All achievers

Sir Edmund Hillary

Conqueror of Mount Everest

It's not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.

Sir Edmund Hillary was born in 1919 and grew up in Auckland, New Zealand. It was in New Zealand that he became interested in mountain climbing. Although he made his living as a beekeeper, he climbed mountains in New Zealand, then in the Alps, and finally in the Himalayas, where he climbed 11 different peaks of over 20,000 feet. By this time, Hillary was ready to confront the world’s highest mountain.

Mount Everest, Nupste and the Khumba icefall at sunset. (Michael Hughes, Royal Geographic Society)
Mount Everest, Nuptse and the Khumbu Icefall at sunset in the Nepalese Himalayas. (Royal Geographic Society)

Mt. Everest lies between Tibet and Nepal. Between 1920 and 1952, seven major expeditions had failed to reach the summit. In 1924, the famous mountaineer George Leigh-Mallory had perished in the attempt. In 1952, a team of Swiss climbers had been forced to turn back after reaching the south peak, only 1,000 feet from the summit.

Edmund Hillary took this photograph of Tenzing Norgay as they set foot on the summit of Mt. Everest, the highest point on earth. (Royal Geographic Society)
May 29, 1953: Edmund Hillary took this photograph of Tenzing Norgay as they set foot on the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth. The ascent is acclaimed as the pinnacle of 20th century athletic achievement.

Edmund Hillary joined in Mount Everest reconnaissance expeditions in 1951 and again in 1952. These exploits brought Hillary to the attention of Sir John Hunt, leader of an expedition sponsored by the Joint Himalayan Committee of the Alpine Club of Great Britain and the Royal Geographic Society to make the assault on Everest in 1953.

The expedition reached the South Peak on May, but all but two of the climbers who had come this far were forced to turn back by exhaustion at the high altitude. At last, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a native Nepalese climber who had participated in five previous Everest trips, were the only members of the party able to make the final assault on the summit. At 11:30 on the morning of May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit, 29,028 feet above sea level, the highest spot on Earth. 

Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Willoughby Norrie, and George Lowe at Government House, Wellington, 1953.
1953: Sir Edmund Hillary with Lord Willoughby Norrie, the Governor-General of New Zealand, and George Lowe, a New Zealand-born mountaineer and film director, at Government House, Wellington. In 1953, Lowe was a member of the British Mount Everest expedition led by John Hunt. On May 28, 1953, Lowe, Alfred Gregory and Sherpa Ang Nyima set out with Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as the support party for their historic summit attempt. Their summit camp was established at 27,900 feet, then Lowe, Gregory and Ang Nyima descended to the South Col camp. The following day, May 29, Hillary and Tenzing successfully reached the summit of Mount Everest. During their descent to the South Col, Hillary and Tenzing were met by Lowe. It was then that Edmund HIllary delivered his immortal summary of their achievement: “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.” Lowe went on to direct a documentary of the expedition, The Conquest of Everest, which was nominated for an Academy Award.

By coincidence, the conquest of Everest was announced to the British public on the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The triumph of a British-led expedition combined with the inauguration of the young queen did much to restore the confidence of a nation weary from long years of wartime hardship and postwar shortages. Edmund Hillary returned to Britain with the other climbers and was knighted by the queen.

June 23, 1953: Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary pose for a portrait after being honored by King Tribhuvana. Norgay was presented with the Nepal Tara and Hillary received the Gurkha Dakshina Bahu. (Getty)
June 23, 1953: Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary pose for a portrait after being honored by King Tribhuvan of Nepal. Norgay was presented with the Nepal-Tara-Padak and Hillary received the Gorkha Dakshina Bahu. (Getty)

Now world famous, Sir Edmund Hillary turned to Antarctic exploration and led the New Zealand section of the Trans-Antarctic expedition from 1955 to 1958. In 1958 he participated in the first mechanized expedition to the South Pole. Hillary went on to organize further mountain-climbing expeditions but, as the years passed, he became more and more concerned with the welfare of the Nepalese people. In the 1960s, he returned to Nepal, to aid in the development of the society, building clinics, hospitals and 17 schools.

To facilitate these projects, two airstrips were built. These airstrips had the unforeseen consequence of bringing more tourists and would-be mountain climbers to the remote region. The Nepalese cut down ever more of their forests to provide fuel for the mountaineers. Edmund Hillary became concerned about the degradation of the environment of the Himalayas and persuaded the Nepalese government to pass laws protecting the forest and to declare the area around Everest a national park. The Nepalese could not afford to fund this project themselves and had no experience in park management. Hillary used his great prestige to persuade the government of New Zealand to provide the necessary aid.

