Edmund Hillary’s Inspiring Story: The First Mountaineer to Climb Everest

by Peter Barnes

Edmund Hillary and his sherpa Tenzing Norgay scaled Mount Everest for the first time on May 29, 1953.

Well, George, we got rid of the idiot. After George Lowe and his sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first men to ascend Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary said these words to him.

Even though Hillary and Norgay were both seasoned mountaineers, they nearly failed to complete their historic ascent. Hillary and Tenzing were a part of a British expedition, and they were the second prospective summiting combination after Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, who had been paired up three days earlier.

As luck would have it, Bourdillon, a former Oxford Mountaineering Club president, and Evans, a brain surgeon, had to abandon their ascent just 330 feet from the top when one of their oxygen sets broke down.

As a result, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay began their own expedition to Mount Everest’s illusive summit on May 28, 1953. They would succeed a day later, but for Hillary, it was just the start of a long life of exploration. Despite receiving innumerable awards and accolades, Hillary maintained his humility and constantly looked for ways to use his notoriety to help others.

This is the account of how Edmund Hillary, a scrawny New Zealand beekeeper’s kid, scaled Mount Everest and rose to prominence as one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.

How the Son of a Beekeeper Became a Skillful Mountaineer

Edmund Percival Hillary was born on July 20, 1919, in Auckland, New Zealand, and grew up in a beekeeping family rather than a family of mountaineers. The Hillary Institute claims that Hillary’s mother had a reputation for successfully breeding queen bees and that his father was a beekeeper.

Hillary would eventually briefly join his father’s beekeeping business, but as a teenager, he also began to take an interest in other things. At the age of 16, Hillary took part in a school ski trip to Tongariro National Park’s Mount Ruapehu. He discovered a love for climbing there.

Hillary climbed mountains as he got older, along with his schooling and assisting his family with their bees. He conquered his first summit, Mt. Ollivier, close to Mt. Cook, in 1939. However, current world events will soon interfere.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force’s Edmund Hillary. (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite his conscientious misgivings, Hillary chose to enlist when World War II started. Hillary joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force despite the fact that he could have stayed out of the war due to his family’s beekeeping operation, and he served there until a bad boating accident seriously burned him.

However, his enthusiasm for climbing was unaffected by the war. According to New Zealand History, Hillary trained in Marlborough while climbing, and following his boat accident, he recuperated in the Southern Alps, where he met Harry Ayres, a well-known New Zealand mountain climber.

Edmund Hillary would pursue his ambitious aspirations of scaling mountains all the way to Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world, in the years that followed.

Mount Everest and Edmund Hillary

Following his injury recovery, Edmund Hillary completely explored his passion for climbing. He climbed Mt. Cook in 1948, the Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps in 1949, and took part in an expedition to the Garhwal Himalaya, where he conquered peaks over 20,000 feet high, according to New Zealand History.

At that time, Hillary received an invitation to join a 1951 British Everest expedition.

Mount Everest’s top, at 29,032 feet, is considered the highest point on the planet. (Wikimedia Commons)

Mountain climbers have long sought Mount Everest, which stands 29,032 feet tall. Between 1920 and 1952, seven significant expeditions attempted to reach the peak’s top, but all of them fell short (although a 1952 Swiss attempt came dangerously close). Even one British mountaineer, George Mallory, sadly perished while attempting to scale the summit in 1924.

Despite the fact that the 1951 Everest expedition again failed, the 1953 expedition, which was headed by John Hunt and once again featured Edmund Hillary, would be successful.

More than 400 climbers, porters, and sherpas participated in this expedition, including Tenzing Norgay, a 39-year-old sherpa. Norgay was a skilled climber who had successfully traversed Everest’s perilous summits several times. He joined forces with Hillary in 1953.

However, during the 1953 trip, Hillary and Norgay weren’t the only couple to attempt to climb Everest. Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans left first on May 26. Bourdillon and Evans came within inches of reaching the summit of the mountain before being forced to retreat due to faulty oxygen supplies. They had, tragically, reached within 330 feet of the peak.

Two days later, it was Hillary and Norgay’s turn.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their way down from Mount Everest’s summit. (Wikimedia Commons)

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay left on May 28, 1953. According to HISTORY, they set up camp that evening at a height of 27,900 feet, close to the summit, where they endured a chilly night of restless preparation for the following day. They carried on climbing the mountain on May 29.

In a later interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Hillary said, “I’ve been asked frequently if I was always convinced we’d reach the peak of Everest. I’m able to refuse. I wasn’t totally persuaded that we would actually reach the summit until we were about 50 feet away.

As they got closer to Mount Everest’s elusive summit, Hillary dragged himself up what has come to be known as the “Hillary Step.” Norgay climbed after him as he threw a rope down for him. Hillary later said, “A few more whacks with the ice axe in the hard snow, and we stood on top.” The two men found themselves on top of the world at that point, at 11:30 a.m.

“I think my first thought on reaching the summit — of course, I was very, very pleased to be there, naturally — but my first thought was one of a little bit of surprise,” Hillary recalled afterwards. “I was a little taken aback to see myself, Ed Hillary, standing atop Mount Everest. After all, the majority of mountaineers have this goal in mind.

 Edmund Hillary
Tenzing Norgay after completing the Mount Everest ascent with Edmund Hillary. (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite Hillary’s dry handshake, Norgay lured Hillary into a passionate hug.

“He threw his arms around my shoulders—wwe were wearing oxygen masks and all—aand he thumped me on the back, and I thumped him on the back, and it was really quite a demonstrative moment,” Hillary added. “And he was certainly overjoyed when we reached the summit of Everest.”

The two men lingered on the summit for about fifteen minutes, photographing Norgay and burying trinkets (Norgay buried chocolates; Hillary buried a cross). They then began to descend.

The first two men to successfully summit Mount Everest, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, became immortalized as a result.

The Post-Everest Life of Edmund Hillary

Following their successful ascent, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became well-known figures around the world. Norgay, who was not a British citizen, received the British Empire Medal while Hillary was knighted. But in the following years, Hillary didn’t sit back and enjoy his success.

 Edmund Hillary
During the Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1956, Edmund Hillary flew in a plane.

As a part of the British Trans Antarctic Expedition, Hillary contributed to the exploration of Antarctica. She also traveled Nepal’s rivers in search of the dreaded snowman. (Which was unable to locate the Yeti.)

Hillary also founded the Himalayan Trust, through which he offered the Nepali Himalayan people a lot of helpful services. The trust constructed schools, hospitals, and airports, and thanks to Hillary’s contributions, Nepal granted him honorary citizenship.

One of the most “trusted” individuals in New Zealand at the time of his death on January 11, 2008, at the age of 88, was Sir Edmund Hillary. Additionally, he left a huge legacy that mountain climbers have since sought after. More over 6,000 people have ascended Mount Everest as of 2021.

Hillary might have some words of wisdom for those who aspire to climb Everest in the present day and follow in his renowned footsteps. He once joked, “Life’s a little like mountaineering.” Never glance downward.

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