Page 4: Everest
Hillary, Edmund Percival
Beekeeper, mountaineer, philanthropist
This biography, written by Shaun Barnett, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
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.
To the summit
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!’ 1
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.
New Zealand Himalayan expedition
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.