Sir Edmund Percival Hillary KG ONZ KBE OSN (20 July 1919 – 11 January 2008) was a New Zealand mountaineer, explorer, and philanthropist. On 29 May 1953, Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers confirmed to have reached the summit of Mount Everest. They were part of the ninth British expedition to Everest, led by John Hunt.

Hillary became interested in mountaineering while in secondary school. He made his first major climb in 1939, reaching the summit of Mount Ollivier. He served in the Royal New Zealand Air Force as a navigator during World War II. Prior to the Everest expedition, Hillary had been part of the British reconnaissance expedition to the mountain in 1951 as well as an unsuccessful attempt to climb Cho Oyu in 1952. As part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition he reached the South Pole overland in 1958. He subsequently reached the North Pole, making him the first person to reach both poles and summit Everest.

Following his ascent of Everest, Hillary devoted himself to assisting the Sherpa people of Nepal through the Himalayan Trust, which he established. His efforts are credited with the construction of many schools and hospitals in Nepal. From 1985 to 1988 he served as New Zealand's High Commissioner to India and Bangladesh and concurrently as Ambassador to Nepal. Hillary had numerous honours conferred upon him, including the Order of the Garter in 1995. Upon his death in 2008, he was given a state funeral in New Zealand.

Early life

Hillary's mother Gertrude Clark, 1909

Hillary was born to Percival Augustus and Gertrude (née Clark) Hillary in Auckland, New Zealand, on 20 July 1919.[1][2] His family moved to Tuakau, south of Auckland, in 1920, after his father, who served at Gallipoli with the 15th (North Auckland) Regiment, was allocated land there.[2] His grandparents had emigrated from Yorkshire to northern Wairoa in the mid-19th century.[3]

Hillary was educated at Tuakau Primary School and then Auckland Grammar School.[2] He finished primary school two years early and at high school achieved average marks.[4] He was initially smaller than his peers and shy, but gained confidence after taking up boxing. He became interested in climbing when he was 16 following a school trip to Mount Ruapehu, after which he showed more interest in tramping than in studying and said he "wanted to see the world".[5][6]

He studied mathematics and science at Auckland University College and in 1939 completed his first major climb, reaching the summit of Mount Ollivier, near Aoraki / Mount Cook in the Southern Alps.[2] He took up beekeeping with his brother,[1][7] which occupied him in the summer while he concentrated on climbing in winter.[8] His father was a beekeeper, and although Hillary's inclination was for climbing, he became a professional beekeeper.[9][10] He joined the Radiant Living Tramping Club, where a health philosophy developed by Herbert Sutcliffe was taught; tours with the club through the Waitakere Ranges further developed his love of the outdoors.[11]

World War II

Hillary in Royal New Zealand Air Force uniform at Delta Camp, near Blenheim, New Zealand, during World War II

At the outbreak of World War II, Hillary applied to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) but quickly withdrew the application, later writing that he was "harassed by my religious conscience".[12] In 1943, with the Japanese threat in the Pacific and the arrival of conscription, he joined the RNZAF as a navigator in No. 6 Squadron RNZAF and later No. 5 Squadron RNZAF on Catalina flying boats.[12][13] In 1945, he was sent to Fiji and to the Solomon Islands, where he was badly burnt in an accident.[12]


In January 1948, Hillary and others ascended the south ridge of Aoraki / Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest peak.[14] In 1951 he was part of a British reconnaissance expedition to Everest led by Eric Shipton,[15] before joining the successful British attempt of 1953. In 1952, Hillary and George Lowe were part of the British team led by Shipton, that attempted Cho Oyu.[16] After that attempt failed due to the lack of route from the Nepal side, Hillary and Lowe crossed the Nup La pass into Tibet and reached the old Camp II, on the northern side, where all the previous expeditions had camped.[17]

1953 Everest expedition

External audio
Sir Edmund Hillary Scales the Heights of Literary Society, 1954, Hillary speaks 5:00–18:57, WNYC[18]

In 1949, the long-standing climbing route to the summit of Everest was closed by Chinese-controlled Tibet. For the next several years, Nepal allowed only one or two expeditions per year.[19] A Swiss expedition (in which Tenzing took part) attempted to reach the summit in 1952, but was forced back by bad weather around 800 feet (240 m) below the summit.[20] In 1952 Hillary learned that he and Lowe had been invited by the Joint Himalayan Committee for the 1953 British attempt and immediately accepted.[21]

