Biography of Sir Edmund Hillary

Mountaineering, Exploration, and Philanthropy 1919-2008

Sir Edmund and Lady Louise Hillary with their son Peter, 1955.
Sir Edmund and Lady Louise Hillary with their son Peter, 1955. Sir Edmund and Lady Hillary Wikimedia Commons

Edmund Hillary was born on July 20, 1919, in Auckland, New Zealand. Shortly after his birth, his family moved south of the city to Tuakau, where his father, Percival Augustus Hillary, acquired land.

From an early age, Hillary was interested in having a life of adventure and when he was 16, he became attracted to mountain climbing after a school trip to Mount Ruapehu, located on the North Island of New Zealand. After high school, he went on to study math and science at Auckland University. In 1939, Hillary put his climbing interests to the test by summiting the 6,342 ft (1,933 m) Mount Ollivier in the Southern Alps.

Upon entering the workforce, Edmund Hillary decided to become a beekeeper with his brother Rex, since it was a seasonal job that allowed him the freedom to climb when he was not working. During his time off, Hillary climbed numerous mountains in New Zealand, the Alps, and eventually the Himalayas, where he confronted 11 peaks over 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) in elevation.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Mount Everest

After climbing these various other peaks, Edmund Hillary began to set his sights on the world's highest mountain, Mount Everest. In 1951 and 1952, he joined two surveying expeditions and was recognized by Sir John Hunt, leader of the planned 1953 expedition sponsored by the Joint Himalayan Committee of the Alpine Club of Great Britain and the Royal Geographic Society.

Since the North Col route on the Tibetan side of the mountain was closed by the Chinese government, the 1953 expedition attempted to reach the summit via the South Col route in Nepal. As the climb progressed, all but two climbers were forced to descend the mountain due to fatigue and the effects of the high altitude.

The two climbers left were Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. After the final push for the ascent, the pair climbed atop the 29,035 foot (8,849 m) summit of Mount Everest at 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953.

At the time, Hillary was the first non-Sherpa to reach the summit and as a result became famous around the world but most notably in the United Kingdom because the expedition was British-led. As a result, Hillary was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II when he and the rest of the climbers returned to the country.

Post-Everest Exploration of Edmund Hillary

After his success on Mount Everest, Edmund Hillary continued climbing in the Himalayas. However, he also turned his interests toward Antarctica and exploration there. From 1955-1958, he led the New Zealand section of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition and in 1958, he was a part of the first mechanized expedition to the South Pole.

In 1985, Hillary and Neil Armstrong flew over the Arctic Ocean and landed at the North Pole, making him the first person to reach both poles and the summit of Everest.

Edmund Hillary's Philanthropy

In addition to mountaineering and the exploration of various regions around the world, Edmund Hillary was very concerned with the well-being of the Nepalese people. During the 1960s, he spent a great deal of time in Nepal helping to develop it by building clinics, hospitals, and schools. He also founded the Himalayan Trust, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of people living in the Himalayas.

Though he helped in developing the area, Hillary was also worried about the degradation of the unique environment of the Himalayan Mountains and the problems that would occur with increased tourism and accessibility. As a result, he persuaded the government to protect the forest by making the area around Mount Everest a national park.

In order to help these changes go more smoothly, Hillary also persuaded New Zealand's government to provide aid to those areas in Nepal that needed it. In addition, Hillary devoted the rest of his life to environmental and humanitarian work on the behalf of the Nepalese people.

Because of his many accomplishments, Queen Elizabeth II named Edmund Hillary a Knight of the Order of the Garter in 1995. He also became a member of the Order of New Zealand in 1987 and was awarded the Polar Medal for his participation in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Different streets and schools in both New Zealand and around the world are also named for him, as is the Hillary Step, a technically demanding 40 ft (12 m) rock wall on the Southeast ridge near the summit of Mount Everest.

Sir Edmund Hillary died of a heart attack at Auckland Hospital in New Zealand on January 11, 2008. He was 88 years old.