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Everest conqueror Edmund Hillary dies

world Updated: Jan 11, 2008 12:14 IST
David Brooks
David Brooks
Reuters
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New Zealand's Sir Edmund Hillary, who along with Nepal's Tenzing Norgay Sherpa became the first to conquer Mount Everest, died in hospital on Friday. He was 88.

New Zealand flags flew at half mast at Scott Base in Antarctica on Friday, mourning the loss of one of the greatest adventurers of the 20th century.

"The legendary mountaineer, adventurer, and philanthropist is the best-known New Zealander ever to have lived. But most of all he was a quintessential Kiwi," New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said on Friday in announcing Hillary's death.

Hillary scaled the world's highest mountain in 1953, telling companions after the climb: "We knocked the bastard off".

The cause of Hillary's death was not announced, but he had been ill for some time and local media reported he had been suffering pneumonia. Radio New Zealand said he died at Auckland City Hospital on Friday morning.

"He was a colossus. He was an heroic figure who not only knocked off Everest but lived a life of determination, humility, and generosity," said Clark.

Born in Auckland on July 20, 1919, Hillary led an uneventful life until he achieved his Everest triumph at the age of 33.

Then a beekeeper from near Auckland, the strapping six foot (1.83 metre) Hillary was chosen by British expedition leader John Hunt to make the final assault on Everest because of his experience in the Himalayas and immense energy and strength.

Sherpa Tenzing was chosen as his climbing partner.

Hillary and Tenzing set off on a cloudless morning after spending a night at high altitude on the south peak of the infamous South Col.

INCHING AHEAD

Encumbered by clothing and oxygen equipment modern climbers would deem museum pieces, they inched ahead until they reached the most formidable problem on the final ridge, a 40 foot (13 metre) rock now known as the Hillary Step.

Hillary "jammed" his way up a narrow crack running vertically up the rock using all his strength and determination and then hauled Tenzing up and they moved on with little to impede them.

At 11.30 a.m. they became the first to step onto the summit of the highest mountain on earth. For years neither would say who stepped foot on the summit first, but after Tenzing's death in 1986, Hillary said it was him.

"Next moment I had moved on to a flattish exposed area of snow with nothing but space in every direction. Tenzing quickly joined me and we looked round in wonder," he wrote in his autobiography.

By late afternoon they were back at the South Col camp and on June 2 word of the conquest was broken by the London Times.

The news won huge media coverage, with the "British" triumph coinciding with the coronation day of Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Hillary was knighted even before he descended from Everest.

"It was ground-breaking stuff, trying to find out if the human body could even survive those altitudes in those days," said two-time Everest summit veteran Andrew Lock, Australia's top high altitude mountaineer.

After Everest, Hillary led a number of expeditions. In 1958, he and four companions travelled overland in three modified tractors to become the first to reach the South Pole by vehicle.

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


HALF-MAST

The New Zealand flag flew at half-mast at Scott Base in Antarctica on Friday and there is a "very subdued" atmosphere on the base that Hillary started 51 years ago, said Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Lou Sanson.

Sanson said Prime Minister Clark invited Hillary to return to the ice this summer to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his arrival at the South Pole.

"He said he just couldn't do it. He just didn't feel he had the energy to do it," Sanson said.

In the 1960s Hillary returned to the Himalayas in search of the elusive Yeti and in 1975 he led a jetboat expedition to the source of the Ganges.

But most of his energy was devoted to helping Nepal's Sherpa people who live in the shadow of Everest. His Himalaya Trust raised about US$250,000 a year and he personally helped build schools, hospitals, bridges, pipelines and even an airfield.

"He was a great humanitarian," said Australian Tim Macartney-Snape, who has twice summited Everest.

"The Solu Khumbu district in Nepal will be in mourning for a long time because many of the people who are there now, the younger people, went to Hillary's schools or their lives would have been saved by those clinics," he said.