Sir Edmund Hillary: Mountaineer who conquered Everest and devoted his later life to the Sherpa people of Nepal

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Edmund Hillary formed with Tenzing Norgay one of the most celebrated partnerships of the 20th century. The beekeeper and the Tibetan Sherpa were the first human beings to set foot on the highest point on earth – the 29,035ft (8,850m) summit of Mount Everest. Both were ambitious to snatch this ultimate prize in mountaineering, but neither had any idea of how their success would resonate in the public mind for decades to come and dictate the rest of their lives.

Hillary was one of two New Zealanders on the 1953 British Everest expedition led by John Hunt. Not given to the metaphysical musings of some Himalayan climbers, he described his arrival at the summit at 11.30am on 29 May in plain words:

I looked up to my right and 40 feet above me was a rounded snow cone. A few blows of the ice-axe, a few weary steps, and I was on the top. My first reaction was that of relief. I then took off my oxygen apparatus and photographed Tenzing as he stood on top.

That Hillary did not think to have a photograph taken of himself at what was to become one of the bestselling PR locations on earth was testimony to his commercial innocence, although he learnt.

For Hillary, Everest proved a passport to an agreeable lifetime of globetrotting – on expeditions, including to the South Pole, lecture tours, award ceremonies, book signings and doing good works for the Sherpa people of Nepal. It was the last of these that he came to regard as his most important achievement: building schools, hospitals, clinics and bridges in the Khumbu valley on the trekking route to Everest. The Himalayan Trust he founded has helped give many Sherpas the education and wherewithal to cope with the social and economic upheaval wrought in their homeland as hundreds of thousands of trekkers and climbers have followed in Hillary's footsteps.

Edmund Percival Hillary had an austere childhood. His father, a newspaperman turned beekeeper, was a strict disciplinarian who administered beatings in the woodshed. Young Edmund walked the half-mile to primary school barefoot in fine weather or frost, as did most pupils. It does not seem to have been a sign of poverty and the Hillarys ate well on their small farm with cows, vegetable garden and orchard.

Three of his grandparents hailed from Yorkshire and there was perhaps a tykish element in his character, a bluff exterior yet sensitive to slight. A scrawny little chap until he put on a growth spurt around age 14, he learnt to box, augmented by rough and tumble on the train ride home from Auckland Grammar School.

At university, he was adopted by a group of young "trampers" (a term Hillary continued to use for trekkers), joining them for winter walks in the Waitakere Ranges, breaking trail and pushing himself at any opportunity. But he gained little else from student life and dropped out to work full-time with his father and brother, managing 1,600 hives on dairyland south of Auckland. Beekeeping is surprisingly physical work. In the months of flowing honey there were thousands of 90lb boxes of comb to be manhandled.

Socially awkward and a loner, Hillary went through a stage of religious questioning, reading volumes of theology. Such was the strength of his Christian belief, and abhorrence of killing, that he withdrew an application to train as a pilot at the outbreak of the Second World War and remained on the farm – a reserved occupation. However, as religious conviction faded and boredom set in, he changed his mind. In 1944 he was called up by the Royal New Zealand Air Force and became a navigator on Catalina flying boats, on search-and-rescue duty in the Pacific.

Mountaineering had by now taken a firm hold. It was the gorgeous, full-blooded challenge of the game that captivated Hillary, rather than any romantic notions of wilderness, though a sense of its loss developed in him in latter years as he watched the despoliation of the Khumbu.

His first notable ascent was Mount Tapuaenuku (9,465ft) on South Island, tackled solo on a weekend off during air force training in 1944. The manner of it was an early indicator of Hillary's determination – hitching and walking 80 miles to the foot of the mountain, dossing amid fleas and mice in a hut, negotiating iced rocks and drifting snow, reaching the summit – twice as high as Ben Nevis – in thick cloud. A lanky 6ft 2in, he was also a formidable rugby forward.

Returning to civilian life, Hillary took every opportunity to slip off climbing, skiing or tramping. A chance meeting led to a regular partnership with Harry Ayres, New Zealand's outstanding climber of the day. In 1947, with Ayres, Hillary achieved an ambition of all Kiwi climbers, gaining the summit of Mount Cook (12,349ft), the country's highest peak. The following year the pair returned to the mountain and made the first ascent of its South Ridge, a soaring staircase hung with ice, coveted by many but thought too hazardous.

