The Man Who Knocked the Bastard Off

On a sunny day in 1953, a tall young New Zealander named Edmund Hillary became the first human to stand atop the world's highest mountain—and, thereafter, a paragon of grace and bonhomie for explorers who would follow.

Friends in high places: Tenzing Norgay (left), and Sir Edmund Hillary after they successfully summited the world's highest peak on May 29, 1953.    Photo: George Band/Royal Geographical S

A self-described "average bloke," Sir Edmund Hillary made one of the century's landmark feats seem properly human and straightforward. His most famous quotation after summiting Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay on May 29, 1953, isn't anything pretentious or enigmatic but rather a simple aside to expedition mate George Lowe: "Well, George, we knocked the bastard off."

He went on to knock off another half-dozen Himalayan peaks, drove a tractor to the South Pole, took jet-boats up the Ganges, and launched the Himalayan Trust, which has built 30 schools, two hospitals, and 12 medical clinics in Nepal's Khumbu region, and gave proper honors to his climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay, right up until Norgay died 13 years ago.

He's the most sought-after adventurer on the planet, yet has shown little interest in celebrity for its own sake. Which is why an extended interview, in this overheated media age, is rare. In May, shortly after the discovery of George Leigh Mallory's body on Everest, Hillary, now 80, sat with Allison Chase and Gordon Brown of Outside Television at his home in Auckland for a conversation (excerpted here) on Mallory, mountaineering today, and the importance of being first.

OUTSIDE: With the recent discovery of George Leigh Mallory's body, the burning issue is, once again: Who got to the top of Everest first? Do you mind tackling that question?
SIR EDMUND HILLARY: No. I don't find it very hard to answer, to tell you the truth. I have two replies really. One is that I regarded Mallory as a heroic figure in my younger days, and if he had succeeded in getting to the top I think it would be fantastic. However, I have always felt that you haven't completed the job on the mountain until you get safely to the bottom again, so even if they had discovered that Mallory had been first to the top, I could at least claim I had been the first person to get to the top and then safely down. [Laughs]

When you made your assault on the summit with the British Everest Expedition in 1953, what did you know of Mallory's attempt 29 years before?
I was very familiar with the story of Mallory. I had read all the books that had been published in the 1920s, and had tremendous admiration for him. He was really the inspiration of Everest, the one who brought the world notice that it existed. He also reconnoitered the various routes onto the mountain and was a very determined man and a good writer. And of course he was a good mountaineer. He was a figure who impressed me very much.

It must have seemed daunting to make an attempt after other great climbers had failed to return. What did you encounter as you approached the summit, and were you and Tenzing confident that you would make it?
When Tenzing and I were climbing the long steep slope to the South Summit, the snow was very soft. It seemed on the dangerous side for a potential avalanche, so I turned to Tenzing and said, "What do you think of it?" He said that he didn't like it very much, and I said, "Will we carry on by this route?" Tenzing looked for a moment and said, "Just as you like." So we carried on. [Laughs] There was never any question that we wouldn't push on, and we found that the conditions did improve, and we finally reached the South Summit.

We looked along the summit ridge to the top of the mountain, and it was quite impressive. In those days, we used our ice axes to cut steps. Nowadays nobody cuts steps because they have much better equipment. But I led down onto the ridge, and I cut steps all the way along it, until about halfway, when we came upon an abrupt section, a rock step. At 29,000 feet, nearly, this looked rather formidable.

But on the right-hand side, I noticed a narrow crack where the ice was breaking away from the rock. It looked just large enough for me to crawl inside, so I wriggled and jammed my way up and reached the top of the step—the one now called the Hillary Step.

It was then for the first time that I knew that we were going to get to the top. Earlier in the expedition, I was never absolutely confident that we would be successful. All I knew was that if we gave it everything we had, then we might have a good chance. But I did have a sort of a sneaking feeling that if anyone got to the top, it could well be me.

What were you feeling when you summited?
I didn't jump around and throw my arms in the air. My feeling was essentially one of considerable satisfaction.

In many ways, Tenzing was more emotional than I was. In a sort of Western fashion, I reached out my hand to shake his, but that wasn't good enough for him. He threw his arms around my shoulders and gave me a hug. And I gave him a hug, too.

