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), 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.
In 1989, at the age of 70, Sir Edmund married June Mulgrew. Today many Sherpas in the Everest region consider them both to be part of their families. A few years ago at a banquet in the village of Khumjung, Sir Edmund told his Sherpa friends that for June and him, coming back was like coming home. “When he said that, all the old people had tears in their eyes,” says lifelong resident Doma Chamji, in part because they knew Hillary was increasingly sensitive to altitude. Each visit to the village at 12,300 feet might be his last.
Even now, at 83, with his trademark bushy eyebrows, white sideburns, and longish flyaway hair, Sir Edmund is still frequently called upon to be the hero of Everest—whether he’s cutting an Everest-shaped cake at the Auckland Museum or giving a pep talk to New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks. “The thing that amazes me, in a way, is that it all keeps going,” he says. “But I think I have a clear idea why. I think a lot of people rather like the fact that I haven’t just climbed mountains but also built schools, hospitals, and all the rest of it. So in a way I’ve given back to the people all the help they gave me on the mountain.”
On May 25, 2002, Sir Edmund got a telephone call from his son. “Dad, it’s Peter. We’re on the summit,” he said from Mount Everest. The 47-year-old was part of a National Geographic expedition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1953 climb, including Jamling Norgay, Tenzing’s son, and Brent Bishop, son of Barry Bishop, a member of the first American team to reach the top, in 1963. “Well, take it easy on the way down,” Sir Edmund cautioned. They chatted briefly about the weather. Then it was time for Peter to go. “I feel really emotional about being up here,” he said. “What you did nearly 50 years ago—it’s just incredible.”
It was a feeling many would endorse, because Sir Edmund has proved during a lifetime of generosity and achievement that he is more than a new kind of hero. He is one of a kind.