Sir Edmund Hillary

Sir Edmund Hillary - Read Shorter Bio

Sir Edmund Hillary - Read Shorter Bio


Sir Edmund Hillary demonstrates outstanding human qualities of integrity, modesty, determination and service to others born of a life-time of exceptional achievement.


Best-known internationally as the first man to climb Mt. Everest in May 1953 with Tenzing Norgay, for the last 50 years he has devoted himself to environmental and humanitarian efforts that have made a profound difference to communities in Nepal where his famous summiting was achieved.

Born in Auckland, New Zealand, on July 20 1919, his father a bee-keeper and mother a teacher, Hillary was educated at Auckland Grammar School and spent two years at Auckland University before joining his father in the honey production business. During World War II he served as a navigator in the Pacific Theatre on RNZAF Catalina flying boats. His first contact with mountains came through a skiing trip at High School but his interests soon changed with ten years of weekends and holidays spent making a number of difficult first ascents in New Zealand's mountainous regions.

1951 was the beginning of Hillary's association with the Himalayas with four New Zealand climbers organising and financing their own trip to the Gawhal Himalaya and making first ascents of six peaks over 20,000 feet. This brought an invitation to join the British Everest reconnaissance party in September 1951 which discovered the route up the south side of Mt. Everest, which was later used in the successful ascent. Hillary was back in the Himalayas again in 1952 with the British Cho Oyu expedition, and on 29th May 1953 with Tenzing Norgay, he reached the summit during the successful assault of the British Mount Everest Expedition.  Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Edmund became both an international celebrity and a local hero.

In 1954 Hillary's interest turned to the Antarctic as leader of the New Zealand part of the British Trans Antarctic Expedition. He supervised the building of Scott Base in McMurdo Sound and wintered over with 22 companions. An extensive scientific and exploratory programme was undertaken and Hillary and four companions travelled overland with three modified farm tractors and became the first ever party with vehicles to reach the South Pole.

During 1960/61 Hillary returned to the Himalayas with a large scientific and mountaineering expedition establishing a specially insulated hut at 19,000 feet for high altitude research. A search for the Yeti concluded the creature was largely mythological. Several difficult first ascents were made including Mt Amadablam (22,300 ft.) but the party failed in its attempt to climb Makalu at 27,790 ft without oxygen. Hillary himself suffered a minor cerebral stroke at 21,000 ft but made a complete recovery.  

During this expedition Hillary first took action on his growing concern for the Sherpa people's welfare. With finances donated by Field Enterprises Educational Corporation of Chicago, he co-operated with the Sherpas to build Khumjung School at 12,600 ft - the first permanent school in the Mt Everest area. Hillary returned to the Himalayas annually and some fine first ascents were made by members of his parties. However more important to him was the building of seven schools, two water pipelines, four bridges and one mountain airfield.  In 1966 he achieved a major ambition establishing a small hospital in the village of Kunde at 12,700 ft. For many years Hillary was President of NZ's Volunteer Service Abroad and he has tirelessly championed the need for increased aid to developing countries.

In 1953 Hillary married Louise Mary Rose and they had three children Peter, Sarah and Belinda.  Lady Hillary was a musician and made a number of Himalayan journeys writing three books in the process. Hillary still found plenty of time for adventure, returning in 1967 to the Antarctic to first ascend Mt Herschel (11,700 ft), and in 1968 he tackled the turbulent rivers of east Nepal with two small jet boats.  Although one boat sank in a violent rapid Hillary succeeded in travelling 180 miles from the Indian border up the Sun Kosi river to Kathmandu. By 1975, 17 mountain schools were in operation plus many fresh water pipelines and bridges along with a major hospital at Phaphlu and an airfield.  During the course of this expedition Hillary's wife and youngest daughter died in the crash of a small plane that was flying from Kathmandu to join him at Phaphlu. Despite this tragedy the hospital and airfield were completed and other projects undertaken.

In 1985 appointed NZ High Commissioner to India, Nepal and Bangladesh Hillary spent 4½ years based in New Delhi, while still working in the Everest region. He has completed over 27 schools, two hospitals, 12 medical clinics, a reforestation programme in the Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park, plus numerous bridges and fresh water pipelines. All projects have been in response to requests from Sherpa people, and carried out with their assistance. Sir Edmund is a greatly loved and respected figure in the Solukhumbu region.

Hillary is an International Director of the World Wildlife fund and The UN Environmental Programme has also honoured him for conservation activities. In 1985 he accompanied astronaut Neil Armstrong  in a small twin-engined ski plane over the Arctic Ocean and landed at the North Pole. He is believed to be the first person to reach the North and South Poles and the summit of Everest. His decorations and citations include:

  • Order of New Zealand
  • Founders Medal of the Royal Geographical Society
  • Hubbard Medal of the National Geographical Society
  • Polar Medal
  • Commander Merite et Sportif
  • Star of Nepal (1st Class)

An Honorary Member or Patron of many organisations and Honorary President of the Explorers Club (New York), Hillary has also been a long-term advisor to Sears Roebuck of Chicago and Toronto.  He has received nine Honorary Doctorates and written eight books including: "East of Everest"  (with George Lowe); "Schoolhouse in the Clouds" and "Two Generations" (with Peter Hillary).

From India Hillary returned home to Auckland in 1989, where he celebrated his 70th birthday and on December 21, married June Mulgrew, widow of old friend Peter Mulgrew who had travelled with him to the South Pole (and died in the Air New Zealand DC10 plane crash on Mt. Erebus). 1989 also saw famous Tengpoche Monastery at the foot of Mt Everest destroyed by fire and Hillary carried out a worldwide fund-raising, re-building programme. In May 1990 he had the unique experience of sitting in Auckland and talking by telephone to his own son standing on the summit of Everest. In 1991 he was appointed "UNICEF Special Representative for the Children of the Himalayas" and in 1995 received The Most Noble Order of the Garter from Queen Elizabeth II.

More than forty years after Sir Edmund's successful ascent of Mt Everest a four-part documentary of his life was written by NZ writer and cartoonist Tom Scott, finally going to air in September 1997. Sir Edmund has featured in numerous other documentaries around the world. In 1999, his biography "View from The Summit" was released, and he celebrated his 80th Birthday dinner hosted by NZ Governor General Sir Michael and Lady Hardie Boys.

In 2003 Sir Edmund celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the ascent of Everest in Nepal, with his Sherpa friends and Tenzing Norgay's family, and in 2004 formally re-embraced leadership development as the patron of the Excelerator: New Zealand Leadership Institute, and internationally through lending his name to the development of the Hillary Institute and Awards programme.

In January 2007 Sir Edmund returned to Antarctica for the final time for the 50 years celebration of his establishment of Scott Base for New Zealand. With Sir Ed in honoured attendance Prime Minister Helen Clark (as patron), formally launched The Hillary Institute there on January 22nd. New Zealanders take great pride in this extraordinary, ordinary man, a world-wide symbol of courage, determination, leadership and humanitarian service. Sir Edmund passed peacefully in Auckland, on the morning of Jan 11, 2008, and was accorded the rare honour of a state funeral on Jan 22nd. He will forever be an inspiration to us all.