I noticed a crack between the rock and the snow sticking to the East Face. I crawled inside and wriggled and jammed my way to the top ... Tenzing slowly joined me and we moved on. I chopped steps over bump after bump, wondering a little desperately where the top could be. Then I saw the ridge ahead dropped away to the north and above me on the right was a rounded snow dome. A few more whacks with my ice-axe and Tenzing and I stood on top of Everest.
Hillary was born to Percival Augustus and Gertrude (née Clark) Hillary in Auckland, New Zealand, on 20 July 1919. His family moved to Tuakau, south of Auckland, in 1920, after his father, who served at Gallipoli with the 15th (North Auckland) Regiment, was allocated land there. His grandparents had emigrated from Yorkshire to northern Wairoa in the mid-19th century.
The Hillary family has had a connection with the west coast of Auckland since 1925, when Louise's father built a bach at Anawhata. The family donated land at Whites Beach that is now crossed by trampers on the Hillary Trail, named for Edmund. Hillary said of the area: "That is the thing that international travel brings home to me – it's always good to be going home. This is the only place I want to live in; this is the place I want to see out my days."
He studied mathematics and science at Auckland University College and in 1939 completed his first major climb, reaching the summit of Mount Ollivier, near Aoraki / Mount Cook in the Southern Alps. He took up beekeeping with his brother, which occupied him in the summer while he concentrated on climbing in winter. His father was a beekeeper, and although Hillary's inclination was for climbing, he became a professional beekeeper. He joined the Radiant Living Tramping Club, where a health philosophy developed by Herbert Sutcliffe was taught; tours with the club through the Waitakere Ranges further developed his love of the outdoors.
At the outbreak of World War II, Hillary applied to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) but quickly withdrew the application, later writing that he was "harassed by my religious conscience". In 1943, with the Japanese threat in the Pacific and the arrival of conscription, he joined the RNZAF as a navigator in No. 6 Squadron RNZAF and later No. 5 Squadron RNZAF on Catalina flying boats. In 1945, he was sent to Fiji and to the Solomon Islands, where he was badly burnt in an accident.
In January 1948, Hillary and others ascended the south ridge of Aoraki / Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest peak. In 1951 he was part of a British reconnaissance expedition to Everest led by Eric Shipton, before joining the successful British attempt of 1953. In 1952, Hillary and George Lowe were part of the British team led by Shipton, that attempted Cho Oyu. After that attempt failed due to the lack of route from the Nepal side, Hillary and Lowe crossed the Nup La pass into Tibet and reached the old Camp II, on the northern side, where all the previous expeditions had camped.
In 1949, the long-standing climbing route to the summit of Everest was closed by Chinese-controlled Tibet. For the next several years, Nepal allowed only one or two expeditions per year. A Swiss expedition (in which Tenzing took part) attempted to reach the summit in 1952, but was forced back by bad weather around 800 feet (240 m) below the summit. In 1952 Hillary learned that he and Lowe had been invited by the Joint Himalayan Committee for the 1953 British attempt and immediately accepted.
Hillary married Louise Mary Rose on 3 September 1953, soon after the ascent of Everest; he admitted he was terrified of proposing to her and relied on her mother to propose on his behalf. They had three children: Peter (born 1954), Sarah (born 1955) and Belinda (1959–1975). In 1975 while en route to join Hillary in the village of Phaphlu, where he was helping to build a hospital, Louise and Belinda were killed in a plane crash near Kathmandu airport shortly after take-off. In 1989 he married June Mulgrew, the widow of his close friend Peter Mulgrew, who died on Air New Zealand FLIGHT 901 in 1979.
Hillary climbed ten other peaks in the Himalayas on further visits in 1956, 1960–1961, and 1963–1965. He also reached the South Pole as part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, for which he led the New Zealand section, on 4 January 1958. His party was the first to reach the Pole overland since Amundsen in 1911 and Scott in 1912, and the first ever to do so using motor vehicles.
Following his ascent of Everest he devoted himself to assisting the Sherpa people of Nepal through the Himalayan Trust, which he established in 1960 and led until his death in 2008. His efforts are credited with the construction of many schools and hospitals in this remote region of the Himalayas. He was the Honorary President of the American Himalayan Foundation, a United States non-profit body that helps improve the ecology and living conditions in the Himalayas. He was also the Honorary President of Mountain Wilderness, an international NGO dedicated to the worldwide protection of mountains.
