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Sir Edmund Hillary dies at 88

RIP conqueror of Everest

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Sir Edmund Hillary, the NZ climber who in 1953 conquered Mount Everest and subsequently did much to improve the lot of Nepal's Sherpa people has died aged 88.

Hillary passed away on Friday morning at Auckland City Hospital as a result of pneumonia, local media reported. NZ prime minister Helen Clark said: "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. He was a colossus. He was an heroic figure who not only knocked off Everest but lived a life of determination, humility, and generosity."

Hillary was born in in Auckland on 20 July 1919, and led an uneventful life as a beekeeper until his historic assault on the world's highest peak. Selected by British expedition leader John Hunt for the final push because of his "experience in the Himalayas and immense energy and strength", as Reuters puts it, he and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay left the mountain's South Col on the cloudless morning of 29 May, 1953.

At 11.30am, having tackled what became the famous "Hillary Step" - a challenging 40-ft rock which the climber defeated by "jamming" his way up a narrow fissure before hauling Tenzing up behind him - the pair set foot on the summit. Following the triumph, neither man would say who'd actually planted the first climbing boot atop Everest, but it was later suggested that the honour was Hillary's.*

Hillary told companions after the climb: "We knocked the bastard off."

The news broke in London on June 2, the eve of Queen Elizabeth's coronation. Hillary was immediately knighted, while Tenzing received the George Medal. The latter later became director of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, and died in 1986.

Hillary, meanwhile, devoted some of his considerable energy to further adventures, including a 1958 jaunt to the South Pole in modified tractors - the first successful vehicle-borne trip to the bottom of the world - and a 1975 jetboat expedition to the source of the Ganges.

Much of his time, however, was dedicated to bettering the lot of the Sherpa people. His Himalaya Trust raised about US$250k annually which was invested in schools, hospitals, bridges, pipelines and even an airfield, many of which Hillary helped personally to build.

Oz adventurer and philanthropist Dick Smith said of Hillary's life: "To me he was the greatest adventurer of the 20th century. Where Ed is different is that his whole life was completely devoted to the people of the Himalayas. He was the bloke who inspired us all."

Of Hillary's most famous exploit, Oz's leading high altitude climber and two-time Everest summit veteran Andrew Lock said: "It was ground-breaking stuff, trying to find out if the human body could even survive those altitudes in those days. He was just the sort of climber that all other climbers looked up to as the absolute pinnacle of appropriate and ethical climbing." ®

Bootnote

*Or maybe not. As some of you have pointed out, Hillary himself later said after Tenzing's death that his companion had been the first. Whatever the truth, we reckon the pair should share the honours.

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