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Sir Edmund Hillary, the unassuming beekeeper who conquered Mount Everest to win renown as one of the 20th century’s greatest adventurers, died Friday, New Zealand’s prime minister announced. He was 88.
The gangling New Zealander devoted much of his life to aiding the mountain people of Nepal and took his fame in stride, preferring to be called “Ed” and considering himself just an ordinary man.
“Sir Ed described himself as an average New Zealander with modest abilities,” Prime Minister Helen Clark said in a statement Friday. “In reality, he was a colossus. He was a 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,” she said.
Hillary died at Auckland Hospital at 9 am (local time) on Friday, of a heart attack, the Auckland District Health Board said in a statement. He had been ailing for several years.
Hillary’s life was marked by grand achievements, high adventure, discovery, excitement - and by his personal humility. Humble to the point that he only admitted being the first man atop Everest long after the death of Tenzing Norgay, the mountain guide with whom he stood arm in arm on the summit on May 29, 1953.
The accomplishment as part of a British climbing expedition even added luster to the coronation of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II four days later. She knighted the angular, self-deprecating Hillary, who was just 33, 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, Norgay’s homeland.
He wrote of the pair’s final ascent 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.
“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 noted.
“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, first to the top of Everest. I just didn’t believe it.”
The pair spent just 15 minutes on the summit, taking photographs as evidence of their achievement, before starting the arduous descent.
Hillary’s 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.
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’s pace slowed in his final years, but he stayed active beyond the energy of most people his age.
He made his last visit to the Himalayas in April 2007, visiting with Sherpas in the Nepalese capital of Katmandu.
A year earlier, he flew to Antarctica to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of New Zealand’s Scott Base, which he helped build in 1957.
Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.
Hillary received the rare honor of Britain’s Order of the Garter, bestowed by the queen 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 Norgay 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 Norgay’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 of “just climbing a mountain.”
Hillary never forgot the small mountainous country that propelled him to worldwide fame, and revisited Nepal, where he became known as “burra sahib,” or “big man” for his 188-centimetre build, more than 120 times.
Without fanfare and without compensation, Hillary spent decades pouring energy and resources from his own fundraising efforts into Nepal through the Himalayan Trust he founded in 1962, building hospitals, health clinics, airfields and schools.
He raised funds for higher education for Sherpa families, and helped set up reforestation programmes in the impoverished country.
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 the lower slopes of Everest.
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 on 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, children Peter and Sarah and several grandchildren.
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.”
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 aboard modified farm tractors while part of a joint British-New Zealand expedition.
Hillary disregarded instructions from the British expedition leader and guided his tractor team up the then-untraversed Shelton Glacier, pioneering a new route to the South Pole.
In 2006 he entered a row over the death on Everest of Briton David Sharp, stating it was “horrifying” that climbers could leave a dying man 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 jet boats to many Ganges River dwellers in 1977 when his “Ocean to the Sky” expedition traveled to within 210 kilometres of its source.
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 bank note, he helped raise nearly $530,000 for the Himalayan Trust by signing 1,000 of the sparkling new five-dollar bills sold at an auction in 1982. They were snapped up by collectors round the world.
Honored by the UN as one of its Global 500 conservationists in 1987, he was also awarded numerous honorary doctorates from universities in several parts of the world.
Throughout his life Hillary remembered his first big climb - of the 2,940-metre Mount Tapuaenuku, on New Zealand’s South Island, completed over three days in 1944 while he trained 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.” (AP)
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