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Edmund Hillary: The Conqueror of Everest

Edmund Hillary: The Conqueror of Everest


Edmund Hillary Edmund Hillary was the stereotypical country
bumpkin. Hailing from rural New Zealand, this shy,
gangly beekeeper stepped out of the shadows to take on the greatest physical challenge
of them all – climbing the world’s highest mountain. Through guts, grit and determination he managed
to, as he famously said, ‘knock the bastard off.’ From there he used his new found fame as a
platform to improve the lives of the Nepalese people who he had developed an affinity for,
leaving behind a legacy that endures beyond the record books. This week’s Biographics explores the life
and accomplishments of the first man to climb Mount Everest, sir Edmund Hillary. Formative Years Edmund Percival Hillary was born on July 20th,
1919 in Auckland, New Zealand. Shortly after his birth his father, Percival
Augustus, was allocated a land grant in recognition of his service during the First World War. As a result the family, which included 3 year-old
June, moved south to the farming settlement of Tuakau. A younger brother, Rex, soon came along. June later described the three of them as
follows . . . Ed had the brains, Rex had the looks and I
was the girl. According to Ed’s own recollections, it
was his mother who held the family together. She managed the money and made sure the kids
were ok. This was no easy task. The Hillary children had an adventurous streak
that saw them pushing everything to the limit. Once, Ed and Rex swapped bicycles, with Ed
riding one that was way too small for him. Rex, however, found it hard to control the
larger bike. Still, knowing that Ed would be chasing him
he went as fast as he could. Turning a corner, he collided with a car,
bouncing off the bonnet and bouncing off the road. The driver was terrified that he had killed
Rex. But Ed was merely terrified of the beating
he knew his father would give him when he saw the state of his bike. Although Percy was a pacifist, he was prone
to fits of rage. They were usually directed at his oldest son. Even though he feared the beatings, the stubborn
Ed was determined to never give his father the satisfaction of admitting he had done
anything wrong. Despite the competitive bond with his brother,
Ed’s early years were filled with loneliness. Throughout his primary years he didn’t make
any friends. While other kids were out playing, he filled
his time with extra tuition, which allowed him to enter high school two years ahead of
his peers. This only made his social situation worse. He was now shorter and younger than all the
other kids. High school meant that he had to take the
train to prestigious Auckland Grammar School and rub shoulders with the children of the
wealthy. This intensified his lack of self confidence
and social awkwardness even further. In his later years Ed often recounted an incident
that occured during his first week at Auckland Grammar that had a deep impact on him. He turned up for his first gym class along
with his classmates. The teacher surveyed his new students and
then, fixing his gaze on Ed, said . . . What have they sent me? He then went on to catalogue a long list of
what he saw wrong with Ed. Finally, he told the humiliated boy to get
against the wall with the other misfits. Ed recalls that this incident marked the beginning
of a sense of inferiority about his looks which would remain with him for most of his
life. Ed found the companionship that he lacked
with other humans in books. After wading through the typical teenage literary
attractions of the day, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, he discovered
books on mountaineering. They fascinated him and he devoured everything
on the subject he could get his hands on. Percy ran the local newspaper in Tuakau and
had a sideline business as a beekeeper. In 1935, Ed’s last year at Auckland Grammar,
the family moved to the inner Auckland suburb of Remuera. Beekeeping now became the family’s main
source of income. The change meant that Ed no longer had to
spend hours on the train each day. A Taste of the Mountains From college, Ed went on to the University
of Auckland, where he studied mathematics and science. He also joined the University tramping club. With his long stride and abundant stamina
he soon became a star bush walker. He also took lessons in boxing and jiu-jitsu,
but head-to-head combat was not his style. In 1938, Ed who had been struggling academically,
dropped out of University and joined his father in the beekeeping business. His stamina, endurance and physical strength
were ideally suited for the job. It was hot, physically demanding work, and
in summer he would carry out his duties wearing only shorts, a hat and a veil. Every day he would have to endure up to 300
bee stings. Not long after Ed began working on the bee
farm, his parents converted to a New Age religious movement called ‘Radiant Living.’ The group had beliefs which were not far removed
from those of Christian Scientists. Ed and his brother Rex soon became converts
also. When war broke out in 1939, it appeared inevitable
that both Hillary boys would be drafted into the New Zealand armed services. But Percy, the pacifist, was determined to
prevent that from happening. He managed to get himself and Ed off the hook
by relying on a provision that allowed exemption for reserved occupations, including beekeeping. However, Percy did all of this without telling
Ed, who was not happy with his father’s meddling. Percy soon discovered that only one exemption
was allowed per family. Ed’s exemption meant that Rex would have
to go to war. It just so happened, though, that Rex, unlike
Ed, was a conscientious objector. Ed would have been happy to sign up. But Rex wasn’t – he followed his conscience
and spent the next four years in a detention camp. For three years Ed fumed silently that his
father had prevented him from fulfilling what he saw as his patriotic duty. Finally, in 1944 he joined the Royal New Zealand
Air Force. It was during his training as a flight navigator
in New Zealand’s South Island that Ed encountered towering mountains. He managed to get in a few solo climbs. Then he came across the 2884 meter snow capped
