Page 6: Back in Nepal
Hillary, Edmund Percival
Beekeeper, mountaineer, philanthropist
This biography, written by Shaun Barnett, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
Silver Hut Expedition
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.
US commercial partnerships
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.1
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.