In 1950 he accompanied his parents on holiday in Europe, managed to fit in some modest climbing in Austria and Switzerland, and saw something of the mother country. It is interesting to note how warmly Hillary felt towards England at the time, expressing a sense that he was being "accepted back into the ancestral fold". In later years a good deal would be made of the fact that, although Everest 1953 was officially a British show, the summit pair was a New Zealander and a Sherpa of uncertain nationality (both India and Nepal claimed Tenzing, although he was born in neither country). Hillary said that in the Fifties he, "like most of my fellow citizens, felt British first and a New Zealander second."

Hillary returned from Europe keen to do more travelling and the following year, in May 1951, set off for India with three other Kiwis on a shoestring expedition to virgin Mukut Parbat in the Garwhal Himalaya. For three of the four – Earle Riddiford and George Lowe, as well as Hillary – this was the start of their Everest adventure. Mukut Parbat (23,760ft) was climbed, but neither Hillary nor Lowe got to the summit, despite doing most of the hard work lower down the mountain. Riddiford and Ed Cotter, with Passang Sherpa, got ahead on the final ridge, effectively blocking the fitter pair. Hillary was deeply disappointed, although impressed at the stubborn resolution of Riddiford, who had been unwell.

But fate had a better hand for Hillary. As the party was preparing to leave the Himalaya, a telegram arrived from the leading mountaineer Eric Shipton inviting two of the New Zealanders to join a small British expedition already on the way to reconnoitre an approach to Everest from its Nepal side.

Hillary was match-fit and there was no argument about his inclusion, but comradeship was forgotten in the bitter discussion as to which of the other two would accompany him. Lowe was his close friend and technically the better climber. But Riddiford had shown himself aggressively determined and, crucially, had the money to make the trip possible. "You couldn't really argue against that," observed Hillary.

Hillary and Riddiford caught up with the Brits at Dingla, a village in the hills south-east of the Khumbu and, in their travel-worn state, were apprehensive about their reception. Hillary seems to have had an outdated view of British mountaineers and wondered if they would be frightfully formal pukka sahibs. Not quite. A Sherpa led them to an upstairs room where they were greeted by an unshaven Shipton and his scruffy companions, Michael Ward, Bill Murray and Tom Bourdillon.

The 1951 recce effectively opened the door to Everest, pioneering a route through the teetering ice cliffs and crevasses of the Khumbu Icefall to the lip of the Western Cwm – the long glacier trench that would lead to the base of the mountain. Wildly unstable and the scene of many deaths since, the icefall was described by Shipton as a "restless dragon" and he baulked at the idea of exposing Sherpas to its dangers. But Hillary believed the old standards of safety and justifiable risk had to be cast aside if Everest was to be climbed.

Having cracked the icefall, Hillary and the British mountaineering establishment had to endure a year of suspense as the Swiss made two attempts on Everest in 1952. The British had permission for 1953 and in the meantime most of the would-be Everesters joined Shipton for a training run on Cho Oyu, also on the Nepal-Tibet border. There never was much prospect of reaching the 26,906ft summit – the world's seventh highest – but useful knowledge was gained on the use of oxygen.

Returning down the Khumbu, Hillary was desperate to know how the Swiss had got on. Shipton gave him the news that Raymond Lambert and Tenzing Norgay had reached 28,210ft before turning back, exhausted. Hillary and his companions were full of admiration, but delighted. The game was still on. Shipton invited Hillary and Lowe to join the 1953 expedition, along with most of the Brits who had been on Cho Oyu.

Then in a piece of chicanery that still reverberates in British mountaineering, the Everest Committee (of Alpine Club and RGS elders) dropped Shipton in favour of Col John Hunt. The committee felt that Hunt, as a military planner, was more likely to get the job done than the less focused Shipton.

Hillary had never heard of Hunt and, like several others, seriously considered pulling out. Ultimately nobody did. Hillary's hunger for Everest was paramount, and Hunt soon won him over with his drive and gently persuasive manner. On the mountain, the team worked well, forging a way through the icefall and establishing an advanced base camp in the Western Cwm.

As on most big expeditions, climbers began calculating the odds of their getting a shot at the summit. Hillary initially wanted to pair up with Lowe, but realised that Hunt, possibly for nationalistic reasons, was against this. He began partnering Tenzing, the Sherpa's strength and rope technique being well proved when he checked Hillary's plunge into a crevasse as the pair dashed through the icefall.