In 1962 he was a guest on the television game show What's My Line?; he stumped the panel, comprising Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf, and Merv Griffin. In 1977, he led a jetboat expedition, titled "Ocean to Sky", from the mouth of the Ganges River to its source. From 1977 to 1979 he commentated aboard Antarctic sightseeing flights operated by Air New Zealand. In 1985, he accompanied Neil Armstrong in a small twin-engined ski plane over the Arctic Ocean and landed at the North Pole. Hillary thus became the first man to stand at both poles and on the summit of Everest. This accomplishment inspired generations of explorers to compete over what later was defined as Three Poles Challenge. In January 2007, Hillary travelled to Antarctica as part of a delegation commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of Scott Base.
In 1975, Hillary served as a vice President for the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand, a national pro-choice advocacy group. He was also a patron of REPEAL, an organization seeking repeal of the restrictive Contraception, Sterilisation, and Abortion Act 1977.
Following his ascent of Everest, Hillary devoted himself to assisting the Sherpa people of Nepal through the Himalayan Trust, which he established. His efforts are credited with the construction of many schools and hospitals in Nepal. From 1985 to 1988 he served as New Zealand's High Commissioner to India and Bangladesh and concurrently as Ambassador to Nepal. Hillary had numerous honours conferred upon him, including the Order of the Garter in 1995. Upon his death in 2008, he was given a state funeral in New Zealand.
His son Peter Hillary also became a climber, summiting Everest in 1990. In May 2002 Peter climbed Everest as part of a 50th anniversary celebration; Jamling Tenzing Norgay (son of Tenzing who had died in 1986) was also part of the expedition.
Since 1992, New Zealand's $5 note has featured Hillary's portrait, making him the only living person not a current head of state ever to appear on a New Zealand banknote. In giving his permission, Hillary insisted that Aoraki / Mount Cook rather than Mount Everest be used as the backdrop.
The Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal, awarded by the Nepalese NGO Mountain Legacy "for remarkable Service in the conservation of culture and nature in mountainous regions" was inaugurated in 2003, with the approval of Sir Edmund Hillary. A bronze bust of Hillary (circa 1953) by Ophelia Gordon Bell is in the Te Papa museum in Wellington, New Zealand. The Sir Edmund Hillary Archive was added to the UNESCO Memory of the world archive in 2013, it is currently held by Auckland War Memorial Museum.
Annual Reader's Digest polls from 2005 to 2007 named Hillary as "New Zealand's most trusted individual".
On 22 April 2007, while on a trip to Kathmandu, Hillary suffered a fall, and was hospitalised after returning to New Zealand. On 11 January 2008 he died of heart failure at Auckland City Hospital. Flags were lowered to half-mast on New Zealand public buildings and at Scott Base in Antarctica, and Prime Minister Helen Clark called Hillary's death a "profound loss to New Zealand".
There have been many calls for lasting tributes to Hillary. The first major public tribute has been by way of the "Summits for Ed" tribute tour organised by the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation. This tribute tour went from Bluff at the bottom of the South Island to Cape Reinga at the tip of the North Island, visiting 39 towns and cities along the way. In each venue, school children and members of the public were invited to join together to climb a significant hill or site in their area to show their respect for Hillary. The public were also invited to bring small rocks or pebbles that had special significance to them, that would be included in a memorial to Hillary at the base of Mt Ruapehu, in the grounds of the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre. Funds donated during the tour are used by the foundation to sponsor young New Zealanders on outdoor courses. Over 8,000 persons attended these "Summit" climbs between March and May 2008.
A four-day track in the Waitakere Ranges, along Auckland's west coast, is named the Hillary Trail, in honour of Hillary. Hillary's father-in-law, Jim Rose, who had built a bach at Anawhata in 1925, wrote in his 1982 history of Anawhata Beach, "My family look forward to the time when we will be able to walk from Huia to Muriwai on public walking tracks like the old-time Maori could do". Hillary loved the area, and had his own bach near Anawhata. The track was opened on 11 January 2010, the second anniversary of Hillary's death. Rose Track, descending from Anawhata Road to Whites Beach, is named after the Rose family.
The South Ridge of Aoraki / Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain, was renamed Hillary Ridge on 18 August 2011. Hillary and three other climbers were the first party to successfully climb the ridge in 1948. In September 2013 the Government of Nepal proposed naming a 7,681 metres (25,200 ft) mountain in Nepal Hillary Peak in his honour. After the New Horizons mission discovered a mountain range on Pluto on 14 July 2015, it was informally named Hillary Montes (Hillary Mountains) by NASA.
They returned to Kathmandu a few days later and learned that Hillary had already been appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire and Hunt a Knight Bachelor. News reached Britain on the day of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, and the press called it a coronation gift. The 37 members of the party later received the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal with mount everest expedition engraved along the rim. In addition to the knighting of Hillary and Hunt, Tenzing – ineligible for knighthood as a Nepalese citizen – received the George Medal. Tenzing also received the Star of Nepal from King Tribhuvan.