Shipton was named as leader but was replaced by Hunt. Hillary was immediately impressed by Hunt's energy and determination.[22] Hillary had intended to climb with Lowe, but Hunt named two teams for the assault: Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans; and Hillary and Tenzing.[23] Hillary, therefore, made a concerted effort to forge a working friendship with Tenzing.[22]

Tenzing and Hillary

The Hunt expedition totalled over 400 people, including 362 porters, 20 Sherpa guides, and 10,000 pounds (4,500 kg) of baggage.[24][25] Lowe supervised the preparation of the Lhotse Face, a huge and steep ice face, for climbing. Hillary forged a route through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall.[26][27]

The expedition set up base camp in March 1953 and, working slowly, set up its final camp at the South Col at 25,900 feet (7,890 m). On 26 May, Bourdillon and Evans attempted the climb but turned back when Evans' oxygen system failed. The pair had reached the South Summit, coming within 300 vertical feet (91 m) of the summit.[25][28] Hunt then directed Hillary and Tenzing to attempt the summit.[28]

Snow and wind delayed them at the South Col for two days. They set out on 28 May with the support of Lowe, Alfred Gregory, and Ang Nyima.[29] The two pitched a tent at 27,900 feet (8,500 m) on 28 May, while their support group returned down the mountain.[30] On the following morning Hillary discovered that his boots had frozen solid outside the tent. He spent two hours warming them over a stove before he and Tenzing, wearing 30-pound (14 kg) packs, attempted the final ascent.[31] The final obstacle was the 40-foot (12 m) rock face now called "Hillary Step"; Hillary later wrote:

I noticed a crack between the rock and the snow sticking to the East Face. I crawled inside and wriggled and jammed my way to the top ... Tenzing slowly joined me and we moved on. I chopped steps over bump after bump, wondering a little desperately where the top could be. Then I saw the ridge ahead dropped away to the north and above me on the right was a rounded snow dome. A few more whacks with my ice-axe and Tenzing and I stood on top of Everest.[32]

Hillary and Tenzing on return from the Everest's summit

Tenzing later wrote that Hillary took the first step onto the summit and he followed. They reached Everest's 29,028 ft (8,848 m) summit – the highest point on earth – at 11:30 am.[1][33]

They spent about 15 minutes at the summit. Hillary took a photo of Tenzing posing with his ice-axe, but there is no photo of Hillary. BBC News attributed this to Tenzing's having never used a camera;[34][35] Tenzing's autobiography says that Hillary simply declined to have his picture taken. They also took photos looking down the mountain.[35]

Hillary (left) and George Lowe (right) with Governor-General Sir Willoughby Norrie at Government House, Wellington, 20 August 1953

Tenzing left chocolates at the summit as an offering, and Hillary left a cross given him by John Hunt.[36] Their descent was complicated by drifting snow which had covered their tracks. The first person they met was Lowe; Hillary said, "Well, George, we knocked the bastard off."[6]

They returned to Kathmandu a few days later and learned that Hillary had already been appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire and Hunt a Knight Bachelor.[37] News reached Britain on the day of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, and the press called it a coronation gift.[38] The 37 members of the party later received the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal with mount everest expedition engraved along the rim.[39] In addition to the knighting of Hillary and Hunt, Tenzing – ineligible for knighthood as a Nepalese citizen – received the George Medal.[40][41][42] Tenzing also received the Star of Nepal from King Tribhuvan.[43]

After Everest

In the cockpit of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition's DHC-2, 1956

Hillary climbed ten other peaks in the Himalayas on further visits in 1956, 1960–1961, and 1963–1965. He also reached the South Pole as part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, for which he led the New Zealand section, on 4 January 1958. His party was the first to reach the Pole overland since Amundsen in 1911 and Scott in 1912, and the first ever to do so using motor vehicles.[44]

In 1960 Hillary organized an expedition to search for the fabled abominable snowman.[45] Hillary was with the expedition for five months, although it lasted for ten.[46] No evidence of Yetis was found, instead footprints and tracks were proven to be from other causes. During the expedition, Hillary travelled to remote temples which contained "Yeti scalps"; however after bringing back three relics, two were shown to be from bears and one from a goat antelope.[47][48] Hillary said after the expedition: "The yeti is not a strange, superhuman creature as has been imagined. We have found rational explanations for most yeti phenomena".[49]

