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Everest: 50 Years and Counting
May 2003
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Photo: Everest--50 Years and Counting
By Peter Miller

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first two. Since them, 1,200 men and women from 63 nations have reached the summit. What does it take to stand on top of the world?

A few days after his triumphant ascent of Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay, Ed Hillary received word that Queen Elizabeth planned to make him Sir Edmund. He was taken aback. "Oh, I found it difficult," he recalls now. "I didn't feel I was the ideal sort of person who should have a title." For one thing, he couldn't see strolling around his hometown of Papakura, New Zealand, in his old work clothes, a knight commander of the Order of the British Empire. "My God," he remembers saying to himself, "I'll have to buy a new pair of overalls."

Here was a new kind of hero, a tall, rangy beekeeper from the fringes of the empire. One of only two Kiwis on the 1953 Everest expedition—his pal George Lowe was the other—he may have lacked the social graces of his eight English climbing partners. But he more than made up for it with strength and tenacity. Having learned to climb in New Zealand's Southern Alps in the winter (the off-season for bees), Hillary was as bold on ice and snow as anyone on the team. And he and Tenzing had made it to the top.

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/7,168 meters), Chago (22,615 feet/6,893 meters), and Pethangtse (22,106 feet/6,738 meters), 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.

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