This 2003 issue of National Geographic celebrated the 50th anniversary of Edmund Hillary's conquest of Everest. (© National Geographic)
This 2003 issue of National Geographic celebrated the 50th anniversary of Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Everest.

Immediately after the successful Everest expedition, Hillary and Sir John Hunt published their account of the expedition, The Ascent of Everest. The book was published in the U.S. as The Conquest of Everest. Sir Edmund Hillary’s autobiography, Nothing Venture, Nothing Win, was published in 1975. In 1979, he published From the Ocean to the Sky, an account of his 1977 expedition on the Ganges river from its mouth to its source in the Himalayas.

1953: New Zealand mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary arriving at London Airport with his wife, Louise. They were married on September 3, 1953 soon after his ascent of Mount Everest. A shy man, he relied on his future mother-in-law to propose on his behalf. In 1975, while en route to join Hillary in Nepal, Louise and their teenage daughter, Belinda, were killed in a plane crash near the Kathmandu airport shortly after takeoff. (Getty Images)

Sir Edmund’s life was darkened by personal tragedy. In 1975, his wife Louise and their daughter, Belinda, were killed in a plane crash while en route to join Hillary in the village of Phaphlu, where he was helping to build a hospital. He continued to occupy himself with environmental causes and humanitarian work on the behalf of the Nepalese people for the rest of his life. Sir Edmund was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century. He died at home in New Zealand at the age of 88, mourned by his countrymen and by legions of admirers around the world.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1973

“We didn’t know if it was humanly possible to reach the top of Mount Everest. And even using oxygen as we were, if we did get to the top, we weren’t at all sure whether we wouldn’t drop dead or something of that nature.”

Edmund Hillary did not drop dead at the top of Everest. On May 29, 1953, he and the Nepalese Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, set foot on the summit of Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth. They had succeeded where others had failed, and had survived a journey that had taken the lives of great explorers before them.

Until that year, Edmund Hillary had lived in relative obscurity as a beekeeper in Auckland, New Zealand, but the unprecedented feat of scaling the world’s highest mountain brought him a fame he could hardly have imagined. In the years that followed, he led expeditions to the South Pole and other remote corners of the earth, but he returned often to the mountains of Nepal, the scene of his greatest triumph. Sir Edmund Hillary dedicated much of his long life to environmental causes and to humanitarian efforts on behalf of the Nepalese people. More than half a century after his most famous feat, his fame remained undimmed. His name has become synonymous with courage and endurance.

Watch full interview

Where did you get the vision to climb Mt. Everest?

Sir Edmund Hillary: I never had a vision to climb Mt. Everest. As with everything else, it just more or less grew. I started in the New Zealand Alps and I got more competent, and I climbed harder mountains there, and I made a number of first ascents, and I had a year in the European Alps and I climbed there. Then we decided we’d like to go off to the Himalayas. Not Everest — we went off to the Indian Gahwal Himalayas and we were pretty successful. We climbed a half-a-dozen new peaks of well over 20,000 feet, and it really wasn’t until then that we read in the paper that the British had got permission to do a reconnaissance to the south side of Mt. Everest through Nepal which, up until those days, had been completely closed to foreigners. The idea that, “Gee it would be fun to go along on that reconnaissance,” certainly entered my mind, and we contacted the organizers in London and two of us were invited from that expedition to join up with the party and go into the south side of Mt. Everest. You know, it’s almost like a football team, even a team of climbers. If you’re pretty competent and if you don’t make any grave errors, once you’re in, you’re in. You’re sort of appointed next time. So on the Everest reconnaissance, we had a successful expedition. We came back next year and we had some more successful climbs, and then in ’53 we were invited to join the summit attempt. It was a growing process and a learning process. Never, in my early days, did I ever think of attempting to reach the summit of Mt. Everest.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their way to Mt. Everest. (Royal Geographic Society)
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their way to Mount Everest. (Royal Geographic Society)

Let’s talk about the climb up Everest, one step at a time.

Sir Edmund Hillary: I never climbed up anything one step at a time. You read so much about how, at extreme altitudes, you take one step and then you stop and pant and puff for a while, and then take one more step. I don’t ever remember doing that. You’re much slower in higher altitudes because of the lack of oxygen, but I used to keep moving pretty steadily most of the time and I didn’t have to stop too often for panting and puffing. I think I was pretty well adapted and acclimatized to altitude and I was very fit in those days, so I could keep moving very freely.

Can you tell us about any specific challenges along the way as you were ascending?