Each recognised the determination in the other. And Hunt recognised it too. They were "unmistakably outstanding at the time, climbing faster and more strongly than any of us," he recalled. On paper, Hunt made them his second pair for the final push from the South Col to the summit. However, the supposition is that he never expected Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon to get to the top, but rather to pave the way. They were using a more temperamental oxygen system and attempting to go all the way without the intermediate high camp Hillary and Tenzing would have. That they reached the South Summit, less than 300ft below the top, before Evans's faulty oxygen set forced them back, was outstanding.

Hillary confessed to "unworthy thoughts" while Evans and Bourdillon were making their bid, but once again had occasion to feel relief. He and Tenzing, assisted by Lowe, Alf Gregory and Ang Nima, moved up to the high camp and spent the night sleeping fitfully and brewing hot lemon. Next morning Hillary had to thaw out his boots over the stove.

The first drama of the morning of 29 May came when Hillary found himself on dangerously unstable snow below the South Summit. As his solar plexus tightened with fear, Hillary offered himself a gem of advice that embodied his approach to the mountain. "Ed, my boy, this is Everest. You've got to push it a bit harder."

Passing the high point of Evans and Bourdillon, they crossed the airy final ridge, its huge cornices overhanging Tibet, to the foot of a 40ft rock tower – the feature known ever since as the Hillary Step. Today it is festooned with old rope and the scene of traffic jams of guides, clients and Sherpas; in 1953 it was a potentially insurmountable barrier. Hillary overcame it by squirming and hacking his way up a "chimney" between the rock and an ice cornice, hauling himself onto a little ledge at the top where he lay "gasping like fish" for several minutes.

Both men were feeling very tired. But the ridge eased off and they moved together on the rope, Hillary cutting steps round snow humps until only the final dome remained. On the summit, Hillary held out his hand and in silence the pair shook hands "in good Anglo-Saxon fashion". Tenzing was not so reserved; grinning behind his oxygen mask he threw his arms around Hillary and they thumped each other on the back in joy. "It seemed difficult to grasp that we'd got there," Hillary said.

I was too tired and conscious of the long way down to safety really to feel any great elation. But as the fact of our success thrust itself more clearly into my mind, I felt a quiet glow of satisfaction spread through my body – a satisfaction less vociferous but more powerful than I had ever felt on a mountain top before.

The wider public significance of what they done began to register as the expedition was straggling its way back to Kathmandu. James (now Jan) Morris, the Times correspondent, had ensured that the news gilded the lily of Coronation Day, and then, late one afternoon on the trail, Hillary was handed a letter addressed to Sir Edmund Hillary KBE. The letter was from Hunt who had been similarly honoured. Hillary professed his distaste for titles – the knighthood had been accepted by the New Zealand prime minister on his behalf – although his attitude to gongs must have mellowed as he was showered with them over the years. He certainly took a satisfaction in being made a Knight of the Garter in 1995, along with another strong-willed individual, Margaret Thatcher, whom he partnered at ceremonies of the Order at Windsor.

Hunt, Hillary and Tenzing became caught up in a brouhaha over which of the summit pair had actually first set foot on the top of the world. To Indians, newly free of the colonial yoke, and Nepalis, who claimed Tenzing as their own, there was little doubt on the matter. Hillary became increasingly irritated by banners depicting a mountain with a man on the summit waving the Nepali flag and a rope descending to a recumbent figure with his arms and feet in the air. It was obvious who was who. Deafened in village after village by cries of "Zindabad" for Tenzing, his temper snapped when a youth clambered on to their jeep and bellowed in his ear. Hillary pushed him firmly back into the mud.

The "who was first" question has never wholly gone away. In September 1995, Hunt wrote to The Independent explaining, with a note of weariness, that although Hillary had made it plain that he led all the way from the top camp to the summit, the question was irrelevant to mountaineers, as on a rope two climbers become interdependent partners. This was classically emollient Hunt.

The celebrations in London over, Hillary returned to New Zealand in August 1953, stopping off in Australia to propose to Louise Rose, who was studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Marriage seemed to complete Hillary's good fortune. Louise accompanied him on lecture tours, minded the ranch while he continued expeditioning and brought up their two daughters, Sarah and Belinda, and son Peter, destined to follow his father's route up Everest. Hillary was bereft when in 1975 Louise and Belinda were killed in a light aircraft crash near Kathmandu. After years of emptiness, he found happiness again, marrying June Mulgrew, widow of his Antarctic expedition comrade Peter Mulgrew.

