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.
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.