Edmund Hillary

Page 3 – From Everest to the South Pole

In 1948 Hillary made his first ascent of Mt Cook. Soon afterwards he took part in an epic five-day journey across the main divide, helping carry an injured climber to safety on the West Coast. In 1949 he accompanied his parents to England to attend his sister June’s wedding, and he found time to climb the 4158-metre-high Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps. In 1951 he took part in a New Zealand expedition to the Garhwal Himalaya, which climbed five peaks over 6000 metres high. The reward was two places in Eric Shipton’s British Everest Reconnaissance Expedition. When Ed and Earle Riddiford proved their worth, they were joined by George Lowe on the 1952 British Cho Oyu Expedition.

Hillary and Lowe were then invited to join John Hunt’s 1953 British Everest Expedition. On 29 May – four days before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II – the final pair, Hillary and the experienced Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, reached the summit of Mt Everest via the south face. They were the first men to stand on the ‘roof of the world’. From the moment Hillary told Lowe that they had ‘knocked the bastard off’, his life was public property. Hillary was created KBE and fêted around the world. He married Louise Rose, a talented viola player, in Auckland on 3 September 1953, the bride’s 23rd birthday. They were to have three children: Peter (born 1954), Sarah (1956) and Belinda (1959).

Hillary led the New Zealand component of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1957–58, which was under the overall command of the British explorer Vivian Fuchs. The New Zealanders first set up Scott Base on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. In October 1957, driving modified Ferguson farm tractors, they headed south to establish food and fuel depots for the British crossing party. Then, against the instructions of the British Ross Sea Committee, they went 'hell-bent for the Pole – God willing and crevasses permitting'. On 4 January 1958, Hillary’s party became the first to reach the South Pole overland since Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated journey in 1912. Despite this success, he faced some criticism for allegedly putting adventure ahead of the expedition's scientific aims.

In the decade after his Everest ascent, Hillary published several best-selling accounts of his exploits, including High adventure (1955), East of Everest (with George Lowe, 1956), The crossing of Antarctica (with Vivian Fuchs, 1958) and No latitude for error (1961).

In 1960–61 Hillary led the Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition, the main purpose of which was to study the effects of high altitude on the human body. An attempt to climb the 8340-metre-high Makalu without oxygen almost ended in disaster, and the expedition searched in vain for the fabled yeti, the abominable snowman.

More fruitfully, he helped build a school at Khumjung in the shadow of Everest. The work of the Himalayan Trust, established in 1964, became Hillary's greatest contribution to the region he loved. Over the next 30 years, with the help of hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers from New Zealand and other countries, the Trust built more than a dozen schools, two airfields, two hospitals and several medical clinics, as well as repairing monasteries, replacing bridges, installing water pipelines and undertaking numerous other projects. These efforts helped earn Hillary the title ‘Burra Sahib’ (big in heart) among the Sherpa people.