Everest Pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary Dies

Sir Edmund Hillary addresses a press conference in Katmandu, Nepal, Wednesday, May 28, 2003. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of his conquest of Mount Everest, Hillary said Wednesday he is unhappy about the huge numbers of people partying at base camp and climbing to the summit on fixed ropes and ladders CBS

Sir Edmund Hillary, the unassuming beekeeper who conquered Mount Everest to win renown as one of the 20th century's greatest adventurers, has died, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark announced Friday. 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 beekeeper.

"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," Clark said in a statement.

"The legendary mountaineer, adventurer, and philanthropist is the best-known New Zealander ever to have lived," she said.

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 climbing companion Tenzing Norgay.

He had pride in his feats. Returning to base camp as the man who took the first step onto the top of the world's highest peak, he declared: "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 act.

But he was more proud of his decades-long campaign to set up schools and health clinics in Nepal, the homeland of Tenzing Norgay, 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.

"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.

He said: "I removed my oxygen mask to take some pictures. It wasn't enough just to get to the top. We had to get back with the evidence. Fifteen minutes later we began the descent."

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 climbing companion Norgay.

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."

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.

The planting was part of his program to reforest upland areas of Nepal.

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

He reached the summit of Everest four days before Elizabeth was crowned Queen of Britain and the Empire on June 2, 1953. She immediately knighted the angular, self-deprecating Hillary, who was just 33.

Throughout his 88 years, he was always the atypical "typical New Zealander" who spoke his mind.
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