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Mountaineers remember Hillary

Friends and colleagues of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb the world's highest peak, remembered him Friday as a dogged adventurer with a generous spirit.

world Updated: Jan 11, 2008 11:46 IST

Friends and colleagues of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb the world's highest peak, remembered him Friday as a dogged adventurer with a generous spirit.

Hillary, who together with Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, reached the summit of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953, winning him renown as one of the greatest adventurers of the last century.

He died Friday, at 88, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark announced in a statement that paid tribute to Hillary's courage, determination, and humble personality.

"Sir Ed described himself as an average New Zealander with modest abilities," Clark said. "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."

Across the Tasman Sea, Australia's acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard, standing in for vacationing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, said Hillary's name would forever "be synonymous with adventure, with achievement, with dreaming and then making those dreams come true."

"It was obviously a long life well lived," Gillard told Sky News television. "For generations to come people will study what Sir Edmund has achieved by being the first to get to the top of the world."

Two years after his historic Everest climb, Hillary helped lead a team from the Commonwealth across Antarctica to the South Pole, carving a new path to the Earth's magnetic southernmost point.

Flags at New Zealand's Scott Base, which Hillary helped build in 1957, flew at half-mast Friday, as workers remembered his final visit to the icy continent last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the base.

Hillary, who was 87 at the time, described his visit to Antarctica as "a marvelous return," but said he believed it would be his last.

"We're just going to sorely miss a guy who was just a pillar of New Zealand's national identity in Antarctica," said Lou Sanson, chief executive of Antarctica New Zealand. "It's a sad day for New Zealand and it was just such a privilege to be able to share that 50th anniversary with him."

In Nepal, where Hillary was granted honorary citizenship in 2003 on the golden jubilee of his conquest of Mount Everest, members of the alpine community mourned his passing.

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

New Zealand climber Graeme Dingle, who began climbing with Hillary in 1970, remembered him as one of the most determined people he had ever met, honest sometimes to a fault, and relentless in his pursuit of any goal — whether on mountains or in his personal life.

"He recently said to someone that he was quite flexible when it came to changing his plans. I think he was most inflexible — to the point of extreme doggedness," Dingle told The Associated Press. "That was the great thing about him, really, that once he built up some momentum it was very hard to stop him."

Rick Wilcox, one of New Hampshire's top mountaineers, said Hillary was an inspiration and remembers reading his books as a teenager.

Wilcox, of Eaton, N.H., who was part of the first team from the Eastern United States to reach the Everest summit in 1991 and has traveled to the Himalayas 25 times, said Hillary's presence in the area is pervasive.

"You can't go anywhere in the valleys around Everest without seeing his influence," Wilcox said. "His photo is in every tea house and there are the Hillary schools and the Hillary hospitals."

British actor and mountaineer Brian Blessed, best known for his roles in Shakespearean films and plays, described Hillary as "a man of tremendous generosity, a great giant of a man," pointing to his tireless humanitarian work in Nepal, the tiny, mountainous country that propelled him to worldwide fame.

Hillary spent decades pouring energy and resources from his own fundraising efforts into Nepal through the Himalayan Trust he founded in 1982.

Known as "burra sahib" — "big man," for his height of 6 feet, 2 inches — by the Nepalese, Hillary funded and helped build hospitals, health clinics, airfields and schools, and raised funds for higher education for Sherpa families.