On this day: A Kiwi claims Everest

By Samantha Wheeler 7 November 2013
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There were cheers from the Southern Hemisphere when Kiwi Ed Hillary summited Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

There were cheers from the Southern Hemisphere when Kiwi Ed Hillary summited Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

ON 29 MAY, 1953, New Zealand-born Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mt Everest.

By the 1950s tiny New Zealand, with a population of under two million, had already established itself as a country of strong mountaineers and was participating in major expeditions to the Himalayas.

See a gallery of Hillary’s Everest climb
Book tickets to the Australian Geographic Everest 60th Anniversary reader dinner

On the first New Zealand expedition to the Himalayas in 1951, Ed Hillary, Earle Riddiford, George Lowe and Ed Cotter summited five over 6000m peaks and the 7240m Mukut Parabat. The whole endeavour, says fellow mountaineer Bill Beaven, was a resounding success.

So, while the party was still in India, the NZ Alpine Club decided to telegraph the Alpine Club in England asking if they could join the reconnaissance expedition, led by British mountaineer Eric Shipton, to the unexplored southern side of Mount Everest. Both Ed and George Lowe played key roles in the ground-breaking trip.  

New Zealanders keen to plant their flag on Everest

With Tibet closed after China took over rule in 1950, this southern route from Nepal would be the only viable option for Everest hopefuls – and New Zealanders were keen that one of their own would make it to the top.

“We’d had New Zealanders on the reconnaissance expedition who were then invited to join the British again in 1953,” says Bill. “So when the Everest climb came, with George Lowe and Ed Hillary on it, people in New Zealand were pretty gung-ho about it.”

Fellow mountaineer Norman Hardie, a Kiwi who spent several months in London organising logistics for the 1953 expedition, says that nonetheless the reception at home after Ed’s successful climb was jubilant. “When the two toured back home in New Zealand they received full houses and were given life membership of two mountaineering clubs.”

See a gallery of Hillary’s Everest climb
Book tickets to the Australian Geographic Everest 60th Anniversary reader dinner

On their way home, Ed Hillary and George Lowe stopped over in Sydney where they attended three receptions in their honour, and met with hundreds of excited Sydney-siders. Back home in Auckland, Hillary’s mother Gertrude had already been swamped with calls, telegrams and cables of congratulations.

The lasting impact on New Zealand, Australia and Britain is evident in the many honours Ed Hillary received in his name, most famously, his face being placed on the updated New Zealand $5 note in 1992. The Edmund Hillary Centre at the base of Mount Cook was opened in 2008 in celebration of Hillary’s mountaineering and humanitarian achievements.

Mountaineers of the Southern Hemisphere

In Australia, alpine climbing wasn’t as popular as in New Zealand; our mountains are not as impressive – there is more than 1500m difference between the highest peaks of Australia and New Zealand.

But, says Bill, the interest was there: “Before I went to England, I was the Australian representative for the New Zealand Alpine Club, and quite a few Australians were members and took an interest in what was going on.”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until October 1984, when Tim Macartney-Snape and Greg Mortimer summited Everest, that an Australian expedition echoed the feat.

– Text by Samantha Wheeler

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