When we got back to Base Camp, one of the members of the expedition brought out a bottle of rum. We weren't great drinkers on this trip, but he poured some into our various mugs and we drank it down. Because of the altitude, we were quite affected by it. Someone turned on a radio and picked up the BBC in London just as they were announcing that our British expedition had succeeded in reaching the summit. And for the first time, it struck me. We got to the top. If the BBC announces it, it must be right.

Many journalists at the time asked whether you or Tenzing reached the top first. Did it matter to either of you who first set foot on the summit?
The question of who reaches the top of a mountain first is completely unimportant to the climbers involved. It was only afterwards that the media in Nepal and in India brought up this question. It was a very uncomfortable period for us. The media were constantly harassing us. I knew the answer, of course, as did Tenzing, but we did not regard it as being very important. We finally agreed that we would say that we reached the summit almost together. In actual fact, as I wrote in my book and as Tenzing has written in his book, I was leading at the particular time and did actually set foot on the summit a few meters ahead of Tenzing. But as far as we were concerned, we had reached the summit together.

How did you feel about all of the attention you received after summiting?
I regarded it all as a bit of a joke, to tell you the honest truth. I realized that we had done quite well, but we just climbed a mountain. It didn't warrant all the reaction that there had been from the world. I've tried to maintain that attitude ever since. These challenges are great, and they are very satisfying, but they are certainly not the beginning or end of the world.

What is the chief factor that contributed to your drive to take on a challenge like Everest?
I'd say hardships in my childhood. My father was a very firm man, and he used to take me to the woodshed for a good beating every now and then. I always felt my father wanted me to admit that I'd done wrong, and one thing I'm rather proud of, whether it's good or not, is that it didn't matter how much I was beaten, I never agreed that what I'd done was wrong—whether it was wrong or not. I think this stubbornness carried me through my other adventures in life. I was a real pain in the neck for my father, that's for sure.

How did your mountaineering skills evolve when you were a youth in New Zealand?
It wasn't until I was 16 years old that I ever saw a mountain. I went with a school party to Mount Ruapehu in the winter, and that was the first time I'd ever seen snow. We scrambled around and skied for ten days, and that was the start of my interest in mountains and snow and ice.

For a number of years, I did more skiing than mountaineering, but then when I was 20, I went down to Mount Cook, our highest mountain. I knew nothing about mountaineering then, but that night in the hotel, two very fit-looking young gentlemen came in, and they had just done a grand traverse of Mount Cook. To me, they seemed almost superhuman. There was the mountain up above me, and they had crossed right over it from one side to the other. It was then that I felt, I'm going to do that too.

I was in my middle twenties when I started climbing mountains which were reasonably challenging. When I climbed Mount Everest, I was 33 years old. It had taken quite a while to develop the skill and technique and energy that enabled me to effectively tackle a problem like Mount Everest.

Was it difficult to move on to other projects after Everest?
After I reached the summit of Mount Everest, people said to me, "Now that you've completed your major objective, you'll just relax. You'll become director of all sorts of companies, and you'll be wealthy, and life will go along very smoothly." I didn't find it worked out that way at all. I still wanted to take part in adventurous activities. Even when I was standing on the summit of Everest, I looked across the valley to another one of the great peaks, called Makalu, which I think is fifth- or sixth-highest in the world, and as I stood there, I mentally picked out a route on this great unclimbed mountain. Everest for me was more a beginning than an end.

Not many people know about your adventure in Antarctica in 1957. Will you tell us about it?
Our Antarctic trip had several objectives. We had a big scientific program in cooperation with the International Geophysical Year, and another major objective was for us to lay out depots across the polar plateau for Sir Vivian Fuchs's crossing party, who were planning to make the first complete crossing of the Antarctic. We did a great deal of mapping and geology, and I chose the site for our base, which is now Scott Base. Twenty-three members of my party stayed over during the long, dark winter, but we were so busy that we hardly noticed the time passing. When the sun returned, we started our long-distance traveling. With our tractors, we headed up the Skelton Glacier to the polar plateau, trundling over hundreds of crevasses and getting pretty nervous at times, all the while setting up depots. When we were 500 miles from the Pole, we established our last depot, and we made a dash for the Pole itself. We arrived with the bare minimum of fuel left in our tanks, but we made it. It was quite an exciting moment.

