Edmund Percival Hillary was born in Auckland on 20 July 1919, the son of Percival and Gertrude Hillary (née Clark). His mother was a teacher; his father published a Dargaville newspaper, the North Auckland Times. Ed had an older sister, June, and a younger brother, Rex. The family moved to South Auckland in 1920 when Percy, who had served at Gallipoli during the First World War, was allocated land near Tuakau. Percy used returned servicemen’s assistance to train as a bee-keeper, and he also established a weekly newspaper, the Tuakau District News.
The paddocks, hills and tidal creeks of Tuakau were fields of dreams for a young adventurer. Ed was soon reading the ripping yarns of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rider Haggard and Zane Grey, and enjoying Saturday Westerns at the war memorial hall. He attended Tuakau Primary School and then Auckland Grammar, to which he commuted by daily train for more than three years. Ed was small and shy but gained confidence once boxing lessons enabled him to hold his own at school. Aged 16, he got his first taste of snow on a school trip to Mt Ruapehu. The same year the family moved to Auckland, and Percy founded a monthly magazine for bee-keepers, New Zealand Honeybee.
Ed studied mathematics and science at Auckland University College. He loved tramping much more than studying, and after two years he joined Rex to help his father with bee-keeping. In 1939 he climbed his first peak, Mt Ollivier, near Mt Cook. The family became followers of Herbert Sutcliffe, the founder of a liberal Christian philosophy of physical, psychological and spiritual health, Radiant Living. Though he eventually lost interest, his involvement with Radiant Living gave young Ed confidence in public speaking and widened his intellectual horizons.
Pacifism was one of Sutcliffe’s key teachings. When the Second World War broke out Ed initially gained exemption from conscription because bee-keeping was a reserved occupation, but Rex spent four years in a detention camp as a conscientious objector. Ed eventually persuaded his father that he should be released for war service, and in 1944 he was called up for the Royal New Zealand Air Force. Training in Marlborough brought more challenging climbing opportunities. His posting to Fiji and the Solomon Islands as a flying boat navigator ended abruptly when he was severely burnt in a motor boat accident. He convalesced in the Southern Alps, finding a mentor in Harry Ayres, New Zealand’s outstanding climber of the period.