Ed’s younger brother, Rex, with whom he shared the beekeeping business, met him in London for the July ceremony at which Ed, Tenzing, and Col. John Hunt, the expedition leader, were to be honored. It followed a garden party at Buckingham Palace, where 7,500 guests in summer frocks and morning coats huddled under umbrellas in the rain. “We were ushered into this room by the staff,” Rex remembers. “They were probably lords and ladies and God-knows-what. Then the Queen came in. She was very young and pretty in those days.” Ed kneeled on a stool, Elizabeth touched him lightly on both shoulders with a small sword and said, “Arise, Sir Edmund.” Staying in Britain for weeks of champagne toasts, Hillary was introduced to his first hangover.
Flush with the glow of celebrity, the newly knighted climber stopped off in Sydney on his way back to Auckland to court his future wife, Louise Rose, who was studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He balked at asking for her hand, however. “I was certainly not a ladies’ man,” he admits. “I was just terrified at the thought of proposing. Fortunately, my future mother-in-law was a very strong lady, and she didn’t have any qualms about bringing it up with Louise.” So the conqueror of Everest took a backseat while Louise’s mother popped the question to her over the telephone from their home in Auckland.
In the years that followed, Hillary led expeditions on first ascents of several Himalayan peaks, including Baruntse (23,517 feet), Chago (22,615 feet), and Pethangtse (22,106 feet), drove modified farm tractors to the South Pole in support of a British scientific party crossing Antarctica, went in search of the mythical yeti in Nepal, and wrote books about his adventures. Having given up beekeeping, he signed on as a camping consultant to Sears in 1963, testing new tent designs on vacations with Louise and their three kids, Peter, Sarah, and the youngest, Belinda.
Catastrophe struck in 1975, when a small plane carrying Louise and Belinda crashed and burned shortly after takeoff from Kathmandu. The two were on their way to join Sir Edmund in the village of Phaphlu, where he and Rex were building a hospital with local Sherpas and volunteers. “Ed was thunderstruck,” says Rex. “It was so damn sad.” It took many years for Sir Edmund to recover, but he took some comfort in the physical labor of his aid projects in the Everest region.
Those projects—to build schools, hospitals, bridges, and other improvements in Sherpa villages—grew out of Hillary’s affection for the mountain people. “Ed’s the sort of person who, if he’s asked to do something and he can’t think of a reason not to, he’ll go ahead and do it,” says Jim Wilson, a longtime friend from New Zealand. To help fund this private aid program, Hillary and several buddies created the Himalayan Trust, which continues to this day.