First Mount Everest conqueror dies

WELLINGTON, New Zealand &

Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to stand atop the world's highest mountain, was remembered today as a deeply driven but unassuming man who strived to help the people of Nepal in the decades after his ascent of Mount Everest.

Hillary, died today of a heart attack at 88. He will have a state funeral in New Zealand, where he began the mountaineering career that took him and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay to the tallest point on earth, a spokesman for his family said.

He is survived by his children Peter and Sarah and wife June, who said today that her family was comforted by the messages of support from around the world.

She said Hillary had been hospitalized on Monday and died peacefully.

"He remained in good spirits until the end," she said.

Hillary's life was marked by grand achievements, high adventure, discovery, excitement &

but he was especially 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 29,035-foot summit of Everest on May 29, 1953.

Yet he was humble to the point that he only acknowledged being the first man atop Everest long after the death of Tenzing.

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.

"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."

Then, upon arriving back at base camp, he took an irreverent view: "We knocked the bastard off."

But New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, announcing his death, took a grander view of his achievements.

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

Spokesman Mark Sainsbury said Hillary's family had accepted the offer of a state funeral, on a date not yet set.

For all his description of his ascent, Hillary consistently refused to say whether it was he or Tenzing who was the first man to step atop Everest, saying the two had climbed as a team to the top. It was a measure of his personal modesty, and of his commitment to his colleagues.

Not until after Tenzing's death in 1986 did Hillary finally break his long public silence about who was first.

"We drew closer together as Tenzing brought in the slack on the rope. I continued cutting a line of steps upwards. Next moment I had moved onto a flattish exposed area of snow with nothing but space in every direction," Hillary wrote, in his 1999 book "View from the Summit."

"Tenzing quickly joined me and we looked round in wonder. To our immense satisfaction we realized we had reached the top of the world."

He later recalled his surprise at the huge international interest in their feat. "I was a bit taken aback to tell you the truth. I was absolutely astonished that everyone should be so interested in us just climbing a mountain."

More than 200 people have died trying to conquer Everest.

Despite his achievement, Hillary didn't place himself among top mountaineers. "I don't regard myself as a cracking good climber. I'm just strong in the back. I have a lot of enthusiasm and I'm good on ice," he said.

The first mountain Hillary climbed was 9,645-foot Mount Tapuaenuku &

"Tappy" as he called it &

in Marlborough on New Zealand's South Island. He scaled it solo over three days in 1944, while in training camp with the Royal New Zealand Air Force during World War II. "Tapuaenuku" in Maori means "footsteps of the Rainbow God."

"I'd climbed a decent mountain at last," he said later.

From there, he sought adventure in places as distant as the Arctic and Antarctica.

In the 1957-58 Antarctic summer season, he made what became known as his "dash to the Pole" aboard modified farm tractors while part of a joint British-New Zealand expedition.

Hillary got into hot water over the move as he disregarded instructions from the Briton leading the expedition and guided his tractor team up the then-untraversed Shelton Glacier, pioneering a new route to the polar plateau and the South Pole.

In 1977, his "Ocean to the Sky" expedition traveled India's Ganges river by jetboat to within 130 miles of its source.

Hillary was known as ready to take risks to achieve his goals, but always had control so that nobody ever died on a Hillary-led expedition.

In 2006 he entered a dispute over the death of Everest climber David Sharp, stating it was "horrifying" that climbers could leave a dying man after an expedition left the Briton to die high on the upper slopes.

Hillary said he would have abandoned his own pioneering 1953 climb to save another life.

"It was wrong if there was a man suffering altitude problems and was huddled under a rock, just to lift your hat, say 'good morning' and pass on by," he said. "Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain."

Like many good mountaineers before him, Hillary had no special insight into that quintessential question: Why climb?

"I can't give you any fresh answers to why a man climbs mountains. The majority still go just to climb them."

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