Hillary in 1957 after ac­com­pa­nying the first plane to land at the Marble Point ground air strip, Antarctica

In 1962 he was a guest on the television game show What's My Line?; he stumped the panel, comprising Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf, and Merv Griffin.[50] In 1977, he led a jetboat expedition, titled "Ocean to Sky", from the mouth of the Ganges River to its source.[51] From 1977 to 1979 he commentated aboard Antarctic sightseeing flights operated by Air New Zealand.[52] In 1985, he accompanied Neil Armstrong in a small twin-engined ski plane over the Arctic Ocean and landed at the North Pole. Hillary thus became the first man to stand at both poles and on the summit of Everest.[53][54][55][56] This accomplishment inspired generations of explorers to compete over what later was defined as Three Poles Challenge. In January 2007, Hillary travelled to Antarctica as part of a delegation commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of Scott Base.[57][58][59]

Public recognition

On 6 June 1953 Hillary was appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire and received the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal the same year.[60] On 6 February 1987, he was the fourth appointee to the Order of New Zealand.[61] He was also awarded the Polar Medal in 1958 for his part in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition,[62][63] the Order of Gorkha Dakshina Bahu, 1st Class of the Kingdom of Nepal in 1953, and the Coronation Medal in 1975.[64] On 22 April 1995 Hillary was appointed Knight Companion of The Most Noble Order of the Garter.[65][66] On 17 June 2004 Hillary was awarded Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.[67] The Government of India conferred on him its second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, posthumously, in 2008.[68]

To mark the 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Everest, the Nepalese government conferred honorary citizenship upon Hillary at a special Golden Jubilee celebration in Kathmandu, Nepal. He was the first foreign national to receive that honour.[69][10]

Since 1992, New Zealand's $5 note has featured Hillary's portrait, making him the only living person not a current head of state ever to appear on a New Zealand banknote. In giving his permission, Hillary insisted that Aoraki / Mount Cook rather than Mount Everest be used as the backdrop.[70][71]

Statue of Hillary gazing towards Aoraki / Mount Cook, one of his favourite peaks[72]

Annual Reader's Digest polls from 2005 to 2007 named Hillary as "New Zealand's most trusted individual".[73][74]

Hillary's favoured New Zealand charity was the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre, of which he was patron for 35 years.[75] He was particularly keen on how this organisation introduced young New Zealanders to the outdoors in a very similar way to his first experience of a school trip to Mt Ruapehu at the age of 16. A 2.3-metre (7.5 ft) bronze statue of Hillary was erected outside The Hermitage Hotel at Mount Cook Village; it was unveiled by Hillary himself in 2003.[76] Various streets, institutions and organisations around New Zealand and abroad are named after him – for example, the Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate in Otara, which was established by Hillary in 2001.[77]

Two Antarctic features are named after Hillary. The Hillary Coast is a section of coastline south of Ross Island and north of the Shackleton Coast.[78] The Hillary Canyon, an undersea feature in the Ross Sea, appears on the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans, published by the International Hydrographic Organization.[79]

Personal life

Hillary, with first wife, Louise, and son, Peter, 1955

Hillary married Louise Mary Rose on 3 September 1953, soon after the ascent of Everest; he admitted he was terrified of proposing to her and relied on her mother to propose on his behalf.[7][8][80] They had three children: Peter (born 1954), Sarah (born 1955) and Belinda (1959–1975).[1][28] In 1975 while en route to join Hillary in the village of Phaphlu, where he was helping to build a hospital, Louise and Belinda were killed in a plane crash near Kathmandu airport shortly after take-off.[7] In 1989 he married June Mulgrew, the widow of his close friend Peter Mulgrew, who died on Air New Zealand Flight 901 in 1979.[8][81]

His son Peter Hillary also became a climber, summiting Everest in 1990. In May 2002 Peter climbed Everest as part of a 50th anniversary celebration; Jamling Tenzing Norgay (son of Tenzing who had died in 1986) was also part of the expedition.[82]

Hillary's home for most of his life was a property on Remuera Road in Auckland City,[83] where he enjoyed reading adventure and science fiction novels in his retirement.[83] He also built a bach at Whites Beach,[84] one of Auckland's west coast beaches in the former Waitakere City, between Anawhata and North Piha;[85][86] a friend called it Hillary's place of solace, where he could escape media attention.[84]

