Skip to content

A Man Who Stood on Top of the World

March 3, 2008

Edmund Hillary stood on top of the world, the summit of Mt. Everest. It was a remarkable achievement, but Hillary himself did not regard it as his most important accomplishment.

According to National Geographic News, Hillary’s life was marked by grand achievements, high adventure, discovery, and excitement. Though he received many honors and awards, Sir Edmund Hillary remained a man of humility for all of his eighty-eight years.

On May 29, 1953, Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing, became the first humans to reach the world’s tallest peak, 29,028 feet.  The two pitched a tent at 27,900 feet on May 28. By the following morning Hillary’s boots had frozen solid. He spent two hours warming them before he and Tenzing attempted the final ascent. The crucial barrier was the 40-foot rock wall, later named the Hillary Step. Hillary was able to wedge his way up a crack in the face of the mountain.  Tenzing followed. At 11:30 A.M. they reached the crest of Mt. Everest, the highest point on earth.

They spent only fifteen minutes on the top of the world. Hillary took Tenzing’s photo, Tenzing left chocolates in the snow as a Buddhist offering. Hillary left a cross. Because Tenzing did not know how to use a camera, there are no pictures of Hillary.

Hillary later wrote, “There was nothing above us but the sky. There was no final pinnacle. We were standing together on the summit. Awe, wonder, humility, pride, exaltation! These were the emotions of the first men to stand on the highest peak on Earth, after so many others had failed.”

As part of a British climbing expedition, the accomplishment added luster to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II four days later. As one of her first royal acts, the young monarch knighted Hillary. Tenzing received the British Empire Medal. Hillary consistently refused to confirm who was first to reach the summit, saying he and the Sherpa had climbed to the top as a team.

After Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary continued his life as an explorer. He climbed ten other peaks in the Himalayas.

In January 1958, he also reached the South Pole as part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. His party was the first to reach the South Pole since Amundsen in 1911 and Scott in 1912.

In 1977, he led an expedition by boat from the mouth of the Ganges River to its source in the Himalayan foothills.

In 1985, he accompanied former astronaut Neil Armstrong in a small twin-engine ski plane over the Arctic Ocean, landing at the North Pole. By doing so, Hillary became the first person ever to have stood at both the North and South Poles and on the summit of Everest.

Beyond his accomplishments as an explorer, Sir Edmund Hillary was an outspoken environmentalist. At the time of the 1953 Everest Expedition, the route to Everest was closed by Chinese-controlled Tibet.  Nepal only allowed one expedition per year. Now, approximately 4,000 people have attempted to climb Mt. Everest. 660 have been successful. All of this traffic has created a litter problem on the mountain. Hillary demanded that international mountaineers clean up the discarded oxygen bottles, food containers, and other debris on the lower slopes of Everest.

Hillary commented, “Many people have been getting too casual about climbing Everest. I forecast that there will be disaster many times.” The mountain has become a high-risk tourist attraction. 142 climbers have perished on the icy slopes. In 1996 alone, eleven people died during spring expeditions; eleven in one short climbing season.

In 2006, Sir Edmund Hillary was particularly outraged over the death of David Sharp. The expedition left their disabled companion to die high on the upper slopes of Everest. To Hillary, it was horrifying that climbers could leave a dying man behind. Hillary said, “Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.”

Nobody ever died on a Hillary-led expedition.

The lanky New Zealander devoted much of his life to aiding the mountain people of Nepal. Hillary never forgot the small country that brought him to worldwide fame. In the 54 years after climbing Everest, he revisited Nepal more than 120 times. His adventurer son, Peter, has described his father’s humanitarian work there as his duty to those who had helped him. Nepal’s Sherpa people have had a part in every Everest summit since Hillary and Tenzing’s. In April 2003, as part of a 50th anniversary celebration, Peter Hillary and Jamling Norgay, son of Tenzing, climbed Everest together, following in their fathers’ footsteps.

In 1962, Sir Edmund Hillary established the Himalayan Trust. Without fanfare or compensation, he spent decades pouring energy and resources into Nepal. Known as Burra Sahib, Big Man, by the Nepalese, Hillary helped build hospitals, health clinics, airfields, and schools. He raised funds for the education of Sherpa families, and helped set up reforestation programs in the impoverished country. About $250,000 a year was raised by the charity for projects in Nepal.

The family of Sir Edmund Hillary honored his request to be cremated following his death on January 11, 2008. In his memoir, Hillary expressed a wish for his ashes to be spread in a harbor near his birthplace of Auckland, New Zealand. His family will also scatter some of his ashes in Nepal near the mountain that he loved, Mt. Everest.

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, March 2008


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: