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Sir Edmund Hillary, first to climb Mount Everest, dies at 88

1/11/2008

WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- Edmund Hillary once expressed
surprise that it was he -- "an ordinary person with ordinary
qualities" -- who became the first man to conquer the world's
tallest peak.

He spent the rest of his life telling the story of the climb up
Mount Everest that made him one of the 20th century's best-known
adventurers. But he maintained his reputation for humbleness, while
working to aid the impoverished people of Nepal.

Hillary died at Auckland Hospital about 9 a.m. Friday from a
heart attack, said a statement from the Auckland District Health
Board. Though ailing in his later years, he remained active.

"Awe, wonder, humility, pride, exaltation -- these surely ought
to be the confused emotions of the first men to stand on the
highest peak on Earth, after so many others had failed," Hillary
wrote of the conquest achieved by him and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on
May 29, 1953.

"But my dominant reactions were relief and surprise. Relief
because the long grind was over and the unattainable had been
attained. And surprise, because it had happened to me, old Ed
Hillary, the beekeeper, once the star pupil of the Tuakau District
School, but no great shakes at Auckland Grammar [high school] and a
no-hoper at university."

As he reached base camp after the climb, he took an irreverent
view of their monumental achievement: "We knocked the bastard
off."

The accomplishment as part of a British climbing expedition even
added luster to the coronation of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II four
days later, and she knighted Hillary as one of her first acts.

But he was more proud of his decades-long campaign to set up
schools and health clinics in Nepal, the homeland of Tenzing, the
mountain guide with whom he stood arm in arm on the summit of
Everest on May 29, 1953.

He wrote of the pair's final steps to the top of the world:
"Another few weary steps and there was nothing above us but the
sky. There was no false cornice, no final pinnacle. We were
standing together on the summit. There was enough space for about
six people. We had conquered Everest."

His philosophy of life was simple: "Adventuring can be for the
ordinary person with ordinary qualities, such as I regard myself,"
he said in a 1975 interview after writing his autobiography,
"Nothing Venture, Nothing Win."

But New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, announcing his death, said Hillary was
anything but ordinary.

"Sir Ed described himself as an average New Zealander with
modest abilities. In reality, he was a colossus. He was an heroic
figure who not only 'knocked off' Everest but lived a life of
determination, humility, and generosity. ... The legendary
mountaineer, adventurer, and philanthropist is the best-known New
Zealander ever to have lived."

Close friends described him as having unbounded enthusiasm for
both life and adventure.

"We all have dreams -- but Ed has dreams, then he's got this
incredible drive, and goes ahead and does it," long-time friend
Jim Wilson said in 1993.

Hillary summarized it for schoolchildren in 1998, when he said
one didn't have to be a genius to do well in life.

"I think it all comes down to motivation. If you really want to
do something, you will work hard for it," he said before planting
some endangered Himalayan oaks in the school grounds.

Hillary's pace slowed in his final years.

He made his last visit to the Himalayas in April 2007 when he
and Elizabeth Hawley -- unofficial chronicler of expeditions in the
Himalayas for 40 years -- met the 2007 SuperSherpas Expedition in
Kathmandu.

A year earlier, he joined a flight of New Zealand dignitaries
who flew to Antarctica for the 50th anniversary of the Scott Base,
which the adventurer helped build in 1957.

Unlike many climbers, Hillary said when he died he had no desire
to have his remains left on a mountain. He wanted his ashes
scattered on Waitemata Harbor in the northern city of Auckland
where he lived his life.

"To be washed gently ashore, maybe on the many pleasant beaches
near the place I was born. Then the full circle of my life will be
complete," he said.

Spokesman Mark Sainsbury said Hillary's family had accepted the
offer of a state funeral, on a date not yet set.

Tributes quickly began flowing.

"Sir Edmund's name is synonymous with adventure, with
achievement, with dreaming and then making those dreams come
true," said Australia's acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

"He was a hero and a leader for us. He had done a lot for the
people of Everest region and will always remain in our hearts,"
said Bhoomi Lama of the Nepal Mountaineering Association in
Katmandu.

Hillary remains the only non-political person outside Britain
honored as a member of Britain's Order of the Garter, bestowed by
Queen Elizabeth II on just 24 knights and ladies living worldwide
at any time.

In his 1999 book "View from the Summit," Hillary finally broke
his long public silence about whether it was he or Tenzing who was
the first man to step atop Everest.

"We drew closer together as Tenzing brought in the slack on the
rope. I continued cutting a line of steps upwards. Next moment I
had moved onto a flattish exposed area of snow with nothing but
space in every direction," Hillary wrote.

"Tenzing quickly joined me and we looked round in wonder. To
our immense satisfaction we realized we had reached the top of the
world."

Before Tenzing's death in 1986, Hillary consistently refused to
confirm he was first, saying he and the Sherpa had climbed as a
team to the top. It was a measure of his personal modesty, and of
his commitment to his colleagues.

