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The Inspiring Story Of Edmund Hillary, The First Mountaineer To Summit Mount Everest

Published July 6, 2023
Updated July 7, 2023

On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and his sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first people to climb Mount Everest.

“Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.” These were the words spoken by Sir Edmund Hillary to George Lowe after he and his sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men to summit Mount Everest.

Though both Hillary and Norgay were experienced mountaineers, they almost didn’t make their historic climb. Part of a British expedition, Hillary and Tenzing were the second pair of potential summiters, preceded three days earlier by the pairing of Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans.

As fate would have it, Bourdillon, a former president of the Oxford Mountaineering Club, and Evans, a brain surgeon, cut their attempt short just 330 feet shy of the summit when one of their oxygen set malfunctioned.

So, on May 28, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay set out on their own attempt to reach Mount Everest’s elusive peak. They would succeed a day later, but it was just the beginning of a long life of adventure for Hillary. Awarded countless honors and accolades, Hillary remained humble throughout his life and always found ways to use his celebrity to give back.

This is the story of how Edmund Hillary, a gangly beekeeper’s son from New Zealand, successfully climbed Mount Everest and became one of the most influential people of the 20th century.

How A Beekeeper’s Son Became A Talented Mountaineer

Born on July 20, 1919, in Auckland, New Zealand, Edmund Percival Hillary grew up not in a family of mountaineers — but beekeepers. According to the Hillary Institute, Hillary’s father was a beekeeper and his mother was known for her ability to breed queen bees.

Though Hillary would briefly join his father’s beekeeping enterprise, he also started developing other interests as a teenager. Hillary participated in a school ski trip to Mount Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park at the age of 16. There, he developed a passion for climbing.

Alongside his studies and helping his family with their bees, Hillary continued to scale mountains as he grew older. In 1939, he scaled his first peak, Mt. Ollivier, near Mt. Cook. But world events would soon get in the way.

Edmund Hillary

Wikimedia CommonsEdmund Hillary in the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

When World War II broke out, Hillary decided to enlist despite his conscientious objections. Although he could have sat out the war due to his family’s beekeeping business, Hillary joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force and served until a bad boating accident left him severely burned.

The war didn’t dampen his passion for climbing, however. As New Zealand History points out, Hillary was able to climb while training in Marlborough, and after his boat accident he recovered in the Southern Alps, where he got to know Harry Ayres, a famous New Zealand mountain climber.

In the years that followed, Edmund Hillary would follow his lofty ambitions of climbing mountains all the way to Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak.

Edmund Hillary And Mount Everest

After recovering from his injuries, Edmund Hillary fully indulged his love of climbing. As New Zealand History reports, he ascended Mt. Cook in 1948, climbed Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps in 1949, and participated in an expedition to Garhwal Himalaya where he scaled peaks over 20,000 feet high.

At that point, Hillary was invited to join a 1951 British expedition to Everest.

Mount Everest

Wikimedia CommonsMount Everest’s peak at 29,032 feet is considered to be the tallest point on Earth.

Mount Everest, at 29,032 feet tall, had long been elusive for mountain climbers. Seven major expeditions had set out to reach its summit between 1920 and 1952, but all had failed (though a 1952 Swiss attempt had gotten within 1,000 feet of the peak). One British mountaineer, George Mallory had even tragically lost his life while trying to climb the mountain in 1924.

Though the 1951 expedition to Everest also failed, the 1953 expedition — led by John Hunt and including, again, Edmund Hillary — would be successful.

This expedition was comprised of more than 400 people — climbers, porters, and sherpas — including a 39-year-old sherpa named Tenzing Norgay. Norgay was an experienced climber who’d navigated Everest’s treacherous peaks multiple times. In 1953, he partnered with Hillary.

Hillary and Norgay weren’t the first pair to try to ascend Everest during the 1953 expedition, however. On May 26, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans set out first. Bourdillon and Evans nearly reached the mountain’s peak, but they had to turn back at the last minute due to a malfunctioning oxygen equipment. Heartbreakingly, They’d gotten within 330 feet of the summit.

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

Hillary And Norgay Upon Returning From The Summit

Wikimedia CommonsEdmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay shortly after their descent from the summit of Mount Everest.

On May 28, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay set out. That night, HISTORY reports that they camped at 27,900 feet, near the summit, where they spent a frigid, sleepless night preparing for the next day. Then, on May 29, they continued to climb up the mountain.

“I’ve often been asked as to whether I was always confident we were going to reach the summit of Everest,” Hillary later told Smithsonian Magazine. “I can say no. Not until we were about 50 feet of the top was I ever completely convinced that we were actually going to reach the summit.”

As they neared Mount Everest’s elusive peak, Hillary pulled himself up what is known today as the “Hillary Step.” He tossed down a rope for Norgay, who scrambled up after him. “A few more whacks of the ice axe in the firm snow, and we stood on top,” Hillary later said. At that point, at 11:30 a.m., the two men found themselves standing at the top of the world.

“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 later recounted. “I was a little bit surprised that here I was, Ed Hillary on top of Mt. Everest. After all, this is the ambition of most mountaineers.”

Tenzing Norgay On Everest

Pictorial Parade/Getty ImagesTenzing Norgay after he and Edmund Hillary successfully climbed Mount Everest.

Though Hillary offered Norgay a dry handshake, Norgray drew Hillary into an enthusiastic hug.

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

The two men spent about fifteen minutes on the peak, taking a photograph of Norgay and burying small items (Norgay buried candy; Hillary buried a crucifix). Then, they started their descent.

From that point on, they would forever be known as Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay: the first men to successfully summit Mount Everest.

Edmund Hillary’s Life After Everest

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay emerged from their successful climb as world celebrities. Hillary was knighted and Norgay (who was not a British citizen) was awarded the British Empire Medal. But Hillary didn’t rest on his laurels in the years to come.

Edmund Hillary Exploring Antarctica

Public DomainEdmund Hillary in a plane during the Trans-Antarctic Expedition. 1956.

Hillary helped explore Antarctica as a member of the British Trans Antarctic Expedition, traversed the rivers of Nepal, and even embarked on a search for the abominable snowman. (Which failed to find the Yeti.)

Hillary also established the Himalayan Trust, through which he provided a number of beneficial services to the Himalayan peoples of Nepal. The trust built schools, hospitals, and airfields, and Hillary’s contributions eventually led to him being made an honorary citizen of Nepal.

By the time Sir Edmund Hillary died on Jan. 11, 2008, at the age of 88, he was considered one of the most “trusted” people in New Zealand. He also left a sizeable legacy that mountain climbers have chased ever since. As of 2021, more than 6,000 people have climbed Mount Everest.

To those who wish to follow in his legendary footsteps up Everest today, Hillary might offer a piece of advice. “Life’s a bit like mountaineering,” he once quipped. “[N]ever look down.”

After learning about the incredible life of Sir Edmund Hillary and his climb up Mount Everest, read the miraculous story of Beck Weathers, the man who survived the impossible after being left for dead on Mount Everest. Then, learn about the bodies of Mount Everest — and why more than 200 climbers met their demise on it.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
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Harvey, Austin. "The Inspiring Story Of Edmund Hillary, The First Mountaineer To Summit Mount Everest." AllThatsInteresting.com, July 6, 2023, https://allthatsinteresting.com/edmund-hillary. Accessed May 21, 2024.