Edmund Hillary, first atop Everest, dies
By RAY LILLEY, Associated Press Writer
35 minutes ago
WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to stand atop the world's highest mountain, was remembered Friday 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, who died of a heart attack at 88, 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 Friday 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.
Tributes quickly began flowing.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose nation sponsored the expedition that led to Hillary's triumph, said he "was a truly great hero who captured the imagination of the world, a towering figure who will always be remembered as a pioneer explorer and leader."
"Sir Edmund's name is synonymous with adventure, with achievement, with dreaming and then making those dreams come true," said Australia's acting Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
"He was a hero and a leader for us. He had done a lot for the people of Everest region and will always remain in our hearts," said Bhoomi Lama of the Nepal Mountaineering Association in Katmandu.
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 with 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 his 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."
By the time he was 40, he was touring in the United States and Europe for three months at a time, speaking at more than 100 venues during a tour.
Then in the mid-1908s, he was named New Zealand's ambassador to India, and became the celebrity of the New Delhi cocktail circuit.
But Hillary never forgot Nepal, and without fanfare or compensation, he spent decades pouring energy and resources from his own fundraising efforts into the country through the Himalayan Trust he founded in 1962.
Known as "burra sahib" — "big man," for his 6-foot-2-inch frame — by the Nepalese, Hillary funded and helped build hospitals, health clinics, airfields and schools.
He raised funds for higher education for Sherpa families, and helped set up reforestation programs in the impoverished country. About $250,000 a year was raised by the charity for projects in Nepal.
A strong conservationist, he demanded that international mountaineers clean up thousands of tons of discarded oxygen bottles, food containers and other climbing debris that litter an area known as South Col valley, the jump-off point for Everest attempts.
His adventurer son Peter has described his father's humanitarian work there as "his duty" to those who had helped him.
Hillary's commitment to Nepal took him back more than 120 times, last visiting in 2007.
It was on a visit to Nepal that his first wife, Louise, 43, and 16-year-old daughter Belinda died in a light plane crash March 31, 1975.
Hillary remarried in 1990, to June Mulgrew, former wife of adventurer colleague and close friend Peter Mulgrew, who died in a passenger plane crash in the Antarctic.
Unlike many climbers, Hillary said when he died he had no desire to have his remains left on a mountain. He wanted his ashes scattered on Waitemata Harbor in the northern city of Auckland where he lived his life.
"To be washed gently ashore, maybe on the many pleasant beaches near the place I was born. Then the full circle of my life will be complete," he said.
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."
Hillary stood for adventure
By JOHN HEILPRIN, Associated Press Writer Fri Jan 11, 3:10 AM ET
The first time a climber lays eyes on Everest, it's hard not to imagine what it was like when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay topped out on the world's highest peak shortly before noon on May 29, 1953.
For almost everyone who studied the pictures of his epic first ascent with Tenzing, Hillary stood for adventure. The collective sense of triumph that seized the world with their success was etched into Hillary's famous photograph of Tenzing on Everest's summit. I stared at it as a child and dreamed.
That Hillary would become a national hero — without revealing until years after Tenzing's death that it was Hillary who stepped first onto the summit — said a lot about him. For them both, it was about the adventure, and the brotherhood of the rope.
"My destiny was to climb this mountain," Tenzing's son, Jamling, told me in 2003, having followed in his father's footsteps to the summit of Everest. "I knew I was going to climb this mountain one day."
The Hillary Step, the 40-foot cliff that is the last great obstacle before the summit, was a struggle even for Hillary, a master of cutting steps in the snow. Only after he got past that did he believe the summit was within his grasp. It remains a test piece for climbers — who now ascend fixed ropes — and a recurring image in my own Everest dreams.
Years later, after I'd had my first career as an Outward Bound mountaineering and backcountry skiing instructor based in Colorado, I would visit a National Geographic exhibit and stare at the padded boots, oxygen apparatus and skimpy goggles Hillary and Tenzing wore. It drove home the true adventure of their first ascent, and how much has changed since then.
I used double plastic boots, a 40-below-zero sleeping bag, crampons with "anti-bollant" snow plates and other high-tech equipment on an American expedition attempting the seldom-climbed North Face of K2, from the Chinese side in the Karakoram range, and later in Alaska on Denali. Looking at Hillary's equipment made my gear seem like cheating.
For climbers, it's liberating to be outside, drawn out, tested, changed.
Hillary was no stranger to change, and became determined to give something back to the high places that shaped him.
Heading up the valleys of the Khumbu region toward Everest, along the wide dirt path that is the Sherpas' Interstate 95, it was obvious that villagers revered Hillary. I had gone there with three other climbers in the hopes of putting up some modest new Himalayan routes. A blizzard stopped most of our plans and we wound up carrying Nepali children on our backs to rescue them from being trapped in the snow.
In the Buddhist monasteries at Thyangboche and Thame, some of the locals we met talked about the good works of Hillary's family. I could see for myself the healthy-looking kids gathered for class and playing at the newly built schools, and the new hospitals and electricity lines that lit up the teahouses. Hillary's photo was everywhere. His foundation raised money for most of the projects, to protect forests and to rebuild Thyangboche after it burned to the ground in a fire.
For the Sherpas, and the trekkers and climbers they cater to, the change that Hillary ushered in now seems inevitable. The Everest gold rush brought to the Khumbu the frequent sight of Westerners sipping milk tea and dahl bat — steamed rice smothered in curried potatoes and lentil soup — and grabbing a bunk bed, all for less than $1.
Hillary was a model for other climbers to try to follow. It took decades for others to catch up to his class act. Where many climbers left behind trash, Hillary left a legacy of education, health care and bonds of friendship.
He always projected humility, not particularly impressed with himself, always sensing that climbers should seek new challenges, new adventures, rather than necessarily repeating something done before. In his day, he was out there. And he passed on his passion for being in the mountains.
"To me, it's a bit like falling in love," his son, Peter, told me, having become a famous climber like his father and reached the summit with Jamling. Peter Hillary also helps raise funds for the trust that runs more than 40 schools and hospitals for the villages at the foot of Everest. "There's some special chemistry. And I think some of us go to the mountains — and it is just a wondrous thing. We like the people, we like the experiences, we like the mountains, we like the uncertainty."