Mount Tapuaenuku. He became determined to make an ascent and
arranged for a 3-day leave. He arranged to climb the mountain with a partner,
but the man pulled out at the last minute. Ed decided to go it alone and a friend took
him part of the way on his motorbike. Then he walked 8 kilometers to a farm, where
he stayed overnight. The next day he walked another 24 kilometers,
overnighted at another farm, and then set off up the mountain. He reached the top without any trouble and
returned safely. The next day he walked another 32 kilometers
before receiving a lift. Ed was overjoyed at this experience. He had knocked off his first mountain – and
it felt great. A Close Escape Returning to his war service. Ed found himself stationed to the Pacific
Islands. Years later he would recall coming across
a small Fijian boy who came up and begged for a piece of bread. Experiences like this formed the catalyst
for his great humanitarian work in later life. Ed never came near combat, though he did contract
malaria. His war nearly ended in disaster when a full
petrol tank in his plane fell and burst into flames. The plane came down in the ocean. Before Ed, who was not wearing a shirt, could
jump clear of the blazing craft, a wave knocked him of his feet and he fell into the flames. He then managed to roll off into the sea. Ed suffered second degree burns. The pain was made worse by having to swim
450 meters and then walking 800 meters under the blazing sun before reaching help. He was taken to hospital in Guadalcanal where
he was shot full of morphine and antibiotics. He was told that he would be in bed for months
before achieving a full recovery. However, within two weeks he was up and walking
around. He became so restless and bored that he badgred
his doctors to allow him to recover at home in Auckland. They finally relented and he was discharged
from the air force and sent home. When Ed got home he didn’t intend to lie
around but, rather to get to work. But, when he discovered that his father had
taken on other workers and had no opening for him on the bee farm, he moved to the South
Island in search of new opportunities. He also joined the New Zealand Alpine Club. Over the next couple of years he learnt the
climber’s craft as he took on the many mountains peaks of the South Island. Ed climbed with others, but he always wanted
to be first to the top. In 1949, older sister June got married. Percy had enjoyed an especially good honey
season and he paid for Ed to travel with his parents to Europe. Ed took every opportunity to take on European
peaks, including the Eiger. Everest on the Horizon While he was in Europe, Ed received a letter
from a former climbing partner by the name of George Lowe informing him that plans were
underway for a New Zealand party to undertake a trek of the Himalayas. They intended to explore the possibility of
tackling the world’s highest peak – Mount Everest, something that had never been successfully
done before. Lowe wanted to know if Hillary was interested? The answer was an unequivocal yes. In mountaineering terms, there was no greater
challenge than a successful ascent of Mount Everest, which towers 8848 meters from the
ground. Many climbers had died trying to get there,
most famously the British climber George Mallory in 1924. A turning point in the history of attempts
on Everest occured in 1950, when the Nepalese government agreed to allow parties to attempt
the mountain from Nepal on the southern side. Previous expeditions had attacked from Tibet,
on the northern side of the mountain. The Nepalese government decided to let a different
country every year have a go. It just so happened that, in addition to the
New Zealand group, a party of British climbers were also planning an assault on Everest. The British group sent a letter to the New
Zealanders suggesting that they join up. The invitation, however, was only for two
climbers. The question now became which two? After some heated discussion it was decided
that Ed, the acknowledge superior climber, and Earle Riddiford would be the token New
Zealanders on the British expedition. Rather than a concerted effort to reach the
summit, this expedition was more of an exploratory probe. While climbing with Shipton, the expedition
leader, Hillary came across a hidden valley that appeared to provide a previously unknown
route to the top. The group split up and agreed to return the
next year. That following year, 1952, however, was assigned
to a Swiss expedition attempt to climb Everest. The British, with their New Zealand contingent,
would have to wait until 1953. Going For It Planning for the 1953 assault began in a small
office in London. It was to be led by Eric Shipton, who believed
that the journey should be made by a small team with basic supplies. But Shipton had only just begun choosing his
team when there was a sudden change of plan. Previous attempts to climb Everest by small
teams had failed. It was decided that this time they would use
a big team with the latest equipment and plenty of supplies. A new leader, John Hunt, was appointed. In March of 1953, the expedition team began
to arrive in Kathmandu. The team got ready to make their way east
to the Himalayas and Mount Everest. Hillary was one of fourteen climbers and more
than 30 Nepalese sherpas who made up the team. Nearly 400 people set off from Kathmandu on
March 10th. More than 350 of them were locals who were
hired to carry supplies to the site of the first camp. For 17 days they walked through the Nepalese
countryside until they arrived at Base Camp. There they stayed for three weeks, planning
the climbs to come. They practiced with their climbing gear on
local cliffs and tried to get used to the thin air of the high mountains. In early April, Base Camp was moved from near
Tengboche monastery to a second main base, the Lake Camp, higher up by a lake on a glacier. The first big challenge for the leading climbers
came on April 13th. Four men, including Hillary, were selected
by Hunt to explore a region known as the Khumbu icefall.This was an area of house sized blocks
