When Ed Helped Vaccinate The Khumbu


It’s a comforting thought to know that the challenges we face today, have in fact been overcome by generations before us. Many people will be pleasantly surprised to learn that Ed Hillary and his expedition team also dabbled in a mass vaccination and contact tracing program. On this occasion, it was a Smallpox outbreak in the Himalayas.



Ed Hillary at a community festival in the Mt Everest area. 1963

 Mts Kang Tega and Thamserku, 6700 metres above Khumjung Village. Kang Tega is one of the peaks the expedition climbed




In 1963, after building Khumjung school two years prior, Ed returned to Nepal to continue his promise of bringing educational infrastructure and a network of teachers to the Himalayas. Accompanied by a strong team of New Zealanders, Americans, Indians and Nepalese, Ed had also built into the itinerary some time to attempt two spectacular, unclimbed peaks: Taweche and Kangtega. After all, if you’ve travelled all the way to Nepal, it would be irresponsible not to put the tools down momentarily and head off into the mountains to tackle two formidable peaks standing over 21,000 feet (~6,500meters).






On this particular 1963 expedition, schools were built and mountains were climbed (Kantega was summited, and Taweche was attempted), but another unexpected problem was encountered. During the expedition, a Smallpox outbreak begun spreading through Himalayan communities. In a display of early contact tracing, patient zero was identified as a man who had travelled to Kathmandu and later returned to the Khumbu region. Upon falling ill, and with his family unable to go without the income from his work as a porter, the man’s family helped carry his sixty pound load. This led to an unfortunate super spreader event. Ed, along with a number of expedition members, had been vaccinated for Smallpox, so they were able to take on the initial health care response. Social distancing was encouraged, appropriate burials introduced, and a Swiss Red Cross aeroplane dropped off a package of Swiss and Russian Smallpox vaccines.






A woman carries a bamboo basket filled with potatoes up the trail


The Tengboche Monastery Rimpoche (reincarnate lama) and Dr Phil Horton

Very soon, Ed and his team were travelling around the Himalayas on a completely unplanned, but vitally important, vaccination drive. Phil Houghton, a fellow New Zealander and expedition doctor, trained up members of the expedition team to administer the vaccines. It wasn’t long before Phil was supervising his new recruits in a major vaccine program. Ed recalls that within only 24 hours on the job, “a group of us had become very competent vaccinators”.



During the 1963 expedition, 7000 people were vaccinated across the Khumbu region of the Himalayas. In his book Schoolhouse in the Clouds, Ed recalls that of “all the programs carried out on the expedition - schools, waterworks, medical clinics, and the like - the one most widely appreciated was undoubtedly the vaccination program, and this hadn’t been part of my original plans”.



Students at Thami School, 3900 metres in the Mt Everest area. This is the village where Tenzing Norgay grew up






Students wearing masks at school that were provided by the Himalayan Trust. 2020

Fast forward to 2020 and 2021, and the Himalayan Trust team are on another vaccination drive. This time, it is to slow the spread and protect communities against COVID-19. Thanks to the wonderful team in Nepal, and the generous supporters across the world, the Himalayan Trust has continued to look after the communities that Ed loved.

These days, the vaccination operations are much more sophisticated. The people administering the vaccines are fully-trained health care professionals, as opposed to part-time mountaineers, philanthropists and builders. But the effort, spirit and will of the local people to protect themselves and their families is the same as it was back in 1963


 Written by George Hillary, Board Member for the Himalayan Trust

Photographs courtesy of The Himalayan Trust & Hillary family


 Dr Kami Temba treats a child at Khunde Hospital at 3900 metres altitude. 2018