Page 5: After 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.
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.1 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.