Review: Edmund Hillary - A Biography by Michael Gill. Vertebrate Publishing. £24.00

I WAS too young to remember the actual day (29 May 1953) when Edmund Hillary became, with Sherpa Tenzing, one of the first two men to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. Twenty years later in 1973 I saw Ed Hillary along with a number of other members of the successful 1953 team on their tour of the UK to celebrate the 20th anniversary of this historic event. But, as I discovered from reading Michael Gill’s new biography of Ed Hillary, there was much more to this man than just being the first person to stand on the top of Everest.

Mountain climber, polar explorer, builder of schools and hospitals in Nepal, New Zealand’s High Commissioner to India and even Knight of the Garter – all these aspects of Ed Hillary’s life are covered in this remarkable 540-page book. Even before we learn of his birth in 1959, Michael Gill explains how and when his grandfather (also called Edmund) arrived from his native Scotland in New Zealand where the Hillary family has remained since. We read about Ed’s father Percy, initially a journalist and then running a beekeeping business, and his traumatic experiences at Gallipoli during the First World War.

Ed was born in 1919 and the story of his Primary and Secondary education are covered in the next two chapters before his enlisting into the New Zealand Air Force and involvement in World War II. It was during his air force years that Ed became involved in mountaineering and his first ascent of Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, is covered in detail. The book then covers Ed’s marriage to his first wife Louise and his meetings with Eric Shipton and visits to the Himalaya in 1951 before being selected for the 1953 Everest attempt.

The history of the Everest attempts by the British in the 1920s and 1930s takes up the next three chapters including the loss of Mallory and Irvine in 1924 when some people suggest that they even reached Everest’s summit although this was never proven.

The successful 1953 Everest attempt is covered in detail after which Ed’s Antarctic expeditions including reaching the South Pole makes equally exciting reading. Career changes into working in Nepal organising the building of schools and hospitals for the Sherpa population and executive work with World Books and Sears are all covered in the next few chapters.

The tragic loss in 1975 of his first wife Louise and youngest daughter Belinda in a plane crash in Nepal, the blackest point in Ed’s life, follow and then his Ocean to Sky expedition by motorboat from the Ganges delta to near its source in the Himalayan foothills, a journey of 2500 kilometres, is another interesting chapter.

After four years of depression, 1979 saw a change of fortune for Ed when he developed a relationship with an old family friend June Mulgrew and ten years later, they married. She had accompanied him during his time as New Zealand High Commissioner to India, a country where he was greatly revered due to his mountaineering exploits.

Work still continued with the Himalayan Trust on projects with schools and hospitals in Nepal and this led to several honorary doctorates being awarded to him and also him becoming a Knight of the Garter in 1995. Ed Hillary died on 11 January 2008 at the age of 88 and was given a state funeral by the New Zealand authorities.

Michael Gill, who was a young climbing companion of Ed Hillary in the 1960s, has chronicled his life superbly in this book, and gives the reader a great insight into both the physical and emotional aspects of mountaineering and polar adventures. A brilliant read which will be enjoyed by anyone who loves the great outdoors and explorations.

John Burland