The Hillary family has had a connection with the west coast of Auckland since 1925, when Louise's father built a bach at Anawhata.[87] The family donated land at Whites Beach that is now crossed by trampers on the Hillary Trail, named for Edmund.[88] Hillary said of the area: "That is the thing that international travel brings home to me – it's always good to be going home. This is the only place I want to live in; this is the place I want to see out my days."[89]


Hillary in Warsaw in 2004, wearing his Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit

Following his ascent of Everest he devoted himself to assisting the Sherpa people of Nepal through the Himalayan Trust, which he established in 1960[90] and led until his death in 2008. His efforts are credited with the construction of many schools and hospitals in this remote region of the Himalayas. He was the Honorary President of the American Himalayan Foundation, a United States non-profit body that helps improve the ecology and living conditions in the Himalayas. He was also the Honorary President of Mountain Wilderness, an international NGO dedicated to the worldwide protection of mountains.[91]

Political involvement

Hillary took part in the 1975 New Zealand general election, as a member of the "Citizens for Rowling" campaign. His involvement in this campaign was seen as precluding his nomination as Governor-General;[92] the position was offered to Keith Holyoake in 1977. In 1985, Hillary was appointed New Zealand High Commissioner to India (concurrently High Commissioner to Bangladesh and Ambassador to Nepal) and spent four and a half years based in New Delhi.[93]

In 1975, Hillary served as a vice president for the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand,[94] a national pro-choice advocacy group.[95] He was also a patron of REPEAL, an organization seeking repeal of the restrictive Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977.[94]


People draped in the Flag of New Zealand as Hillary's hearse passes

On 22 April 2007, while on a trip to Kathmandu, Hillary suffered a fall, and was hospitalised after returning to New Zealand.[96] On 11 January 2008 he died of heart failure at Auckland City Hospital.[97] Flags were lowered to half-mast on New Zealand public buildings and at Scott Base in Antarctica,[98] and Prime Minister Helen Clark called Hillary's death a "profound loss to New Zealand".[99]

On 21 January, Hillary's casket was taken into Holy Trinity Cathedral, Auckland, to lie in state.[100] A state funeral was held on 22 January 2008,[101] after which his body was cremated. On 29 February 2008 most of his ashes were scattered in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf per his desire.[102] The remainder went to a Nepalese monastery near Everest; a plan to scatter them on the summit was cancelled in 2010.[103]

Posthumous tributes

In January 2008, Lukla Airport, in Lukla, Nepal, was renamed to Tenzing–Hillary Airport in recognition of their promotion of its construction.[104][105] On 2 April 2008, a service of thanksgiving in Hillary's honour at St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle was attended by Queen Elizabeth, New Zealand dignitaries including Prime Minister Helen Clark, and members of Hillary's and Norgay's families; Gurkha soldiers from Nepal stood guard outside the ceremony.[106][107] In October 2008, it was announced that future rugby test matches between England and New Zealand would be played for the Hillary Shield.[108] In 2009 the Duke of Edinburgh's Award in New Zealand – formerly the Young New Zealanders' Challenge – was renamed "The Duke of Edinburgh's Hillary Award".[109] On 5 November 2008, a commemorative set of five stamps was issued by New Zealand Post.[110][111]

There have been many calls for lasting tributes to Hillary. The first major public tribute has been by way of the "Summits for Ed" tribute tour organised by the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation.[112] This tribute tour went from Bluff at the bottom of the South Island to Cape Reinga at the tip of the North Island, visiting 39 towns and cities along the way. In each venue, school children and members of the public were invited to join together to climb a significant hill or site in their area to show their respect for Hillary. The public were also invited to bring small rocks or pebbles that had special significance to them, that would be included in a memorial to Hillary at the base of Mt Ruapehu, in the grounds of the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre. Funds donated during the tour are used by the foundation to sponsor young New Zealanders on outdoor courses. Over 8,000 persons attended these "Summit" climbs between March and May 2008.[113]

View from the Hillary Trail

The tribute song "Hillary 88", by the New Zealand duo The Kiwis, is the official world memorial song for Hillary, with the endorsement of Lady Hillary.[114]

