/ 11 January 2008

Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Everest, dies at 88

Edmund Hillary, the beekeeper from Auckland who conquered Mount Everest and went on to become one of the greatest adventurers of the 20th century, has died at the age of 88. Hillary, who reached the peak of Everest in 1953, days before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, only admitted being the first man to reach the top of the world’s highest mountain after the death of his climbing companion, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, in 1986.

It was May 29 1953 when he and Norgay scaled the peak. He later told his fellow explorer at base camp, ”Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”

A quiet man whose laid-back demeanor seemed at odds with his risky explorations, Hillary led numerous other explorations over the next two decades, including journeys to the South Pole, six Himalayan ascents, a search for the fabled Yeti and the source of the Yangtze river. He led the New Zealand section of the Trans-Antarctic expedition from 1955 to 1958 and in 1958 participated in the first mechanised expedition to the South Pole.

The New Zealand government gave no cause of Hillary’s death on January 10, although it had been reported that he was ill, apparently suffering from pneumonia. It is understood he had not been well since last April after he suffered a fall while on a climb in Nepal.

Helen Clark, the New Zealand Prime Minister, said: ”Sir Ed described himself as an average New Zealander with modest abilities. 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.”

Hillary spent much of his life supporting humanitarian work among the Sherpas and the people of Nepalese mountain villages through his Himalayan Trust, which helped build hospitals, clinics, bridges, airstrips and nearly 30 schools. He was made an honorary Nepalese citizen in 2003.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2003, he said his charity work and not the Everest ascent gave him the most pride. ”I find it all rather sad,” Hillary said. ”I like to think of Everest as a great mountaineering challenge, and when you’ve got people just streaming up the mountain — well, many of them are just climbing it to get their name in the paper really … It’s all bullshit on Everest these days.”

Greg Gregory (90) an Australian photographer who accompanied Hillary on the Everest expedition, said: ”He really was a pretty top character, he was a member of the team like everybody else and nobody knew until quite late on, when John Hunt, who was the leader of the summit expedition, decided who was going up there, that he would be the first.”

Pen Hadow, the renowned British polar explorer, said Hillary’s death ”closes one of the great chapters of planetary exploration”.

Born Edmund Percival Hillary in Auckland on July 20, 1919, he attended Auckland Grammar School, where he was younger and smaller than most of his class and not socially adept.

Years later he was to say: ”I was a shy boy with a deep sense of inferiority that I still have.”

His taste for mountaineering began when, at 16, he went on a school trip to Mount Ruapehu. It was there that he saw snow for the first time.

By the time of the second world war, Hillary had become seriously involved in climbing. He served in the New Zealand air force for two years as a navigator, but was discharged after an accident in which he was seriously burned.

”Some day I’m going to climb Everest,” he told a friend just before the war. After the war, he spent as much time preparing for Everest as he could, practising rock climbing and ice pick work. In 1951, he made his first trip to the Himalayas.

Hillary joined the British expedition to climb Everest in 1953, led by British mountaineer John Hunt. After an earlier pair had to retire with exhaustion and the effects of high altitude 91m short of the summit, Hillary and Tenzing, recognised as the strongest and fittest in the team, were then chosen to make the final perilous and triumphant assault.

Writing of their final push to the summit Hillary wrote: ”Another few weary steps and there was nothing above us but the sky. There was no final pinnacle. We looked round in wonder. To our immense satisfaction we realised we had reached the top of the world.” – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008