Keys to success — Courage

Sir Edmund Hillary: There were lots of challenges. Even the route we were climbing on Mt. Everest was one of the two easiest routes on the mountain, as we know now. Of course, nobody had climbed it then. But even so, there are demanding parts of it. At the bottom of the mountain, there’s the ice-fall, where it’s a great tumbled ruin of ice that’s all pouring down and filled with crevasses and ice walls. It’s under slow but constant movement. It’s a dangerous place because things are always tumbling down. So you have to establish a route up through that which you can get with reasonable safety. But over the years, literally dozens of people have died in the crevasses.  They’ve been engulfed by ice walls falling down and things of that nature.

I had one experience on the ice-fall with Tenzing. We were actually descending after having been further up the mountain, and it was getting close towards dark so we wanted to get through the ice-fall before darkness fell. We were roped together, but I was rushing down ahead in the lead. About halfway down there was a narrow crevasse. I guess it was about four feet wide, but just a bit too wide to step across. On the lower lip was a great chunk of ice stuck against the ice wall, and we’d used that as sort of a stepping stone to get over the gap. I came rushing down the hill without thinking too carefully. I just leapt in the air and landed on the chunk of ice, whereupon the chunk of ice broke off and dropped into the crevasse with me on top of it. It was interesting how everything seemed to start going slowly, even though I was free-falling into the crevasse. My mind, obviously, was working very quickly indeed. The great chunk of ice started tipping over and I realized, if I wasn’t careful, I’d be crushed between the ice and the wall of the crevasse. So I just sort of bent my knees and leapt in the air. I was still falling, but now I was a couple of feet clear of the chunk of ice. Time really seemed to pass even though I was falling clear, and I realized that unless the rope came tight fairly soon, I would come to a rather sticky end on the bottom of the crevasse. Up top, Tenzing had acted very quickly. He had thrust his ice axe into the snow, whipped the rope around it, and the rope came tight with a twang, and I was stopped and swung in against the ice wall. The great chunk of ice just carried on and smashed to smithereens at the bottom of the crevasse.

Then really the rest was what I would have called a routine mountaineering matter. I had my ice axe and my crampons on my feet, so I chipped steps in the side. I was able to bridge the crevasse, and I worked my way up to the top and got safely out. I wouldn’t have said at any stage, because it all happened so quickly, fear really didn’t have much opportunity to emerge. My only idea was to get safely out of this unfortunate predicament. And of course, without Tenzing’s very competent mountaineer’s response, I certainly wouldn’t have made it. But once he had stopped me, then I was able to, using the techniques of mountaineering, to get myself safely to the top again. When you’ve been going as long as I have, many of them have happened during the course of your life, but you tend to forget them, really. I think nature tricks us a little bit because you tend to remember the good moments rather than the uncomfortable ones. So when you leave the mountain, you remember the great moments on the mountain, and as soon as you leave the mountain, you want to go back again.

The ascent of Everest. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay approaching 28,000 feet. (Royal Geographic Society)
The ascent of Everest: Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay approaching 28,000 feet. (Royal Geographic Society)

Could you describe the point when you realized you were going to make it to the top of Everest?

Sir Edmund Hillary: We reached the south summit of Everest, which is 28,700 feet, and then we looked along the summit ridge, which is quite an impressive narrow ridge. It’s corniced on one side, which is overhanging with snow and ice, so you can’t keep on the crest of the ridge. We had to keep down on the steep lefthand side on the snow and ice. But halfway along the ridge there’s a rock step. It’s about 40 feet high, and I cut steps along the side of the ridge until we reached the bottom of the rock step. And looking up at the rock step at 29,000 feet, it really did look extremely difficult to overcome. But then I noticed that out to the right of the rock step, where the ice was plastered onto the wall, there was a crack maybe two feet wide, but just large enough to crawl inside, where the ice was breaking away from the rock. I sort of crawled inside that, and then I wriggled and jammed my way up the crack with rock on one side and ice on the other and then finally pulled myself out onto the top of the rock step. That was really the first moment during the whole of the expedition that I was confident that we were going to get to the top. But overcoming that rock step, which we knew existed — we had seen it from far below — made me feel the confidence that we were going to succeed. And sure enough, on we went, and we ultimately reached the top. Funnily enough, that step is now called the Hillary Step. Any climber who climbs Everest from that south side, at some stage has to go up the Hillary Step.

Was there any point when you felt that you might not make it and might have to give up?

