History & Culture

The Highs of Edmund Hillary, First Man to Reach the Top of Mount Everest

In honor of world-renowned climber Edmund Hillary’s birthday today, we look at the many extraordinary adventures he experienced — and the many (literal) mountains he climbed that took him to new heights.

Born in Auckland, New Zealand on July 20, 1919, Edmund Hillary was a shy and awkward kid growing up. An average student in high school, he would often escape by indulging in books and daydreaming about a life full of adventure. But those dreams would soon become a reality when at 16, a school trip to a local mountain uncovered that despite his lack of coordination, Hillary had greater endurance than his peers.

By the time he was in college, Hillary had already achieved his first major climb by reaching the top of Mount Ollivier, a national mountain near the Southern Alps. But that would just be the tip of the iceberg — or should we say — the top of just one mountain. Hillary would go on to many more high altitude expeditions, as well as escape death, become a philanthropist, and most famously, reach the summit of Mount Everest — the highest mountain on Earth — with Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay on May 29, 1953.

We explore some of Edmund Hillary’s extraordinary milestones and some of the many interesting facts and events that occurred in his life.

1. To help finance his climbing in the winters, Hillary became a beekeeper in the summers during his college years. His love for bees and the environment would continue throughout his life.

2. Although he initially hesitated to participate in World War II due to religious reasons, Hillary eventually joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1943. Two years later he was transferred to Fiji and the Solomon Islands, where he got into a boating accident and suffered serious burns. It was then he was sent back home.

3. On January 30, 1948, Hillary reached New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki / Mount Cook, under the guidance of his team.

4. Led by John Hunt, the successful Mount Everest expedition of 1953 was truly a team effort. It consisted of a 400-person crew, 20 Sherpa guides and over 10,000 lbs of baggage. Due to bad weather and a failed attempt from a previous two-man team 48 hours prior, Hillary and his Sherpa partner Tenzing made a go of it. The two made history as the first people to stand atop Mount Everest on May 29, 1953. Standing there for only 15 minutes, the only proof they could offer of their incredible feat was a photo Hillary took of Tenzing standing at the peak with his ice-axe. Although Tenzing offered to take a picture of Hillary, the latter refused and instead left John Hunt’s cross as a marker. (They took more photos from the peak to prove they truly made the ascent.)

5. A young Queen Elizabeth II bestowed Hillary, Hunt and 37 other members of the expedition coronation medals for their achievement.

6. From the mid 1950s through the mid 1960s, Hillary would climb 10 more mountain peaks in the Himalayas.

7. In 1958 Hillary would reach the South Pole and would later reach the North Pole with astronaut Neil Armstrong in 1985. These achievements made him the first man to have stood on Mount Everest and both poles.

8. Barely late for his flight, Hillary inadvertently escaped death in what was known as the 1960 New York air disaster when his TWA flight crashed in mid-air with a United Airlines flight. All 128 people on board the planes were killed.

9. Hillary escaped death’s grip yet again in 1979. Scheduled to commentate on an Antarctic sightseeing flight tour on November 28th, Hillary had to cancel due to other work projects. His close friend Peter Mulgrew took his place. Tragically, the flight crashed into Mount Erebus killing all 257 people on board. Ten years later, Hillary would marry Mulgrew’s widow.

10. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Mount Everest climb, Nepal granted Hillary honorary citizenship. It was the first time the country granted a foreign national such an honor.

11. In 2002 Hillary’s son Peter and Tenzing’s son Jamling climbed Mount Everest together.

12. In 1992 Hillary was the first living New Zealander to appear on the country’s banknotes (he was printed on the five-dollar note).

13. In 1960 Hillary founded the Himalayan Trust, which he led until his death in 2008. The foundation helped establish schools and hospitals in the most remote parts of the region.