Page 2: Early mountaineering
Hillary, Edmund Percival
Beekeeper, mountaineer, philanthropist
This biography, written by Shaun Barnett, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
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’.1 It was his first ascent.
Military service and mountaineering
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.
New Zealand peaks
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.