A four-day track in the Waitakere Ranges, along Auckland's west coast, is named the Hillary Trail,[115] in honour of Hillary.[88] Hillary's father-in-law, Jim Rose, who had built a bach at Anawhata in 1925, wrote in his 1982 history of Anawhata Beach, "My family look forward to the time when we will be able to walk from Huia to Muriwai on public walking tracks like the old-time Maori could do".[87][116] Hillary loved the area, and had his own bach near Anawhata. The track was opened on 11 January 2010, the second anniversary of Hillary's death.[97][117] Rose Track, descending from Anawhata Road to Whites Beach, is named after the Rose family.[89][118]

The South Ridge of Aoraki / Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain, was renamed Hillary Ridge on 18 August 2011. Hillary and three other climbers were the first party to successfully climb the ridge in 1948.[119] In September 2013 the Government of Nepal proposed naming a 7,681 metres (25,200 ft) mountain in Nepal Hillary Peak in his honour.[120] After the New Horizons mission discovered a mountain range on Pluto on 14 July 2015, it was informally named Hillary Montes (Hillary Mountains) by NASA.[121]

The Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal, awarded by the Nepalese NGO Mountain Legacy "for remarkable service in the conservation of culture and nature in mountainous regions" was inaugurated in 2003, with the approval of Sir Edmund Hillary. A bronze bust of Hillary (circa 1953) by Ophelia Gordon Bell is in the Te Papa museum in Wellington, New Zealand.[122] The Sir Edmund Hillary Archive was added to the UNESCO Memory of the world archive in 2013,[123] it is currently held by Auckland War Memorial Museum.[124]



Books written by Edmund Hillary
Title Year Publisher ISBN/ASIN Co-author Ref
High Adventure[a] 1955 Hodder & Stoughton[b] ISBN 1-932302-02-6[c] n/a [125][45]
East of Everest — An Account of the New Zealand Alpine Club Himalayan Expedition to the Barun Valley in 1954 1956 E. P. Dutton ASIN B000EW84UM George Lowe [125]
No Latitude for Error 1961 Hodder & Stoughton. ASIN B000H6UVP6 n/a [125][45]
The New Zealand Antarctic Expedition 1959 R.W. Stiles, printers. ASIN B0007K6D72 n/a
The Crossing of Antarctica: The Commonwealth Transantarctic Expedition, 1955–1958 1958 Cassell ASIN B000HJGZ08 Vivian Fuchs [125]
High in the thin cold air[d] 1962 Doubleday ASIN B00005W121 Desmond Doig [125]
Schoolhouse in the Clouds 1965 Hodder & Stoughton ASIN B00005WRBB n/a [125]
Nothing Venture, Nothing Win 1975 Hodder & Stoughton ISBN 0-340-21296-9 n/a [125]
From the Ocean to the Sky: Jet Boating Up the Ganges 1979 Viking ISBN 0-7089-0587-0 n/a [125]
Two Generations[e] 1984 Hodder & Stoughton ISBN 0-340-35420-8 Peter Hillary [f][125]
View from the Summit: The Remarkable Memoir by the First Person to Conquer Everest 2000 Pocket ISBN 0-7434-0067-4 n/a


  1. ^ Also High Adventure: The True Story of the First Ascent of Everest
  2. ^ (reprinted Oxford University Press (paperback)
  3. ^ and ISBN 0-19-516734-1
  4. ^ the story of the Himalayan Expedition, led by Sir Edmund Hillary, sponsored by World Book Encyclopedia
  5. ^ reissued as Ascent: Two Lives Explored: The Autobiographies of Sir Edmund and Peter Hillary
  6. ^ (1992) Paragon House Publishers ISBN 1-55778-408-6.



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  • Elish, Dan (2007). Edmund Hillary: First to the Top. Marshall Cavendish. ISBN 978-0-761-42224-2. 
  • Hillary, Edmund (1955). High Adventure. 649. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-195-16734-4. 
  • Johnston, Alexa; Larsen, David (2005). Reaching the Summit: Sir Edmund Hillary's Life of Adventure. DK Publishing. ISBN 978-0-756-61527-7. 
  • Johnston, Alexa (2013). Sir Edmund Hillary: An Extraordinary Life. Penguin Random House New Zealand Limited. p. 504. ISBN 978-0143006466. 
  • Little, Paul (2012). After Everest: Inside the private world of Edmund Hillary. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978-1-877505-20-1. 
  • Tuckey, Harriet (2013). Everest: The First Ascent — How a Champion of Science Helped to Conquer the Mountain. Lyons Press. p. 424. ISBN 978-0-762-79192-7. 

External links