He later recalled his surprise at the huge international
interest in their feat. "I was a bit taken aback to tell you the
truth. I was absolutely astonished that everyone should be so
interested in us just climbing a mountain."

Hillary never forgot the small mountainous country that
propelled him to worldwide fame. He revisited Nepal constantly over
the next 54 years.

Without fanfare and without compensation, Hillary spent decades
pouring energy and resources from his own fund-raising efforts into
Nepal through the Himalayan Trust he founded in 1962.

Known as "burra sahib" -- "big man," for his 6 feet 2 inches
-- by the Nepalese, Hillary funded and helped build hospitals,
health clinics, airfields and schools.

He raised funds for higher education for Sherpa families, and
helped set up reforestation programs in the impoverished country.
About $250,000 a year was raised by the charity for projects in
Nepal.

A strong conservationist, he demanded that international
mountaineers clean up thousands of tons of discarded oxygen
bottles, food containers and other climbing debris that litter an
area known as South Col valley, the jump-off point for Everest
attempts.

His commitment to Nepal took him back more than 120 times. His
adventurer son Peter has described his father's humanitarian work
there as "his duty" to those who had helped him.

It was on a visit to Nepal that his first wife, Louise, 43, and
16-year-old daughter Belinda died in a light plane crash March 31,
1975.

Hillary remarried in 1990, to June Mulgrew, former wife of
adventurer colleague and close friend Peter Mulgrew, who died in a
passenger plane crash in the Antarctic. He is survived by his wife
and children Peter and Sarah.

Lady June Hillary said that her family was comforted by the
messages of support from around the world.

She said Hillary had been hospitalized on Monday and died
peacefully.

"He remained in good spirits until the end,'' she said.

His passport described Hillary as an "author-lecturer," and by
age 40 his schedule of lecturing and writing meant he had to give
up beekeeping "because I was too busy."

By that time he was touring, lecturing and fund-raising for the
Himalayan Trust in the United States and Europe for three months at
a time, speaking at more than 100 venues during a tour.

He was known as ready to take risks to achieve his goals, but
always had control so that nobody ever died on a Hillary-led
expedition.

He was at times controversial. He decried what he considered a
lack of "honest-to-God morality" in New Zealand politics in the
1960s, and he refused to backtrack when the prime minister demanded
he withdraw the comments. Ordinary New Zealanders applauded his
integrity.

He got into hot water over what became known as his "dash to
the Pole" in the 1957-58 Antarctic summer season aboard modified
farm tractors while part of a joint British-New Zealand expedition.

Hillary disregarded instructions from the Briton leading the
expedition and guided his tractor team up the then-untraversed
Shelton Glacier, pioneering a new route to the polar plateau and
the South Pole.

In 2006 he entered a dispute over the death of Everest climber
David Sharp, stating it was "horrifying" that climbers could
leave a dying man after an expedition left the Briton to die high
on the upper slopes.

Hillary said he would have abandoned his own pioneering 1953
climb to save another life.

"It was wrong if there was a man suffering altitude problems
and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say 'good
morning' and pass on by," he said. "Human life is far more
important than just getting to the top of a mountain."

Named New Zealand's ambassador to India in the mid-1980s,
Hillary was the celebrity of the New Delhi cocktail circuit. He
later said he found the job confining.

He introduced jetboats to many Ganges River dwellers a decade
earlier, in 1977, when his "Ocean to the Sky" expedition traveled
the Ganges by jetboat to within 130 miles of its source.

The last segment was by foot, and two mountain peaks near
Badranath, where the Ganges rises, were also climbed. He sought
adventure in places as distant from each other as the Arctic and
Antarctic.

Hillary didn't place himself among top mountaineers. "I don't
regard myself as a cracking good climber. I'm just strong in the
back. I have a lot of enthusiasm and I'm good on ice," he said.

The first living New Zealander to be featured on a banknote, he
helped raise nearly $530,000 for the Himalayan Trust by signing
1,000 of the sparkling new five-dollar bills sold at a charity
auction in 1982. They were snapped up by collectors round the
world.

Honored by the United Nations as one of its Global 500
conservationists in 1987, he was also awarded numerous honorary
doctorates from universities in several parts of the world.

One of his accolades was the Smithsonian Institution's James
Smithson Bicentennial Medal for his "monumental explorations and
humanitarian achievements," awarded in 1998.

Throughout his life Hillary remembered the first mountain he
climbed, the 9,645-foot Mount Tapuaenuku -- "Tappy" as he called
it -- in Marlborough on New Zealand's South Island. He scaled it
solo over three days in 1944, while in training camp with the Royal
New Zealand Air Force during World War II.

"I'd climbed a decent mountain at last," he said later.

Like all good mountaineers before him, Hillary had no special
insight into that quintessential question: Why climb?

"I can't give you any fresh answers to why a man climbs
mountains. The majority still go just to climb them."