In 1953 Mount Everest was conquered, and the names of an Auckland bee farmer, Edmund Hillary, and his Sherpa climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay, joined those of Peary, Amundsen and Lindbergh atop the hill of 20th Century adventuring giants. With the death of Hillary at age 88, the all five are gone. LIFE Books editorial director Robert Sullivan first spoke with Sir Edmund his friends call him Ed in the living room of Hillary's home in Auckland in 1992. Sullivan enjoyed three subsequent conversations with Hillary, the most recent in February 2003. The following interview is based on those four talks:
SULLIVAN: Tell us about your youth.
HILLARY: I was born here in Auckland, but the first 15 years of my life we lived 40 miles south in a small village called Taukau and I went to primary school there. My mother was a school teacher and very keen that I go to a city school, so although it was fairly impovrished times, I traveled every day to the Auckland Grammar School. I found the city rather trying. I was definitely very much a country boy. I was a really weedy 11-year-old, then I grew five inches one year and six inches the next year and at the end I was large in size. My relationship with the mountains actually started when I was 16. Every year a group used to be taken from Auckland Grammar down to the Tangariro National Park for a skiing holiday. I think we must have had a good honey session that year, because I was able to persuade my father to let me go on this particular trip. We went down to Ruapehu, and I can remember it just as clearly as when it happened. Our train from Auckland arrived at the National Park station and there was snow everywhere, there was snow on the railroad line and there was snow on the trees. It was a bright moonlit night, and the moonlight was a brilliant, marvelous sight to me and it was really the most exciting thing that ever happened to me up to that time us rushing around skiing. I found I was reasonably energetic and I could rush around and make snow balls, whatever. That was really the start of my enthusiasm for snow and ice and mountains in general. For a few years I skied whenever I could.
Downhill. I enjoyed it immensely, although I never became a great skier. When I was 50 years old I actually decided to draw up a list of half a dozen things that I really hadn't done very well, and I was going to make efforts to improve. One of them was skiing, and I really did become a very much better skier.
What were some of the other things?
Mostly adventurous activities I wanted to do in the Himalayas, on Antarctica. I was successful actually on all the projects. Even when you're 50 you can make the effort to improve your standards.
After that trip when you were young, did you know you were going to go in that direction, and become an accomplished outdoorsman?
No, I didn't visualize myself becoming a renowned mountaineer. It happened gradually. I did a lot of hiking in the hills out of Auckland, and then I started modest mountaineering and then I was able to do harder climbs and finally I became a reasonably accomplished mountaineer in the New Zealand Alps and I did a number of treks. I'm inclined to think that happens to a lot of people. Very few suddenly decide they're going to be a world champion at something.
Concerning the allure of hiking and mountaineering: Some people love it because of the solace, and like to do it alone. Some like the teamwork. Some do it because of the thrill. What was it for you?
I enjoyed climbing with other people, good friends, but I did quite a lot of solo climbing, too. If I wished to do something, even if I couldn't find anyone who wanted to make the effort with me, I would go out solo climbing. I did find solo climbing very challenging, and a little frightening. You knew that you were completely on your own and you had to overcome all the problems and possible dangers. Quite demanding, and quite an interesting experience.
Did you enjoy the tingle of fear?
I think I found fear a very stimulating factor. I'm sure the feeling of fear, as long as you can take advantage of it and not be rendered useless by it, can make you extend yourself beyond what you would regard as your capacity. If you're afraid, the blood seems to flow freely through the veins and you really do feel a sense of stimulation. If you can summon up your determination and motivation to overcome the fear, you seem to have more energy to tackle the problem and overcome it.
Did you find that you were more or less fearful by nature than your comrades?
I used to think that I was more fearful than my companions, but in talking to them in later years, I discovered that they, like myself, concealed very much their fears. I think most people when they're in a dangerous situation or potentially dangerous situation they have that sense of fear. I was almost ashamed at times, that I was fearful while my companions seemed to be drumming along. I found out later, in talking to them, that they were just as scared as I was.