The Legacy of Edmund Hillary
Edmund Hillary’s Early Life
Edmund Hillary was born in July 1919 in Auckland, New Zealand. His love of adventure was established at early age in the adventure stories he would read on long train journeys. This sense of adventure was first realised in a mountain setting on a high school trip, after which he was hooked: the beginning of an eighteen year journey to Everest Base Camp began with Mount Ruapehu (2,797 m), a mountain on the North Island of New Zealand. His first major climb followed three years later, after college, with Mount Ollivier (1,933 m). Hillary later commented about that climb: “It was the happiest day I had ever spent.”
Sir Edmund Hillary was the first person to ever reach the highest peak in the world. His famous partnership with Tenzing Norgay in 1953, when their Everest Trek made the summit, made them instantly renowned and revered worldwide. Hillary was humble about the achievement, pointing out that the success of the expedition was owing to his climbing companion Tenzing, and the considerable efforts of the support team of almost four hundred men who had waited expectantly at Everest Base Camp to hear if they made it to the top.
Four years after trekking to Everest’s summit, Hillary was aboard the first small plane to fly to Marble Point, a remote science research centre in Antarctica. This small accolade took on more significance in 1985 when he teamed-up with another icon of exploration, Neil Armstrong, to fly to the North Pole. In doing so he became the first man to have stood on the world’s tallest peak and on both poles.
But Hillary did not turn his back on the country where he had made his fame. Through the Himalayan Trust that he founded, he was instrumental in building bridges in Nepal, re-roofing a monastery, and organising the construction of the airport at Lukla, which is used to this day to bring hundreds of trekkers to the main starting point of their Everest Base Camp Trek. More vital for the Sherpa people was the infrastructure that he raised money for, pioneering the construction of 27 schools, 12 clinics and 2 hospitals in the Khumbu, starting with the Khumjung School in 1961. Over a 20 year period the Himalayan Trust has supported numerous education, healthcare and environmental projects that have significantly enhanced the lives of the Sherpa people. In later years, Hillary became a special ambassador to Nepal for UNICEF.
As well benefitting the local Sherpa people, the medical facilities he established are valuable for treating ailing trekkers on Everest Base Camp trek expeditions, and featured in the recent BBC ‘Everest ER’ series.
Hillary was also keen that there may be people to follow in his footsteps, and share his passion for life outdoors. He put his name to the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre in New Zealand that provides youth courses for secondary schools and vocational training schemes for the outdoor industry. Courses include training in white-water kayaking, rock climbing, and of course, mountaineering.
During his lifetime, New Zealand’s most famous person had tributes heaped upon him. He was knighted by the Queen and made a member of the Order of the Garter. Hillary was honoured by the United Nations for his conservational work, and had a statue of him erected in Mount Cook National Park. He was also New Zealand’s high commissioner to India.
After his death in 2008, there were proposals to memorialize Hillary by renaming Mount Ollivier after him, since the mountain was his first major climb as a young man. His most enduring legacy though will be in the form of his charitable foundation, the Himalayan Trust, which will continue to improve the lives of the Nepalese people that work and live along the Everest Base Camp Trek routes for generations to come.
Kirsty Parsons is the Marketing Coordinator for Everest Base Camp Trek, an adventure website which provides holidays featuring the classic Everest Base Camp Trek, as well as several alternative Everest Trekking routes in the Himalayan region.