Sir Edmund Hillary Dies at 88

Posted on: January 10, 2008

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The revered Sir Edmund Hillary, icon of mountaineering, world explorer, environmentalist, humanitarian, beekeeper, writer and mentor to the climbing community, has passed. Hillary died at Auckland City Hospital at 9 a.m. local time on January 11, 2008. He was 88.

Hillary is best known for being the first, with Tenzing Norgay, to stand on the earth's highest point, but conquering 8848-meter Mt. Everest was only one of many great accomplishments in his life. Born in 1919 near Auckland, New Zealand, Hillary started climbing as a teenager. After serving in World War II as a navigator in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, he began to climb seriously in the early 1950s.

After learning alpine and ice climbing techniques from British mountaineers in the Swiss Alps, Hillary joined a New Zealand expedition to Nepal and climbed eleven peaks of more than 20,000 feet. After proving himself on those climbs, Hillary was asked to join two British Everest reconnaissance expeditions in 1951 and 1952. Based on Hillary's reputation as a competent mountaineer, Sir John Hunt chose him to be a member of his 1953 expedition.

The expedition, sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club, included twelve climbers, thirty-five Sherpas and 350 porters who carried more than eighteen tons of equipment to base camp. The team followed the South Col route, climbing it in siege style.

After two other team members failed to summit, Hillary and the experienced Nepalese climber Tenzing Norgay established a bivouac at 27,900 feet and spent the night with raging winds in -30 degree F temperatures on a sloping six-foot-wide ledge. As the skies cleared in the morning on May 29, 1953, Hillary and Norgay roped together and started for the summit. After encountering the step that would later bear his name—a formidable 40-foot-high face of ice and rock—and finding a vertical crack that made it possible to proceed, the pair climbed up the last few easy yards until there was nowhere higher to go.


Up until this date, seven expeditions had tried and failed to reach Everest's summit. After seeing a number of their experienced peers die in attempts to conquer the 29,035-foot peak, many climbers considered its summit unattainable. Hillary and Norgay's first ascent proved to the mountaineering community that climbing at such rarified altitudes was possible.

"We had one problem that the modern mountaineer doesn't have," he said in a 1991 interview. "That is, this psychological barrier. We didn't know if it was humanly possible to reach the top of Mt. Everest. And even using oxygen as we were, if we did get to the top, we weren't at all sure whether we wouldn't drop dead...."

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