Youth and personal struggles
Sir Edmund Hillary was born in Auckland, New Zealand on 20th July 1919. Being naturally curious and intelligent he finished primary school two years early. Although his parents were proud of him, to Edmund his scholarly achievements turned into one of his biggest problems. In high school he was smaller than his peers and very shy, which often made him the object of his classmate’s pranks. His grades went down. He did not have many friends to hang out with and, therefore, took refuge in his books and daydreams about life full of adventures.
Edmund slowly regained his confidence as he learned boxing. At the age of 16 during a school trip to Mount Ruapehu, he got interested in mountain climbing. And even though he was gangly and uncoordinated, he had something many of his contemporaries lacked – physical strength, unbendable will and surprising mental endurance.
From beekeeper to professional mountain climber
In 1939, at the age of 20, Hillary 1939 completed his first major climb, reaching the summit of Mount Ollivier, in the Southern Alps. After graduating from The University of Auckland, where he studied mathematics and science he became a beekeeper with his brother Rex. This was not his dream job, but it allowed him to climb mountains in winter, while working during the summer time.
World War II
This existence did not last long as the World War II started. At first Hillary applied to join the air force, but some days later withdrew the application, because as he said later “I was harassed by religious conscience”. Although, in 1943, following conscription on the outbreak of war in the Pacific, Hillary joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force and trained to be a navigator. He spent his free time climbing whenever he had the opportunity.
In 1945 he was sent to Fiji and to the Solomon Islands where he was badly burnt in a boat accident, after which he was repatriated to New Zealand.
He spent the next few years climbing in the Southern Alps and in 1949 traveled to Europe to conquer the Austrian and Swiss Alps.
“Knocking off” Mount Everest
In 1951 Hillary joined a New Zealand expedition heading for the Himalayas, where he got the reputation as a skilled climber. Over time he climbed 11 different peaks of over 20,000 feet in the Himalayas – each bringing him a little closer to the dream of his life – Mount Everest – the highest mountain in the world.
The opportunity presented itself in 1953 when Hillary was invited to join an expedition to the top of Mount Everest and he accepted right away. In May, the expedition reached the South Peak. Here most of the climbers were forced to turn back by exhaustion due to the high altitude. The only two people who were able to make the final assault on the summit were Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, a native Nepalese climber.