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Sir Edmund Hillary, 1919 - 2008

First man to scale Mt. Everest

His exploit brought him worldwide fame and a lifelong fealty to Nepal.

January 11, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Sir Edmund Hillary, the mountain-climbing New Zealand beekeeper who became a mid-20th century hero as the first person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, has died. He was 88.

Hillary, who made his historic climb to the top of the world's highest peak with Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay of Nepal, died today at a hospital in Auckland City, New Zealand, according to Prime Minister Helen Clark. A statement from the Auckland District Health Board said he died of a heart attack.

"Sir Ed described himself as an average New Zealander with modest abilities. In reality, he was a colossus," Clark said.

Ed Viesturs, who has climbed Everest six times and was the first American to climb all of the world's mountains over 8,000 meters -- or 26,200 feet -- without supplemental oxygen, said Hillary was "definitely a hero of mine."

"He's iconic," Viesturs told The Times. "I mean, he went to a place where no other man had gone before."

Eight previous British expeditions had failed to reach the top of the 29,035-foot mountain, and a number of expedition members had died in the process, most famously climbing partners George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who went missing on Everest in 1924.

But at 11:30 a.m. on May 29, 1953, Hillary and Tenzing made it to the top of the world.

Hillary's first words, to fellow climber George Lowe, when he and Tenzing returned from the summit were, "Well, George, we knocked the bastard off!"

Word of the Everest expedition's success reached England the night before the coronation of Elizabeth II, resulting in a memorable newspaper headline the next morning: "All this and Everest too!"

Hillary and John Hunt, the British army colonel who led the Everest expedition, were knighted by Queen Elizabeth. Tenzing received the George Medal, the second-highest award for gallantry that can be given to a civilian.

Hailed as one of the 20th century's great adventurers, the 33-year-old Hillary became one of the most famous men alive, his long, rugged face appearing on magazine covers and postage stamps.

The tall and lean Hillary never expected to become a celebrity.

"I was a bit naive, really," he told the Detroit Free Press in 2000. "I was just a country boy. I thought the mountaineering world would be interested, but I never dreamed that it would have that effect on people who didn't climb."

And, he maintained, he never regarded himself as a hero.

"I was a mountaineer who worked to reach the summits of mountains," he told USA Today in 1998. "Even in my 79th year, I don't believe a word of the rubbish printed over the years."

Conquering Everest wasn't the last of Hillary's epic adventures.

He later climbed other peaks in the Himalayas, and in 1958 led a team of New Zealanders past a British team in a race to the South Pole in large snow tractors across 1,200 miles of glaciers and heavily crevassed snow fields.

In 1960, he was back in the Himalayas, attempting to track down the legendary Yeti -- the Abominable Snowman -- with animal expert Marlin Perkins, and to conduct high-altitude physiology experiments.

In 1977, he led a jet-boat expedition up the Ganges River from the Bay of Bengal to as close to the river's source in the Himalayas as they could go -- a 1,500-mile journey.

That was followed by 100 miles on foot to more than 18,000 feet, where Hillary was stricken with a cerebral edema and had to be rescued by helicopter after being carried to 15,500 feet.

In 1985, he became New Zealand high commissioner -- or ambassador -- to India and was based in New Delhi for several years.

But along with the triumphs came tragedy.

In 1975, Hillary's wife, Louise, and their 16-year-old daughter, Belinda, were killed when the single-engine plane they were flying in crashed on takeoff at the airport in Katmandu, Nepal.

In 1989, he married June Mulgrew, a longtime family friend and widow of fellow mountaineer Peter Mulgrew, who had taken Hillary's place as a commentator on a 1979 Antarctic sightseeing flight and died when the plane crashed.

Over the years, Hillary served as a camping equipment advisor for Sears, lectured widely and wrote a number of books, including "High Adventure," "The Crossing of Antarctica," "No Latitude for Error," "From the Ocean to the Sky," "Nothing Venture, Nothing Win" and "View From the Summit."

Hillary spent much of his time raising funds for his Himalayan Trust. He founded the nonprofit organization in 1961 as a way to give back to the Sherpas, one of the many ethnic groups native to Nepal, who served as guides for Western expeditions in the Himalayas.

By 2006, the trust had built 27 schools, two hospitals and 13 village health clinics, in addition to rebuilding bridges, constructing drinking-water systems and providing scholarships, among other projects.

"Nothing in life can be more satisfying than being the first," Hillary said in 2000, "but what I'm proudest of is my work in the Himalayas."

The middle of three children, Hillary was born July 20, 1919, in Auckland.

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