A year after Everest, Hillary returned to Nepal, leading an expedition up the Barun Valley and exploring Makalu (27,790ft). However, he had three ribs crushed by a rope while carrying out a crevasse rescue and eventually turned back weak and in pain at 22,000ft. He would lead more expeditions in Nepal during the 1960s, but his days climbing at high altitude were effectively over. In the meantime he had a three-year engagement with Antarctica.

Hillary led a New Zealand party supporting Vivian Fuchs on the first-ever crossing of the Antarctic continent through the South Pole. The press billed it as "the Last Great Journey in the World", then it became another "Race for the Pole" as Hillary decided to press on beyond the line of supply depots he established for Fuchs and make a dash for the Pole himself. Hillary had started from Scott Base and Fuchs from Shackleton Base. Deaf to instructions to turn back, Hillary and his team, on three adapted Ferguson tractors, arrived at the Pole on 4 January 1958 – 16 days ahead of Fuchs.

The most famous of all New Zealanders, Hillary was now a celebrity – though an outwardly unassuming one – and was able to explore for the Yeti (not found), climb in the Himalaya and jet-boat up the Ganges with the sponsorship of two Chicago corporations – Sears Roebuck, for whom he was an adviser on outdoor gear, and the publishers of the World Book Encyclopedia, for whom he did lecture tours.

In 1985 Hillary was appointed New Zealand's High Commissioner to India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Soon after he settled in Delhi, his partner in glory, Tenzing, was admitted to hospital in the city suffering from pneumonia. He had seen little of Tenzing in the intervening years but visited him several times in hospital. Tenzing, whose final years had been tinged with melancholy and drink, rallied for a few months but died at home in Darjeeling in May 1986.

Both men left a great legacy in Nepal. Tenzing, who spent his youth in the Khumbu, had been an inspiration to his people, showing how much was possible, given ambition, even for one born an illiterate yak herder. Hillary's legacy can be seen in a more tangible form.

It began with "the schoolhouse in the sky" built in 1961 for 40 pupils at Khumjung. Since then Hillary and his enthusiastic volunteers in the Himalayan Trust, including many New Zealanders and former Everest hands, established another 26 schools, two hospitals and 12 clinics. Water has been piped to villages, bridges built and more than one million trees planted. Hillary was instrumental in establishing the Sagarmatha National Park for the Everest region (Sagarmatha is the Nepali name for the mountain, though to Sherpas and Tibetans it is Chomolungma) and in rebuilding the magnificent Buddhist monastery at Thyangboche following a fire in 1989.

Hillary was very conscious that in the Khumbu's very attractiveness to mountaineers and trekkers lay the seeds of its destruction as a Shangri-La. In 1963 he had organised the building of a mountainside airstrip at Lukla – personally helping stamp out the sloping runway on which thousands of climbers and trekkers would make a white-knuckle landing. He admitted to being racked by guilt at the changes wrought in the Sherpa way of life, but believed that the Trust was providing people with the means to adapt.

Hillary deplored the commercialisation of Everest, believing the challenge was far less and declaring: "It's all bullshit on Everest these days." However he still loved to spend time with the Sherpa people and when, in 2003, the golden anniversary of the first ascent came round decided he would rather be with them on the 29th, in Kathmandu, than with his comrades from 1953 and the Queen at a gala in Leicester Square. He flew to London a few days later for the Coronation anniversary service at Westminster Abbey.

For all the well-merited talk of teamwork on Everest, Hillary did not let interviewers forget his unique part. Speculating on that gala in London, he pictured the Everesters reliving the climb, then added with gruff mischief: "Except that they won't be able to describe the summit bit very well."

Stephen Goodwin

Edmund Hillary's name will be associated for all time with Everest, writes John Hunt. I met him and his compatriot George Lowe at the British Embassy, Kathmandu, in March 1953, before we set forth for the mountain. The two New Zealanders were the only members of the climbing party whom I had invited to join simply on repute; they had greatly impressed Eric Shipton during his preparatory expeditions in 1951 and 1952.

I think that we had both entertained doubts about one another before the first encounter; but for my part, I need not have worried. Ed Hillary was not one to nurse a grievance over the decision of the Himalayan committee to appoint me as leader in place of Shipton and I sensed, in his wide smile and forthcoming manner, the qualities I needed in my team, apart from his reputation as an exceptionally strong climber. Those impressions deepened into a growing respect and ripened into an abiding friendship.