of cracked and creaking unstable ice. The climbers needed to find a safe route for
the Nepalese Sherpas who were to follow, bringing supplies. A number of camps were set up through the
icefall. The lead climbers pressed through the Khumbu
icefall and set up an advanced Base camp above it. By now Hillary had impressed all with his
boundless energy and exceptional strength. Early on the morning of April 26th, Ed teamed
up with sherpa Tenzing Norgay for the first time. Their task was to reach an advance camp that
was set up during the previous year’s Swiss expedition. Roped together, the two men waded through
deep slushy snow that had softened with the sun’s rays. Despite being hit and thirsty, the pair worked
well together. Arriving at the camp they fund an unexpected
treat – the Swiss had left behind some supplies, which included delicious cheese. On the way back to base camp, Hillary boasted
to Norgay that he could make it back within an hour. All went well until he decided to leap across
a crevasse. He just reached the other side, but the edge
of the crevasse broke off. Suddenly he was slipping downwards. His fate was in the hands of his partner. Fortunately, Norgay was a brilliant climber. He quickly grabbed hold of the pole and used
all of his skill, strength and experience to help Hillary climb up the side of the crevasse. Returning to base camp, the bond between the
two men had been strengthened by Hillary’s narrow escape. Hillary wrote to his parents that he and Norgay
had become the ‘tigers’ of the campaign on that day. They had shown the strength, courage, and
fearlessness that they hoped would take them to the top of Everest. By late May the lead climbers had scaled the
Lhotse face to the South Col, a flat area that is one of the nastiest places on Everest. Here they set up their Seventh camp. From here it was a final push to the summit. Two other climbers were selected to make the
first push but they only made it to the lower south summit. Victory On the morning of May 28th, five more climbers
set off from the South Col. Three lead climbers were there to cut steps for the two who had
been picked to go all the way – Hillary and Tenzing. By nightfall the helpers had turned back – now
it was up to the two of them. Hillary and Tenzing pitched their tent below
Everest’s South Summit, on an uneven ice ledge. At 6:30am on May 29th the began their final
journey to the summit. It was a harrowing effort. While climbing a steep slope, the surface
snow shifted, carrying Hillary with it. Then, with their oxygen running low, the two
men came to a rock face. It was too slippery to try and climb hard
rock in the crampons fitted to their boots. There had to be another way. Hillary saw a cornice attached to the rock. It had started to come away, leaving a crack
stretching upwards between the rock and ice. He crawled into the crack. Grasping the rock in front of him, he pulled
himself further in. Jamming his crampons into the ice, he pulled
himself through the crack at the top of the cornice and signalled Norgay to follow. They now continued along the ridge, hoping
the summit would come into view. Just as Hillary doubted if they could go on,
he looked up and saw a snowy peak that dropped away on all sides. Hillary himself later recalled . . . A few more whacks of the ice axe, a few more
weary steps, and we were on the summit. It was now time to celebrate, take photographs
and appreciate the best view in the world. The news that Everest had finally been conquered
reached the outside world on June 2nd. Ed was lionized as the beekeeper from rural
New Zealand who had done the impossible. From Nepal he flew to London where he was
appointed a Knight Commander of the British Empire by the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth
II. He returned to New Zealand as a conquering
hero, with thousands flooding the streets to get a glimpse of him. For the awkward and shy young man that he
was, this unexpected adulation was hard to get used to. A few months after conquering Everest, Hillary
made another conquest – he won over and married Louise Mary Rose. This time, however, he needed help – he was
so shy that he had to rely on his future mother-in-law to propose on his behalf. The union was to produce three children, Peter,
Sarah and Belinda. Peter would become a climber just like his
father, reaching the summit of Everest himself in 1990. Both Hillary and Tenzing continued climbing,
with Hillary tackling ten more Himalayan peaks over the next decade. On January 4th, 1958 he led an expedition
to Antarctica, following the route of Robert Falcon Scott in 1912. The New Zealanders became the first to make
the trek in motorised vehicles, with Ed riding a tractor. Hillary became an unofficial ambassador for
New Zealand. In the 1970’s he commentated on several
Air New Antarctic sightseeing flights. On November 28th, 1979 he was booked to work
on Flight 901, but had to renege due to other work commitments. That flight crashed into Mount Erebus in Antarctica,
with all on board being killed. Philanthropy – and Final Rest As the years went by, Hillary returned increasingly
to Nepal. There he became absorbed in programs of fundraising
and building work for Sherpa communities. In 1960 he established the Himalayan Trust,
which was responsible for the building of many schools and hospitals throughout remote
Himalayan reas. In 1975, tragedy struck when his wife and
daughter, Belinda, were killed in a plane crash while flying out to join him in Nepal. Devastated, Hillary immersed himself in his
building work. But this became increasingly difficult as
he was struck with bouts of altitude sickness. Hillary’s health deteriorated in the late
1990’s. On January 11th, 2008 his heart finally gave
out. He died at the Auckland City Hospital of cardiac
arrest. His country went into mourning and a state
funeral was held on January 22nd. Two months later a thanksgiving service was
held in his honor at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. Standing guard outside the chapel were Gurkha
soldiers from Nepal, showing their respect for a man who had given much to improve the
lot of their people.

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