Unassuming conqueror of Mount Everest

Sir Edmund Hillary 1919-2008

January 11, 2008|By Dennis McLellan | Dennis McLellan,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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 Mount Everest, has died. He was 88.

Sir Edmund, who made his historic climb to the top of the world's highest mountain with the Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay of Nepal, died yesterday at a hospital in Auckland, according to an announcement from the office of New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark. The cause of death was not immediately announced.

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

Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb all of the world's mountains over 8,000 meters - 26,200 feet - without supplemental oxygen, said Sir Edmund was "definitely a hero of mine."

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

Eight British expeditions had failed to reach the top of the 29,017-foot peak and a number of expedition members had died in the process, most famously climbing partners George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Irvine, who disappeared on Everest in 1924.

But at 11:30 a.m. May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund and Mr. Norgay made it to the top of the world.

Sir Edmund's first words, to fellow climber George Lowe, when he and Mr. Norgay returned from the summit were, "Well, George, we knocked the bastard off!"

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

The tall and lean Sir Edmund never expected to become a world-renowned 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."

Everest wasn't the last of Sir Edmund's epic adventures.

He climbed other peaks in the Himalayas on return visits and, in 1958, he led a team of New Zealanders who beat 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 an 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 another 100 miles on foot to more than 18,000 feet, where Sir Edmund was stricken with a cerebral edema and had to be helicoptered out after being carried down to 15,500 feet.

Dennis McLellan writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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