Sir Edmund Percival Hillary
Sir Edmund Percival Hillary
New Zealand Mountaineer and Explorer
Born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1919, this future world figure started his adult life as a beekeeper. His interest in climbing began in the New Zealand Alps and, in 1951, he joined a group that was headed for the Himalayan range and a reconnaissance of the south face of Mount Everest. In 1953 he and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, became the first persons to reach the summit of this famed mountain.
Mount Everest had been attracting climbers since 1920, and in the subsequent 32 years seven major expeditions failed to reach the summit—some individuals losing their lives along the way. The peak stands at 29,028 feet (8,848 m)—higher than any other solid form on Earth. (It is more than twice the height of Mt. Whitney in California, which is the highest point in the continental United States.) Everest rises on the border between Tibet and Nepal, and its summit is calculated as reaching two-thirds to the top of Earth's atmosphere, where oxygen levels become dangerously low. Absolutely nothing grows on the upper slopes of Everest. When scientists tried to discover what lay beneath the top layers of snow and ice, all they found was much more snow and ice. Auxiliary oxygen, which has since become standard practice for most climbers attempting Mt. Everest, was not an option at that time.
The 1953 ascent that brought enduring fame to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay (1914-1986), was actually under the command of Sir John Hunt, a British army officer with heavy experience in exploration and mountaineering. All who have studied the first successful climb have been quick to give much of the credit to Tenzing Norgay. He had been personally involved with assaults on Everest since 1935, and in the next few years took part in more Everest expeditions than any other person. He was at Hillary's side when they reached the summit on May, 29, 1953, and true to his Buddhist beliefs, he left an offering of food at the highest point of the mountain. He received many honors from the British government and collaborated with several authors in recounting his adventures.
Hillary's triumph was heralded around the world. It came on the eve of the British coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth II and gave the entire war-weary nation a double reason to celebrate. Upon his return to England, he was immediately knighted by the newly crowned queen.
Between 1955 and 1958 Hillary and Vivian Fuchs (1908- ) led a hardy New Zealand group of adventurers on the British Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. On January 4, 1958, they reached the South Pole (riding on a tractor). The pair collaborated on two books detailing the exploration: The Crossing of Antarctica (1958) and a sequel called No Latitude for Error (1961).
Hillary went on to scale Mount Herschel (10,941 ft.) on a follow-up expedition to Antarctica. It was the first time this peak had been targeted for a climb. Hillary opted for warmer weather on his next adventure, a 1977 jet boat excursion—the first such journey—up the religiously revered Ganges River in India. When the navigable portion had been exhausted, he got off the boat and climbed to the river's source high in the Himalayas.
Along with his exciting and interesting life, Hillary took the time to form a Himalayan trust fund that funds humanitarian work among the Sherpas, building clinics, hospitals, and numerous schools. He became an environmentalist before the word existed and persuaded the Nepalese government to enact legislation protecting their forests and to set aside the area around Everest as a Nepalese National Park. His autobiography Nothing Venture, Nothing Win was published in 1975.
BROOK ELLEN HALL