Sir Edmund Hillary’s connections with West Auckland

In July 2019, New Zealand commemorated 100 years since the birth of Sir Edmund Hillary. Sir Edmund and Tenzing Norgay are recognized internationally as the first people to summit Mount Everest in 1953. Lesser known are the stories about Sir Edmund's long term family connections to west Auckland and his determination to protect the Waitākere ranges and its coastline.

Image: G. McGlashan. Portrait of Edmund Hillary, 2018. Private collection.

The Hillary family has had a long association with the west coast of Auckland since 1925, when Sir Edmund’s father-in-law, Jim Rose, built a bach at Anawhata. Since then five generations have come to the west coast to walk and explore, to dream and refresh their spirits.

Image: Photographer unknown. Beach at Anawhata, Date unknown. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, Auckland Museum Print Collection, B1196/C26659

In the early 1970s Sir Edmund built a bach on the cliffs above White’s Beach, a beach north of Piha. In 2008 Waitākere Mayor Bob Harvey called it Hillary's place of solace, where he could escape media attention.

Peter Hillary said that Sir Edmund would go to Piha and Anawhata to dream up expeditions and prepare for them. When Sir Edmund scaled Mount Everest, a telegram sent to his wife went through the Piha post office.

Sir Edmund co-owned a large tract of land in the Karekare Valley with his climbing friend Mike Gill during the 1970s when he was also patron of the local surf club despite never being a keen swimmer. Sir Edmund chose Karekare as a backdrop for a Vanity Fair photo shoot appearing on the beach with his Everest ice axe and a Sherpa’s scarf. He said "That is the thing that international travel brings home to me – it's always good to be going home. This is the only place I want to live in; this is the place I want to see out my days."

Sir Edmund campaigned to have the Waitākere Ranges recognized as a heritage area, giving his endorsement to Waitākere City’s West Coast plan. In 1998 Sir Edmund signed Jack Colmar’s “Waitākere Heritage Area declaration”. In an accompanying letter to Jack, he wrote “…I heartily support the establishment of the Waitākere Heritage Area. It is a magnificent piece of coastline and forest and Auckland is very fortunate to be so close…I enthusiastically support the Waitākere Ranges Heritage Area.” 

Image: Olaf Petersen. Edmund Hillary sowing seeds at the Rānui Domain, 1960.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, Sweetlove Collection.

Sir Edmund wanted people to be able to enjoy the Waitākere Ranges and west coast beaches in the future as they had done in the past through swimming, surfing, tramping, walks, climbing, running and social events. 

Image: Adrian Moulton. Group portrait of the Auckland Tramping Club at Mobbs Guest House, Anawhata, Easter 1926. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 282-5

Image: George Haycock. Showing members of the Auckland Tramping Club at the Lower Waitakere Falls, about 1930. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 282-193

The Hillary family donated land at White’s Beach for the construction of the 70 kilometre Hillary Trail which was opened on 11 January 2010. The four day walk from the Arataki Visitor Centre to Muriwai Beach was the brainchild of park ranger Stu Leighton and Sir Edmund Hillary.

Since the opening of the Hillary Trail in 2010 many New Zealand trail runners have attempted and successfully completed the trail race. Kauri die-back disease has proved a continuing problem for race organiser Shaun Collins. The Hillary Trail run was cancelled in 2018 due to the rāhui placed by the local iwi Te Kawarau ā Maki. In Māori culture, a rāhui is a form of tapu restricting access to, or use of, an area or resource by unauthorised persons. Rāhui are often used to protect or exercise guardianship over a treasure or important resource. View the videos of the Hillary Trail run held from 2014-2017 on the race event's website

Sir Edmund said “In some ways I believe I epitomise the average New Zealander: I have modest abilities, I combine these with a good deal of determination, and I rather like to succeed.”

Author: Anna McGlashan, Research West


Michael Gill. Edmund Hillary: a biography. Nelson, New Zealand: Potton & Burton, 2017.