Page 3: The Himalayas
Hillary, Edmund Percival
Beekeeper, mountaineer, philanthropist
This biography, written by Shaun Barnett, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
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.
Garhwal Himalaya, 1951
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.
1951 Everest reconnaisance
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.
Cho Oyu, 1952
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.