Traveling through crevasse country is a risky business, there's no doubt about that, but we did take as much care as we possibly could. We dropped tractors down a number of crevasses but always managed to pull them out again without anybody coming to any harm. I certainly had a very strong urge to try and reach the South Pole. This was the first trip by vehicles over land to the South Pole, so it was one of these firsts, which I rather enjoy.

And 20 years later, in 1977, you made a different kind of traverse. Starting at the Bay of Bengal, you took three jet boats 1,500 miles up the Ganges River into the Himalayas.
"From the ocean to the sky," we called it: going from the Bay of Bengal—the ocean, in other words—right up the Ganges River till we could go no further into the Himalayas. In many ways, it was one of the most satisfying expeditions that I've ever undertaken, not only the adventurous part of it—we were battling against fierce rapids and wild water—but because of the relationships we built with the millions of people and the Hindu priests who live along the banks of the Ganges. We were warmly welcomed, and everywhere we went our boats were blessed for the onward journey.

You've devoted much of your time and energy in recent decades to the welfare of the Himalayan people.
When I became friends with the Sherpas in the Himalayas, it was impossible not to realize all the things that they lacked. On one occasion, a group of Sherpas and myself were talking about their future. We all knew that tourism was going to have an impact on their lives, even though at that time no tourists were coming in, and I asked our head Sherpa, Urgen, who spoke very good English, "If there's something we can do for the Sherpas, what should it be?" Without hesitation he said, "We know that we are as strong as you are on the mountain, maybe stronger, but what we lack is education. What we would like is for our children in Khunde village to have a school."

That seemed a pretty reasonable idea to me, so I decided that I would get financial support and help with the building and establish a school in Khunde. I raised money in the United States and I got a building donated in Calcutta in India. We moved it in and erected the school.

I thought that establishing the Khunde school would be the beginning and end of my aid work in the Himalayas, but villagers from miles around came presenting petitions. They also wanted schools, and they wanted assistance with their health problems. So from then on my work continued. Now we have constructed over 30 schools, two hospitals, and a multitude of freshwater pipelines. And two years ago we instituted a teacher-training program.

You once said that you were wracked with guilt that one of the airstrips you'd helped to build in the Everest area is now used to fly in trekkers and tourists. Has this contributed to the commercialization of Mount Everest?
Yes, I guess it has. Our first airstrip was for a specific purpose. The United Nations wanted to fly in food for the hundreds of Tibetan refugees crossing over the border, but there was nowhere for aircraft to land. The pilot and I had a talk, and he said if I could find an airfield, he would fly in food for the Tibetan refugees and the building materials for our Khunde school. We found a place and made a superb landing site, and he flew in the food. However, that airfield was then condemned as being unsuitable, and that was when we built the airfield at Lukla, which is much lower down at just over 9,000 feet. It is now the busiest mountain airfield in the whole of Nepal, and thousands of trekkers and tourists fly in. I have sometimes wondered if establishing it has brought harm to the people of the Himalayas, but on the whole, when I think back, it has done quite a lot of good, too.

Is there something wrong with climbers who pay professional guides to take them up Everest?
People who are prepared to pay $65,000 to be conducted to the summit by a couple of experts don't in my view have the full sense of adventure that the true mountaineer has. We were the lucky ones. When we climbed Everest 46 years ago, we had to do everything. We had to pioneer the route. If we needed fixed ropes, we had to put in fixed ropes. We weren't walking in other people's footsteps, we were the ones making the footsteps.

Mount Everest is a great mountain, one that extends you to the utmost, and to have it made more or less a tourist trek to the top doesn't impress me at all. I admire those who climb it by a difficult route or by traditional fashions, but I have no great respect for those who are conducted to the summit by paying a very large sum of money.

What are the elements that make up the best and most successful expeditions?
Without a doubt our greatest strength on Everest in 1953 was our very strong team spirit. Individually, as mountaineers, we were not particularly expert people. We were competent climbers, but we worked together, and we were determined that someone should get to the top. All of us, of course, wanted to be that one, but it was even more important that someone in the group reach the summit. In modern-day climbing, this team spirit is not quite so common. There are many more prima donnas in the modern climbing fraternity, people who have great skills and a great individualism but who may not work together as enthusiastically as we did.

Whom do you admire among contemporary climbers?

