The Most Influential
People in History
Edmund Percival Hillary and
(born Namgyal Wangdi)
1919 – 2008 and 1914 – 1986
New Zealand Mountaineer and Explorer (Hillary) and Nepalese
Exploration Ranking 26th of 26
India commemorates the first ascent of Everest by Hillary and Norgay. 1953 stamp.
In 1953, Edmund Percival Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the top of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world at 29,028 feet or 8,848 meters. The peak straddles the border between Nepal and Tibet in the Himalayan mountain range. For mountain climbers, Hillary and Norgay’s feat is the ultimate accomplishment.
Hillary’s Early Life
Hillary’s father was a beekeeper, an occupation he also pursued. He began climbing in New Zealand’s Southern Alps while in high school. After military service in World War II, he resumed climbing and became determined to scale Everest. The great mountain was first discovered in 1856 and named after a British surveyor-general of India called Sir George Everest. Before Hillary and Norgay, eight previous British expeditions had failed to reach the summit of Everest, and a number of expedition members died in the process, most famously climbing partners George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who went missing on Everest in 1924. In total thirteen people had died attempting to climb Everest before Hillary and Norgay’s attempt. In 1951 Hillary joined a New Zealand party to the central Himalayas and later that year participated in a British reconnaissance expedition of the southern flank of Everest. He was subsequently invited to join the team of mountaineers planning to climb the peak.
Tenzing Norgay was a top sherpa from Nepal. Sherpas were indispensable guides, renowned for their mountaineering skills and assisted all the foreign expeditions that came to the Himalayas to climb. Since the sherpas lived in the very thin air of the Himalayas and did extensive climbing in the region, they had developed exceptional stamina to withstand the punishing lack of oxygen in elevations above 15,000 feet. All foreign climbers needed weeks to adjust to the thin air before attempting an ascent of Everest. Typically teams spend between sixty and seventy-five days, in total, on a Mount Everest summit expedition.
Ascent of Everest
The well-organized expedition started in the spring of 1953. By mid-May, a high camp from which to mount attempts at the summit was established. On May 26, Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon, chosen to make the first assault to the top of Everest, made it over the South Summit. But they had problems with their oxygen equipment, and because of that and their exhaustion, they decided to turn back at 28,700 feet. The next day, the two climbers were taken down to safer levels. The weather cleared on May 29, allowing the second assault team of Hillary and Tenzing to make an attempt.
They set off at 6:30 a.m. On the way up, their oxygen cylinders froze and there was a danger that they would not have enough oxygen. The going was extremely slow and they could only cover one foot a minute. The final obstacle was a sheer pinnacle of rock forty feet high and covered with ice. Their route seemed to be blocked, but Hillary eventually found a way over it and edged himself up to the top. He then threw down a rope to Tenzing and at 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953, the two mountaineers stood alone at the top of the world.
Hillary left behind a crucifix and Tenzing, a Buddhist, made a food offering. After spending about fifteen minutes on the peak, they began their descent. They were met back at camp by their colleague W.G. Lowe, to whom Hillary reputedly said, “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.” Queen Elizabeth knighted Hillary and John Hunt, the British army colonel who led the Everest expedition. Tenzing received the George Medal, the second-highest award for gallantry that can be given to a civilian. Hillary made other expeditions to the Everest region during the early 1960s but never again tried to climb to the top.
Hillary after Everest
Hailed as one of the twentieth century’s great adventurers, the thirty-three-year old Hillary became one of the most famous men alive. Between 1955 and 1958 Hillary commanded the New Zealand group participating in the British Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Vivian (later Sir Vivian) Fuchs across 1,200 miles of glaciers and heavily crevassed snow fields. He reached the South Pole by tractor on January 4, 1958, and recorded this feat in the books The Crossing of Antarctica and No Latitude for Error. On his expedition of Antarctica in 1967, he was among those who scaled Mount Herschel (10,941 feet or 3,335 meters) for the first time. In 1977 he led the first jet boat expedition up the Ganges River in India and continued by climbing to its source in the Himalayas – a 1,500 mile journey.
Hillary never anticipated the acclaim that would follow the historic climb. His main interest became the welfare of the Himalayan peoples of Nepal, especially the sherpas (a group of Nepalese renowned for their skill in mountaineering). Through the Himalayan Trust, which he founded in 1960, he built schools, hospitals and airfields for them. This dedication to the sherpas lasted into his later years and was recognized in 2003, when, as part of the observance of the fiftieth anniversary of his and Tenzing’s climb, he was made an honorary citizen of Nepal.
By June 2019, aided by advances in tents, sleeping bags and climbing gear, a total of 10,050 people reached the top of Everest; 291 died trying.(1) The commercialization of Everest bothered Hillary, in which guides would take anyone to the top who could afford it, with fees ranging from $35,000 to $100,000. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, on March 11, 2020, the China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA), the organization in charge of issuing all travel and climbing permits across the Tibetan Plateau, announced that no one will be allowed to climb Mount Everest from the China controlled north side of the mountain in the spring. Following China’s announcement, Nepal, also canceled all spring climbing expeditions, including those to Everest. It will be the first time no one will summit the world’s highest mountain since a massive earthquake closed the peak in 2015.
In conclusion, here are some additional record climbs of Everest–in 1975 Junko Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit; in 1978 Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler were the first to summit without supplemental oxygen; in 2002, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the first summit, Peter Edmund Hillary reached the top of the mountain his father conquered; in 2010 Jordan Romero age 13 years and 10 months became the youngest person to summit; and in 2013 Yuichiro Miura age eighty became the oldest person to reach the top.(2)
(1) Emily Barone and Lon Tweeten, “Greed, Weather and Inexperience: See How Mount Everest’s Deadly Season Compares to Past Years,” Time Magazine, Updated June 13, 2019, originally published June 11, 2019. Time.com, accessed May 20, 2020.
Adventure Books by Hillary
1. High Adventure, 1955.
2. The Crossing of Antarctica, 1958, with Vivian Fuchs.
3. No Latitude for Error, 1961.
Autobiography by Hillary
4. Nothing Venture, Nothing Win, 1975.
Autobiography by Hillary and His Son
5. Ascent: Two Lives Explored: The Autobiographies of Sir Edmund and Peter Hillary, 1992.
6. Beyond the Edge: Sir Edmund Hillary’s Journey To The Summit of Everest, DVD, 2013, 90 minutes. An incredible recreation of Hillary and Norgay’s epic ascent of Everest that may be as realistic as we can achieve without actually going to the mountain in person. With the support of the Hillary family, Sir Edmund’s story is brought to life using both original color footage and photographs and dramatized recreations of the stunning assault. The film demonstrates how much careful planning, supplies, and men goes into an assault on the mountain where only two make the final ascent. Even with all the careful planning and execution, the last stages are touch and go, hanging on the thinnest opportunities involving weather conditions that change hourly, how well the oxygen tanks work for the final assault, and the fitness of the pair that will attempt the summit in elevations referred to as the “death zone” where low oxygen levels test the fittest climbers to the limit of their endurance.