Sir Edmund Hillary: Never, at any stage, until we actually got up the rock step, was I confident that we were going to be successful. My feeling was that we would give it everything we had, but we had no surety that we were going to reach the top. In fact, I believe that if someone starts out on a challenging activity, completely confident that they’re going to succeed, why bother starting? It’s not much of a challenge. I think it’s much better to start out on something that you’re not at all sure that you can do. If you overcome and you manage to defeat the obstacles, the satisfaction is so much greater.

The Summit ridge of Everest (showing the Hillary step). When this picture was taken by Edmund Hillary on May 29, 1953, four men had seen the ridge, but none had ever set foot on it. (Royal Geographic Society)
The summit ridge of Mount Everest (showing the Hillary Step). When this picture was taken by Edmund Hillary on May 29, 1953, four men had seen the ridge, but none had ever set foot on it. (Royal Geographic Society)

What did you do when you got to the top? Did I read somewhere that you ate a chocolate bar?

Sir Edmund Hillary: No. We didn’t eat anything on top, but Tenzing buried a little bit of chocolate and some sweets in the snow, which are really a gesture to the gods which the Sherpas believe flit around Everest on all occasions.

Do you ever dream about it?

Sir Edmund Hillary: No. There’ve been so many other things in between. I still remember it pretty clearly.

Edmund Hillary leads three Sherpas into the Western Cwm. The peak of Lhotse can be seen behind them. (George Lowe, Royal Geographic Society)
Edmund Hillary leads three Sherpas into the Western Cwm of Mount Everest. The peak of Lhotse can be seen behind them. (George Lowe, Royal Geographic Society)

What do you think about when you’re climbing up a mountain and you know that your goal is to get to the top, whether it’s Everest or another mountain? What goes through your mind?

Sir Edmund Hillary: My mind concentrates rather firmly on the job in hand. Certainly, on Everest for instance, we were using oxygen and I was constantly doing mental arithmetic, checking the pressure of the oxygen bottles. I had to convert that pressure over to the number of liters of oxygen that remained in the bottle, and then work out how many hours or minutes of activity we still had left. So constantly, we were dealing with the problems of the slopes and soft snow and crevasses that we have to deal with, but at the same time, constantly ticking over in my mind was the usage of oxygen and how much time we had to get there and get down again.

Looking down the Khumbu Glacier, Nepal. (Photo by Edmund Hillary, Royal Geographic Society)
Looking down the Khumbu Glacier in Nepal, the world’s highest glacier, located between Mount Everest and the Lhotse-Nuptse ridge. (Photo by Edmund Hillary, Royal Geographic Society)

So it takes a tremendous amount of concentration. It isn’t like driving on the freeway and doing it automatically.

Sir Edmund Hillary: No, there’s a lot of concentration.

Certainly, in those days. I think a lot of the modern mountaineers, with their very good technical equipment and their very accomplished techniques, can climb more naturally and easily than we did in our day. But, of course, we had one problem that the modern mountaineer doesn’t have. That is, this psychological barrier. We really didn’t know whether it was humanly possible to reach the top of Mt. Everest. And even using oxygen as we were, if we did get to the top, we weren’t at all sure whether we wouldn’t drop dead or something of that nature. All the physiologists had warned us that the altitude at the summit of Everest was a very marginal altitude and might be extremely dangerous. So, one had this feeling in your mind all the time that maybe you were pushing things a bit beyond what humans were meant to do and you couldn’t ignore that feeling. But, because of strong motivation, you keep plugging on and you seem to be going okay and nothing seems to be going wrong, so you persist. And we persisted, of course, and ultimately, set foot on the summit.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay at the Everest base camp, after the climb. (UPI/Bettmann)
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay at the Everest base camp, after the climb. (UPI/Bettmann)

Was it a balance of fear and excitement?

Sir Edmund Hillary: No.

It was more a feeling of quiet satisfaction, I’d have said, and almost a little bit of surprise. So many really tough expeditions had tried the mountain before and not been successful, and here Tenzing and I were standing on the summit. It almost seemed remarkable that we were there where others had failed before. I think I kept my more exciting moments for when we finally got down to the bottom of the mountain again, and all the dangers were behind us, safely off the mountain. We did have a little radio at base camp, and someone tuned into the BBC in London, and the BBC announcer was just describing the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and then he broke into the coronation and said, “We have great pleasure in announcing that the British Everest expedition has finally reached the summit of Mt. Everest.” And then, almost for the first time, I felt, “My God! We’ve climbed the thing, and we’ve had authoritative support from the BBC in London that we’ve done it!” I think at that moment, more the excitement of it came into my mind. Whereas before, it had been satisfaction, but we still had the problem of getting safely off the mountain again, and we were very much aware of this too.