universities around the world. In 2002, the Auckland War Memorial Museum displayed its ‘Sir Edmund Hillary: Everest and beyond’ exhibition, attracting thousands of people.

Despite failing health in later years, Hillary readily answered media requests for his views. He commented unfavourably on commercial climbs of Everest, especially regarding the 2006 death of a British climber who lay dying near the summit while others passed without offering help.

Some viewed Hillary’s comments as a sound reflection on the competitive and commercial nature of modern Everest climbs, but others saw them as the outdated views of a man lucky enough to have experienced the golden decade of Himalayan climbing.

Despite such occasional controversies, Hillary remained New Zealand’s most loved national figure. In 2003 the 50th anniversary of the Everest climb brought media fanfare. Magazines around the world, including National Geographic, ran articles on Hillary. Vanity Fair called him the world’s greatest living adventurer, and Time rated him and Tenzing among the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Hillary’s image of Tenzing Norgay on the summit of Everest is one of the most memorable of the 20th century, but by no means the only proficient photograph that he made. His photograph of a tractor chugging over the Ross Ice Shelf, with Mt Erebus bathed in dawn light, is a classic of exploration photography. His pictures of wife Louise and of alpine flowers suggest a man who took delight in portraits and in details, as well as in grand landscapes.

Hillary accepted with unfailing grace the responsibilities that his fame brought, including countless media appearances, book signings and requests to write forewords. Aside from his humanitarian work, another hallmark of his generosity was his mentoring of a new generation of climbers which included Graeme Dingle and Mike Gill.

Decades of hero-worship bemused him: ‘I have had much good fortune, a fair amount of success and a share of sorrow, too. Ever since I reached the summit of Everest … the media have classified me as a hero, but I have always recognised myself as being a person of modest abilities. My achievements have resulted from a goodly share of imagination and plenty of energy.’6

Hillary’s death on 11 January 2008 from heart failure at age 88 brought sorrow to New Zealanders. Commentators could recall no greater media attention since the 1974 death of Prime Minister Norman Kirk. Newspapers ran multi-page supplements on Hillary, and his funeral was televised. As his casket was carried from Auckland’s St Mary’s Church, Alpine Club members held aloft old-style wood-shafted ice-axes. After Hillary's death, his work in Nepal continued through the Himalayan Trust.

  1. Edmund Hillary, High adventure. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1955, p. 13. Back
  2. High adventure, p. 16. Back
  3. Quoted in Alexa Johnston, Sir Edmund Hillary: an extraordinary life. Auckland: Penguin, 2005, p. 73. Back
  4. Sir Edmund Hillary: an extraordinary life, p. 112. Back
  5. Edmund Hillary, View from the summit. London: Corgi, 2000, p. 34 Back
  6. View from the summit, p. 11. Back
How to cite this page:

Shaun Barnett. 'Hillary, Edmund Percival', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2010. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6h1/hillary-edmund-percival (accessed 23 April 2024)