Sir Edmund Hillary

by Bernard Frei on March 06, 2019

Standing on Top of the World

I am a lucky man. I have had a dream and it has come true, and that is not a thing that happens often to men.

-Sir Edmund Hillary

As far as dreams go, Sir Edmund Hillary’s was pretty big – 8,848 m (29,029 ft) to be precise. On 29 May 1953 he became the first man to reach the summit of the world’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest. The Sir Edmund Hillary Ice Axe Shadow Box is a chance to own a slice of that dream, to feel a little of what Hillary felt as he stood on top of the world.

However, for all his fame as a mountaineer, Hillary didn’t climb his first peak until the age of 20.

Growing up the middle child of in a small farming community south of Auckland, he didn’t get his first taste of snow until a school trip to Mount Ruapehu, aged 16.

Despite this, adventure flowed through his veins from a young age.

In his 1999 autobiography View from the Summit he said: “As a youngster I was a great dreamer, reading many books of adventure and walking lonely miles with my head in the clouds”.

Adventure took him to a stint in the Royal New Zealand Air Force during WWII, despite qualifying for an exemption from conscription because he had been working as a bee-keeper - a ‘reserved occupation’, considered important to New Zealand.

After the war, Hillary made his first ascent of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mount Cook, in 1948. From there, the peaks came thick and fast, and he even found time to climb Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps during a visit to England for his sister’s wedding in 1949. The following year Hillary was a member of the first all-New Zealand expedition to the Himalayas. He then joined British expeditions in 1952 and 1953.

It is, of course, the 1953 expedition that would see his name go down in history.

At 11.30am on 29 May 1953, Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest, via the mountain’s south face, making them the first men to stand on ‘the roof of the world’. They stayed only 15 minutes at the top and as they met fellow New Zealand mountaineer George Lowe on their descent, Hillary offered his now-famous summation of their achievement: “Well George, we knocked the bastard off.”

Hillary went on to climb ten other peaks in the Himalayas on further visits in 1956, 1960–1961, and 1963–1965. The 1960-1961 expedition set out to search for the abominable snowman, a Sherpa legend that had intrigued Hillary. The search was unsuccessful, and Hillary declared the expedition had found ‘rational explanations for most yeti phenomena’.

Hillary also led an expedition to the South Pole in 1958, and in 1985 he landed at the North Pole in a small twin-engine ski plane with Neil Armstrong – the first man on the moon – making Hillary the first man to stand at both poles and on the summit of Mount Everest.

He also used his fame to establish the Himalayan Trust in the 1960s. The Trust set out to bring quality education, safe water, and better healthcare to Himalayan communities and was a great source of pride for Hillary.

After a failed attempt on the then-unclimbed east face of Everest in 1981, Hillary declared his ‘big mountain days were over’. However, both his philanthropic work and recognition of his contributions continued.

In the mid-1980s New Zealand reopened its High Commission in India and then-Prime Minister David Lange convinced Hillary to become High Commissioner (and Ambassador to Nepal) – a role he held from 1985-1989.

Hillary was also among the first 20 people selected as members of the Order of New Zealand in 1987, the country’s highest honour. In 1995 he was appointed to Britain’s oldest and highest order of chivalry, being made Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (KG). This order, founded in 1348, is limited to 26 living people at any one time. He was also the first person to have his picture on New Zealand currency while still alive.

Despite these achievements, Hillary remained humble and his fundraising work in Nepal was, he felt, his greatest achievement.

"In some ways I believe I epitomise the average New Zealander. I have modest abilities, I combine these with a good deal of determination and I rather like to succeed.

“I don't know if I particularly want to be remembered for anything. I have enjoyed great satisfaction from my climb of Everest and my trips to the poles. But there's no doubt, either, that my most worthwhile things have been the building of schools and medical clinics. That has given me more satisfaction than a footprint on a mountain.”

Sir Edmund Hillary passed away on 11 January 2008, aged 88. He was given a state funeral – a rare honour for a private citizen. His ashes were scattered on Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour, a choice he explained just of prior to his death.

"To be washed gently ashore, maybe on the many pleasant beaches near the place I was born. Then the full circle of my life will be complete."

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