Many people are surprised to learn that as a child he was significantly smaller than his classmates, thus choosing to avoid sports and read instead.
These adventure stories inspired him to dream about explorations of his own and would eventually lead him into the world of mountain climbing.
His interest in climbing truly began at 16 following a school trip to nearby Mount Ruapehu, after which he claimed that he simply “wanted to see the world” rather than focus on academic ventures.
He was a member of the university tramping (hiking) club and later the Radiant Living Tramping Club, further developing his love of the outdoors in the Waitakere Ranges.
His first major climb was the summit of Mount Ollivier in the Southern Alps of New Zealand in 1939 with friend Tenzing Norgay.
Somewhere between time spent in the New Zealand Royal Air Force during World War Two as a navigator and eking out a living as a beekeeper, Hillary kept his hobby of conquering peaks alive by climbing the slopes of mountains around the country.
His quest eventually took him overseas to the Swiss Alps before landing him in the Himalayas where he conquered 11 peaks (all over 6,000 metres) and deciding to tackle Mount Everest.
In 1951 Hillary participated in a reconnaissance expedition to Everest, with another the following year, alongside which he was part of an expedition that attempted to climb the Cho Oyu. This expedition also failed due to the fact that there wasn’t a proper route on the Nepal side. In 1953 he decided to return and go all the way to the summit of Everest.
In the fifties, the road to Everest was controlled by Tibet, with just one expedition allowed each year. When the expedition set out, it included almost 400 people, 300 of whom were porters and 20 Sherpa guides. The climbers were broken up into teams, and Hillary and Tenzing were in one led by Colonel John Hunt and sponsored by the Alpine Club of Great Britain and the Royal Geographic Society.
By the time they neared the summit, only four men were able to continue. Bourdillion and Evans got within 90 metres but had to turn back due to a failing oxygen system.
At 11:30 am on May 29, Norgay and Hillary made it successfully to the peak, where they stood for 15 minutes and marvelled at what they had accomplished. To commemorate the moment, Hillary took a photograph of Tenzing but comically there is no picture of Hillary atop Everest as his friend did not know how to use a camera.
After peaking Everest, Hillary was knighted by the Queen, wrote several books about his expedition, and organised various mountaineering expeditions. In 1955 he joined the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition that crossed the Antarctic overland via the South Pole, making him the first man to reach both poles of the Earth.
But above and beyond his career on the mountain, Hillary worked as a humanitarian and philanthropist, devoting years of his life to assist the Sherpa people of Nepal.
In the 1960s, Hillary returned to Nepal to aid the society’s development, building 17 schools, clinics and hospitals, and persuading the New Zealand government to help the country protect its pristine forests.
Despite tragically losing his wife and daughter to an air crash in Nepal in 1975, he continued to occupy himself with humanitarian and environmental causes.
Other awards and accolades include being named one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century by Time Magazine, receiving India’s Padma Vibhushan (its second highest award for civilians) and being appointed its High Commissioner, a Polar Medal for his work with the Antarctica expedition, appearing on the New Zealand five dollar note and on the fiftieth anniversary of his climb to the top of Mount Everest, he was made an honorary citizen of Nepal.
All in all, an impressive life’s work.
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