On July 20, 1919, Edmund Hillary is born in Auckland, New Zealand. A beekeeper by trade, Hillary became the first human, along with Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, to reach the peak of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953. At 29,035 feet, Mount Everest is the tallest mountain on Earth, as well as one of the most forbidding.
Mount Everest sits on the crest of the Great Himalayas in Asia, at the border between Nepal and Tibet. Called Chomo-Lungma, or “Mother Goddess of the Land,” by the Tibetans, the English named the mountain after Sir George Everest, a 19th-century British surveyor of South Asia. The summit of Everest reaches two-thirds of the way through the air of the earth’s atmosphere–at about the cruising altitude of jet airliners–and oxygen levels there are very low, temperatures are extremely cold, and weather is unpredictable and dangerous.
The first recorded attempt to climb Everest was made in 1921 by a British expedition that trekked 400 difficult miles across the Tibetan plateau to the foot of the great mountain before being forced to turn back by a raging storm. Over the course of the next two decades, nine more expeditions attempted the climb, with varying degrees of success. Finally, in 1952, two members of a Swiss reached 28,210 feet, just below the South Summit, but had to turn back for want of supplies.
Shocked by the near-success of the Swiss expedition, a large British expedition was organized for 1953 under the command of Colonel John Hunt. In addition to the best British climbers and such highly experienced Sherpas as Tenzing Norgay, the expedition enlisted talent from the around the British Commonwealth, such as New Zealanders George Lowe and Edmund Hillary, the latter of whom worked as a beekeeper when not climbing mountains. Members of the expedition were equipped with specially insulated boots and clothing, portable radio equipment and open- and closed-circuit oxygen systems.
On May 26, Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon launched the first assault on the summit and came within 300 feet of the top of Everest before having to turn back because one of their oxygen sets was malfunctioning. Two days later, Tenzing and Hillary set out, setting up high camp at 27,900 feet. After a freezing, sleepless night, the pair plodded on, reaching the South Summit by 9 a.m. and a steep rocky step, some 40 feet high, about an hour later. Wedging himself in a crack in the face, Hillary inched himself up what was thereafter known as the Hillary Step. Hillary threw down a rope, and Norgay followed. At about 11:30 a.m., the climbers arrived at the top of the world.
News of the success was rushed by runner from the expedition’s base camp to the radio post at Namche Bazar, and then sent by coded message to London, where Queen Elizabeth II learned of the achievement on June 1, the eve of her coronation. The next day, the news broke around the world. Later that year, Hillary and Hunt were knighted by the queen. Norgay, because he was not a citizen of a Commonwealth nation, received the lesser British Empire Medal.
Hillary has since written several books and remains active in environmental causes and with the Himalayan Trust, an organization he founded for the betterment of the Sherpa people. In recent years, he has been critical of the mounting debris left on Everest by the ever-increasing numbers of people making summit attempts, as well as the well-publicized failures of climbers to come to the aids of others in distress on the mountain.