Hillary's contribution to our success was not limited to the fact that he was the first to reach the summit with Tenzing Norgay. I often think of the crucial role he played, with Tenzing, in resolving a crisis which arose only seven days beforehand, when two of our carrying parties, with loads to establish camps on the South Col and above, had come to an exhausted halt at Camp VI, halfway up the 4,000ft Lhotse Face.

Aware as I was of the implications for their own chances of reaching the summit as the second assault party, and for the whole plan which had been so carefully worked out, I asked Hillary and Tenzing to go up at once and get things moving. They set forth immediately, inspired the climbers and Sherpas at Camp VI to fresh efforts, and led them all the way to the South Col.

On my way up the Lhotse Face with the first assault party on 21 May, I met them on their way down, very tired and with barely enough time to recover their strength before returning three days later. It was an example of the selfless spirit which underlay the whole great adventure.

We met again five days later, when Da Namgyal and I returned to the South Col after carrying loads up the South-East ridge to 27,400 feet. Hillary and Tenzing, with the second assault team, had just reached the Col, very tired after their second climb up the Lhotse Face. I will never forget how they helped Da Namgyal and myself in our own state of exhaustion.

Evans and Bourdillon had that same day reached the South Summit at 28,700ft, but there remained the uncertainty about the final stretch of narrow ridge; in particular, a vertical section of 30-40 feet. In his lead up that pitch, Hillary showed exceptional strength and courage, lumbered as he was with his heavy oxygen equipment.

When they returned triumphant to the South Col that evening, Hillary broke the news to George Lowe with typical nonchalance: "Well," he announced, "we've knocked the bastard off."

After Everest, Hillary had the world at his feet. He was presented with difficult decisions about his future career. The sudden translation from work on his father's bee farm to world-wide journeys as an international hero was, to say the least, a bewildering experience. On receiving news of his knighthood he was, in his own words, "appalled".

Yet, he came to enjoy fame and exploited it to good purpose. At one point his thoughts turned to the diplomatic service; at the time I assured him that this would not suit his spontaneous and outspoken character. I was to be proved wrong many years later when, in 1984, he was appointed as New Zealand's High Commissioner in India and Ambassador to Nepal, posts which he filled with great success.

Hillary resolved to resume the path of high adventure, to which public acclaim had opened many doors. He led expeditions in the Everest region in 1954, 1960-61 and 1964, during which the apparently impregnable peaks of Amadablam, Kangtega and Thamserku were climbed, and Makalu, already climbed in 1953 by the French, was very nearly climbed without oxygen.

His continuing contacts with the Sherpa communities in Solu and Khumbu provided an opening for other facets of Hillary's nature: his warm-heartedness and social conscience. He learned about their life-style and its problems: in regard to health, education and travel in that remote land. The Himalayan Trust is a permanent memorial to his labours in promoting a social revolution in East Nepal. That work gave rise to some soul-searching on Hillary's part. But, as he said:

The traditional Sherpa way of life was doomed in any case. If contact with the West has made them lose their traditional hospitality, their religious motivation and their community spirit . . . foreign money, they tell me, is a powerful panacea for such ailments.

There is a touch of unaccustomed cynicism in those words.

Success, with all its attendant euphoria, counted for nothing when his wife Louise and his daughter Belinda were killed; this was a terrible blow, from which, I suspect, Hillary never fully recovered. In Louise he had found the partner he so greatly needed to restore a sense of proportion amid so much adulation, high expectations and media exploitation. She described their life of high jinks and "razzmatazz" in a delightful book, Keep Calm If You Can (1964). She was his soulmate, who provided him with some of his most precious moments: "For what can surpass a tear on your departure, joy on your return and a trusting hand in yours?," wrote Hillary before her death.

His marriage to June Mulgrew ensured a happy ending to the life of a remarkable man, great in his achievements and possessing other attributes of greatness, too: his honesty, his generous and warm-hearted nature and his readiness to acknowledge his errors. Ed Hillary, "Action Man" in the eyes of millions, was very human.

Edmund Percival Hillary, mountaineer, writer and apiarist: born Auckland, New Zealand 20 July 1919; apiarist 1936-43 and 1951-70; KBE 1953; Polar Medal 1958; New Zealand High Commissioner to India, Bangladesh and Nepal 1985-88; ONZ 1987; KG 1995; married 1953 Louise Rose (died 1975; one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased), 1989 June Mulgrew (née Anderson); died Auckland, New Zealand 11 January 2008.

• Lord Hunt died 7 November 1998