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The Life & Times Of Sir Edmund Hillary

Regarded by TIME magazine as one of the most influential people of the 20th Century, the name ‘Sir Edmund Hillary’ is one that evokes both the thrill and adventure of mountaineering, alongside all of its challenges.

Early life

Born in 1919 in Auckland, New Zealand, Hillary first became interested in mountaineering in secondary school, where, although deemed to be “gangly and uncoordinated”, his imagination was set afire during a school trip to Mount Ruapehu.

After studying mathematics and science at The University of Auckland, Hillary completed his first major climb in 1939 after reaching the summit of Mount Ollivier in the Southern Alps.

Like many people of his generation however, his ambitions had to be put on hold for World War II, during which he joined the RNZAF, serving on Catalonia Flying boats as a navigator.

It was not until 1948, when Hillary was once again able to continue his love of mountaineering, that he scaled New Zealand’s highest peak, Mount Cook.

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Soon after, Hillary partook in a British reconnaissance expedition to Mount Everest in 1951. Although the expedition was to fail (the ninth British expedition to do so), Hillary’s passion was not perturbed and he joined the annual expedition of 1953, headed by John Hunt.

Everest 1953 expedition

Whilst modern climbers today may benefit from a wealth of electronics and safety equipment, the technology on offer in 1953 was considerably more primitive.

Not only did the team have to concern themselves with low oxygen levels, avalanches, falling rocks and frostbite; Everest puts huge physical and mental strain on the body, with many people facing severe headaches, regular shortness of breath, difficulty sleeping, pneumonia, tropical infections and whiteouts.

Undeterred by the idea of achieving something that no other human in history had done before, Hillary set out with a team of 400 men. It took him nearly three months to reach the summit, having set up base camp in March, he and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepalese Sherpa, reached the peak at 11:30 am, 28 May 1953. 

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Hillary and Norgay spent roughly 15 minutes at the summit, leaving chocolates and a religious cross as an offering to the mountain. News of the event reached Britain on the day of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and the achievement was seen as a coronation gift by the British press.

Before Hillary got to the summit on that day, it is recorded that he had to warm his boots (Hillary favoured Morland’s sheepskin boots), for no less than two hours, after discovering that they had literally frozen solid.

How did Morland’s sheepskin boots maintain the warmth and comfort required for the ascent?

Morlands sheepskin boots of course, represent legendary footwear in the world of mountain climbing. In use from at least 500BC (a Mummy in China was discovered to be wearing a pair), sheepskin boots have been highly favoured by those in colder climates, such as Eskimos, thanks to the warmth they offer.

Renowned not only for their thick insulation, but also for their hardiness and reliability, even in the toughest situations, Hillary later acknowledged his much-loved boots when he returned from his quest. Although the boots were not worn for climbing, the warming quality offered was vital in the preventions of frostbite and hypothermia.

One can only wonder what may have happened on that fateful expedition if Hillary had not been equipped with his faithful boots, in a world where second best means little and second chances mean absolutely nothing.

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After Everest

Upon their return, Tenzing and Hillary were surprised by the international reaction and acclaim the expedition received, with Hillary receiving a knighthood from the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth and Norgay receiving a George Medal from the British Government.

Deciding not to rest for too long, Hillary climbed no less than ten peaks of the Himalayas between 1956 and 1965, and also reached the South Pole as part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition on 4 January 1958. This was the first party to do so since 1912, and the first ever to do so using motor vehicles.

Hillary is also known to have narrowly missed two air disasters in his lifetime. In 1960, Hillary was late for a scheduled flight to Queens, which collided with another aircraft killing all on board. In 1979, Hillary was scheduled to act as a guide on Air New Zealand Flight 901; however pulled out due to other commitments in the United States. The plane would ultimately crash into the side of a mountain.

Hillary also set up his own charity, the Himalayan Trust, which is dedicated to the education, health, culture and natural environment of the Himalayas.

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At the age of 88, Hillary died on 11 January 2008 and his passing was described as a “profound loss to New Zealand” by Prime Minister Helen Clark. Flags were lowered to half-mast on all Government and public buildings in the country.

Public recognition

Both throughout his life and after his death, Hillary has been awarded a string of awards and honours including:

  • The Order of Gorkha Dakshina Bahu, 1st Class of the Kingdom of Nepal (1953)
  • Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1953)
  • Fourth appointee of the Order of New Zealand (1953)
  • An appearance on the New Zealand £5 note (1995)
  • The Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland (2004)
  • Voted as “New Zealand’s most trusted individual” by Reader’s Digest (2005, 2006, 2007)
  • Honorary Citizenship of Nepal, the first foreign national to receive the honour (2003)
  • Conferred with Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian honour of India (2008, posthumously)

Are you looking to follow in the footsteps of Sir Edmund Hillary? Personally, we think it’s going to be a bit comfier if you wear some sheepskin boots!