On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary was, literally, on top of the world. After an arduous seven-week climb, the 33-year-old New Zealander and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, 39, stood where no man had before: on the 29,028-foot summit of Mount Everest. It was a stunning achievement—the fog-shrouded slopes previously claimed the lives of at least 16 would-be conquerors—and one that turned Hillary, then a beekeeper by profession; into an international symbol of daring and fortitude.
The life that followed has been anything but anticlimactic. In 1958, Sir Edmund—knighted by Queen Elizabeth II five years before—commanded the New Zealand group of a British-led expedition that became the first overland excursion to reach the South Pole in 47 years. He continued exploring in the Everest area into the 1980s, before serving as New Zealand’s High Commissioner to India, then as ambassador to Nepal. In 1961 he founded the nonprofit Himalayan Trust, to construct schools, hospitals and airfields in the region.
These days, Sir Edmund and his second wife, June Mulgrew (his first wife, Louise, and their daughter Belinda, 15, were killed in a 1975 plane crash), share a modest home overlooking a harbor in Auckland, New Zealand. Approaching his 80th birthday July 20, he oversees the Himalayan Trust’s activities and enjoys visits from son Peter, a climber who made it to the summit of Everest in May 1990, and daughter Sarah, a chief conservator for the Auckland City Art Gallery. Over the years, Hillary has watched thousands try to duplicate his heroics as mountaineering, no longer the province of a few hardy adventurers, has become the exotic diversion of virtually anyone with a whim and a checkbook. “Wherever they go, they’re always following in the footsteps of others,” Hillary told New York bureau chief Maria Eftimiades as he reflected on the changing face of adventure. “They’re never pioneering.”
When I came down off Everest, I really thought the world would lose interest in it, now that someone had got to the top. Of course I was absolutely wrong; our climb brought to people’s minds that reaching the summit was a considerable achievement. By the end of this year, scores of climbers will have stood on top of Everest.
Because this was a dry snow year in the Himalayas, it didn’t entirely surprise me that they discovered the body of George Leigh Mallory [the British explorer who disappeared on Everest in 1924, and may have reached the summit first]. I had a great admiration for him, and if they find his camera and prove that he had been to the summit, I would have a great feeling of pleasure for him. For 45 years I have been regarded as the hero of Everest; I really can’t complain.
Of all the changes in mountaineering, the greatest is the commercialism of climbing on Everest, where guides now conduct half a dozen often very inexperienced people, who spend $65,000 each, and take them to the top. I think the conducting of inexperienced people up the mountain for financial gain is wrong. We climbed because we loved the mountain. A lot of these commercial operations just do it to get to the top and be able to go back home and boast about it.
And of course they’re taking risks, too. They don’t have the experience to deal with sudden problems. I’ve been forecasting for years that disasters would occur. A couple of years ago one did, and eight people died on the mountain, a disaster described in Into Thin Air, the 1997 book by Jon Krakauer. I knew Rob Hall, one of those who died on that Everest climb in 1996. We had quite an argument once. He had strong beliefs that what he was doing was the right thing; I believed that these inexperienced people were just being conducted, and it wasn’t really mountaineering in the true sense. I told him I thought the guides were risking people’s lives. We agreed to differ. In the end, maybe I was proved right.
It was different in my day. We had people in camps waiting to support us in case of need. And we certainly were much better at a lot of things. In my early days of climbing, we always had to backpack 70 or 80 pounds into the area to establish camp. Nowadays people helicopter in. If they’re in trouble, they call for help, and the helicopter picks them up.
We had very primitive walkie-talkies, and most of the time they didn’t work. When my son Peter was climbing Everest [in 1990], I was sitting in my study and there was a ring on the telephone. I said, “Hello,” and the voice of my son said, “Hello, this is Peter.” I said, “Well, hello, where are you?” And he said, “I’m on top of Everest.”
Another thing we didn’t have was all the rubbish. I have a photograph, taken last year, of the summit. When I saw it, I was horrified. I believe that every expedition should bring down everything it carries up. The only thing we left on the summit was some candy that Tenzing put in a little hole in the snow. He was a Buddhist, and this was really a gift to the gods. Also, a priest had asked that we leave this crucifix on the summit, and I pushed it into the snow.
I was on the summit for only 15 minutes, but I was very busy. I had my camera, and I wanted to take photographs of all the leading ridges of the mountain to give absolute proof that we had reached the summit. There is, in fact, no photograph of me on the summit. But the photo I took of Tenzing has become famous: There must have been someone there to take it.
When we climbed Everest, we didn’t really know if it was humanly possible to reach the summit. The physiologists had warned us that they weren’t sure we would survive. They felt that the human body might not be able to with-stand the lack of oxygen. So once we climbed it, we removed the psychological barrier for everyone else.
And there have been many steps forward in tents, sleeping bags, climbing equipment. All the equipment the modern mountaineer uses enables you to travel much more quickly and climb much more difficult things. The modern climber can go over a vertical piece of ice, and he can kick his feet into the ice and hold there. We could not do that. One of the problems today is that because they can move far more quickly with their good equipment and good skills, climbers will often take greater risks than we may have thought desirable. In some ways, for those very expert mountaineers, climbing has become more dangerous.
When we climbed Everest, we were a team—and that made a difference. Everybody would have liked to try to go to the top, but one of the great strengths of our expedition, unquestionably, was that we did have this very strong team spirit. George Lowe led most of the way up to the high camp. He cut lots of steps, trying to reduce the burden on Tenzing and myself. When we said goodbye to the others, I just thanked them for all their help, and they said, “Give it a go.”
Near the end I was cutting steps in the ice when I noticed that the ridge ahead dropped away. And way off in the distance I could see the barren plateau of Tibet. I looked up to the right about 40 or 50 feet up. There was a round snowy dome. So I just cut steps, with Tenzing fairly closely behind. We emerged on the top of the dome and realized we were on the summit.
It wasn’t to me a moment of enormous excitement; it was a moment of great satisfaction. It almost seemed a little hard to believe. Over the years I’ve been a number of times to base camp, but because of my problems with altitude I haven’t been for a long time. I still look up at the mountains and enjoy them, but I don’t have any motivation to climb again. I know it’s impossible.
I really have quite a busy life. Anyone who carries out an adventure—be it sailing around the world or climbing a mountain—seems to ask me to write a foreword for their book. And then I have lots of organizational work: Each year we have to raise from $400,000 to $500,000 around the world to operate our projects. I still travel 4 months of the 12.
Obviously I’m not in the shape I once was. But I do exercise; every morning I walk around the block. In the summer we have a cottage at the beach, and we walk along the water. My wife does everything with me now. She’s younger than I am by 11 or 12 years, and she’s fitter. I’m certainly overweight, but I try desperately to reduce my weight. I used to enjoy having two scotches before dinner. Now I only have one.
I’ve written my last autobiography, View from the Summit, to be published later this year in the U.S. I’ve always been careful not to offend my colleagues, so I played down instances that may have occurred. For example, I’m still asked if Tenzing or I got to the summit first. We agreed we would say we reached it “almost together,” when in fact I reached it a few paces ahead of him. I’ve decided now I’m going to tell it like it was and not worry about whether it’s going to hurt anyone’s feelings. You can do that when you’re 80.