There are many people that I admire in mountaineering—people like Reinhold Messner, who was the first to climb all of the 8,000-meter peaks. The thing I admire about Messner is not only that he is a great mountaineer, but that he had the courage to turn back when he thought the situation was too dangerous to continue.

Speaking of Reinhold Messner, he seems intent on solving the mystery of the yeti, and in 1960 you went on a mission in the Himalayas of Nepal and Tibet to attempt the same thing. Do you believe that the yeti exists?

My belief from the evidence that we found is that the yeti is probably a mythological creature, but I would be delighted to be proved wrong. There's no doubt that the monks in the monasteries and many others believe in its existence. There have been sightings of the very rare Himalayan blue bear, and we have found pelts from it. We've had them examined, and scientists tend to agree with us that the yeti is probably the blue bear.

You married your first wife, Louise, in 1953 and had three children with her—Peter, Sarah, and Belinda. How did you balance family matters with your adventurous life?

I did it largely by having my wife come with me on the trips, and when the children got a little bit older, they came with me, too. When I went to the Antarctic and was away for 18 months, I did leave my family behind, and at times I had a sense of guilt about that.

In 1975, there was a terrible accident involving two members of your family.

We were working on putting a new hospital in the village of Paphlu, and I had my whole family up in Kathmandu. My wife and youngest daughter Belinda were flying in to join me to go trekking up-valley to the Everest area. But when they took off from Kathmandu, the plane crashed, and my wife and youngest daughter died. I knew there was something wrong, because they didn't turn up at the airfield. I heard a helicopter approaching, and in it was a friend of mine coming to tell me what had happened. It was a terrible moment. It took me three or four years to shake myself out of that, and the way I did it was by doing the things that they had been doing with me, the building of schools and hospitals that I knew they wanted to see completed.

You've been happily remarried for ten years. Could you tell us about June?

When we were carrying out our expedition in the Antarctic, my major friend down there was Peter Mulgrew, who was a radio expert but also a good mountaineer and traveler. He went with me on our tractors to the South Pole. Peter had a wife called June, and Peter and June and Louise and I were very close friends. We shared a great deal together. Soon after Louise died, Peter also died in a plane crash, in the Antarctic. June and I were each left without a companion. We had a very close friendship over the years. June knew a great deal about the Sherpas and had worked with them, so we just became closer and closer. Finally we decided that we would share our lives more fully, and ultimately we married, as we are today.

My wife and I travel around the world, we raise money, and we go back each year to the Himalayas to talk with the local people and ask what they feel should be done. I move around much more slowly now, but fortunately there are many helicopters, so I fly from one village to the next. I have become a helicopter trekker.

Do you think there are any great feats left to accomplish in the adventure world?

People often say to me, "All the good challenges have gone. There's nothing left to do." But that's simply not true. Certainly the summits of the mountains have been reached, the bottoms of the ocean, and the poles have been conquered. But people are constantly thinking up new ideas. Some of them are on the crummy side and not terribly bright, but some of them are very dramatic. In mountaineering, for instance, the really good mountaineers attempt peaks by much more difficult routes than the one that we climbed. Doing something for the first time, something that nobody has done before, is perhaps one of the most exciting things that can happen to anyone.

You've used the term "battle against boredom" many times. What does that mean?

When I wrote my first book, which was about Everest, I thought quite deeply about what to call it. Looking back on my life, I realized that I had been a very restless person. I came to the conclusion that the whole of it had been a struggle against boredom, so I suggested to the publisher that the book be called Battle Against Boredom. The publisher said that the title was much too negative and decided to call it High Adventure. All of my life I've been afraid of having nothing to do, having no challenges to meet, being bored. Life has been a battle against boredom, but I've been quite good at thinking up adventures and carrying them out.

Did you ever want to climb Everest again?

Tenzing and I both agreed when we came down off the mountain that that was as many times as we wished to attempt it. We had done the job. We had completed it the first time. Both of us always felt that that was as much as we needed. But it's really become a much more common thing nowadays for people to want to climb Everest on a number of occasions. There are a couple of chaps who have done it nine or ten times, but Tenzing and I thought nobody would be particularly interested in trying to climb it again. We were absolutely wrong.

From Outside Magazine, Oct 1999 Get the Latest Issue

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