After descending safely from the summit of Mount Everest, in 1953, Sir Edmund famously told an expedition mate, George Lowe, “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”
The 33-year-old was nonchalant about becoming a hero. In 1999, Outside Magazine asked him how he felt about the attention. Sir Edmund said, “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.”
At the time, Everest was a big deal. Those were the days before oxygen tanks and high-tech climbing gear. Previous explorers such as George Mallory, a forerunner of mountaineering in the 1920s, had died attempting the ascent. Sub-zero temperatures, fierce winds, and slick ice make Mount Everest one of the most dangerous climbs in the world.
But for Sir Edmund, the mountain was only part of the story. In 2006, he criticized a group of climbers for failing to rescue a member of their expedition, David Sharp. Nothing of the sort, he told the New Zealand Herald, would have happened on his expedition. “I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying,” he said. “The people just want to get to the top.”
Though getting to the top of Everest was not the be-all-end-all for him, it did mark a significant change in his life. With fame, Sir Edmund’s philanthropic efforts began.
Shortly after the ascent, he asked a Sherpa how he could help the people of the region. Sir Edmund admired the Sherpas for their loyalty, courage, hard work and sense of humor. At the time, people living in this isolated area between Tibet and Nepal lacked access to healthcare and education. According to the website of the The Himalayan Trust, his Sherpa friend said, “Burra Sahib (big Sahib), our children have eyes but they are blind and cannot see. Therefore, we want you to open their eyes by building a school in our village of Khumjung.”
The Himalayan Trust was founded in the 1960s, and the organization went on to build over 30 schools, a few hospitals and a dozen medical clinics. Sir Edmund served on the board and supported a number of other non-profits throughout his life.
He also founded the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC) and was the patron for 35 years. The organization introduces young New Zealanders to the outdoors, just as Sir Edmund had been introduced many years before when he saw his first mountain.
Sir Edmund grew up in Auckland, New Zealand. He was a small, shy boy who spent most of his time reading and dreaming. But he grew to be a gangly 6 foot 5 inch teenager. At the age of 16, he saw his first mountain, Mount Ruapehu in New Zealand, and touched snow for the first time. He fell in love, and for the rest of his life, Sir Edmund aspired to share this deep connection to nature with youth, his fellow explorers, and the rest of the world.
Sir Edmund, a self-described “average bloke,” lived a life that was far from average. He summited dozens of peaks, including Herschel in the forbidding climes of Antarctica. And, he is still considered the first person to reach the top of the world.
But it never meant much to Sir Edmund to have his face on the $5 New Zealand banknote. He preferred not to think about it. In an interview with Time Magazine, he said that he’d like to be remembered “…not for Everest, but for the work I did and the cooperation I had with my Sherpa friends.”