Sir Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Mount Everest, dies at the age of 88

When a shattered-looking Edmund Hillary, descending Everest with his partner Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, was spotted from Base Camp, it was assumed their mission had failed. The team leader, Colonel John Hunt, was so sure of disappointment he began planning another attempt at the climb that had defied the efforts of so many before them.

But then, suddenly, Hillary turned and pointed up to the mountain's peak, and the celebrations erupted. It was an achievement beyond words.

So it was fitting that the announcement of the death of the unassuming former beekeeper, at the age of 88, came from the Prime Minister of his home country, Helen Clark, who described his death as "a profound loss for New Zealand".

At 11.30am, on 29 May 1953, the New Zealander, accompanied by the Nepalese Norgay, was the first man known to have reached the highest mountain in the world, reaching some 29,035 feet (8,840m) above sea level.

He had led the way and, in doing so, had blazed a spectacular trail – followed by more than 3,000 successful climbs since – but a dangerous one: there have been 200 deaths on the virtually uninhabitable mountain.

If today's world had forgotten much of the front-page, breathtaking sensation the event caused more than 50 years ago, it was reminded of it last night, as New Zealand and the climbing fraternity fell into mourning and tributes flowed in for one of the most inspiring adventurers of the 20th century.

Born on 20 July 1919 in Tuakau, New Zealand, Edmund Percival Hillary was educated in Auckland at a grammar school where he was able to pursue an early passion for reading. But it was on a school trip to Mount Ruapehu, one of the highest mountains in New Zealand, that he came into contact with his future life.

His first climb came in 1939, on Mount Olivier in the Southern Alps of his home country, and a love affair between man and mountain was born. In the meantime, he had taken up his father's beekeeping business, while, in addition, serving as an Air Force navigator in the Second World War.

After climbing in New Zealand and Europe, his first visit to the Himalayas came in 1951. He joined in Everest reconnaissance expeditions for the next two years. His prowess brought him to the attention of Sir John, the leader of the 1953 expedition, sponsored by the Joint Himalayan Committee of the Alpine Club of Great Britain and the Royal Geographic Society.

About 15 expeditions had failed to reach the summit of Everest by the time Hillary, aged 33, was preparing for the biggest challenge of his life. Everyone knew that, in 1924, the mountaineer George Leigh-Mallory had perished on the mountain. And tantalisingly, only the previous year, in 1952, a Swiss team of climbers had been forced to turn back after reaching the south peak, 1,000ft from the summit.

But there was a sense in his camp that Hillary was the man to make a difference. "He was incredibly good at altitude, there's no doubt about that," said Graeme Dingle, a fellow mountaineer. "When he climbed Everest he was at the top of his strength. Few people would have been able to carry the kind of weight at that altitude that he could."

Nearing the summit, Hillary had to lead Tenzing up a terrifying, 40-ft vertical rock face, known now as the Hillary Step. And on his way down, Hillary showed his characteristic charisma when he came across another New Zealander in the party, George Lowe. "Well, George, we've knocked the bastard off," he said.

Hillary had done it. In Britain, the conquest was announced – by chance - on the eve of the coronation of the Queen. The combination of the two events did much to restore public confidence and distraction after the weary war years, and two months later Hillary came to Britain with the team and was knighted.

Lesser men would have considered retirement. But, despite the heroism of his life story, Sir Edmund took fame in his stride and devoted his life to helping the mountain people of Nepal, preferring to be known as "Ed" and always reluctant to admit he had been the first atop Everest long after Norgay died in 1986.

He will not just be remembered as a mountaineer, albeit the most celebrated in the sport's history. "Ed's greatest legacy is the assistance he gave to the Sherpa people," said Mr Dingle. "As a result of seeing Nepal and his love of the mountains and the people, he went back and suggested that he could help in some way." Known to the Sherpa people as Burra-sahib – meaning "big in stature, big in heart" – Sir Edmund never forgot the place that gave him, in every sense, his international prominence.

In 1960, Hillary – who served as New Zealand High Commissioner to India in Delhi from 1984 to 1989 – established The Himalayan Trust, which helped build three hospitals, 13 health clinics and more than 30 schools.

In recent years, he highlighted the environmental damage caused by increasing numbers of climbing and tourism on Everest, which lies between Tibet and Nepal.

Today, he is survived by his son Peter and daughter Sarah, from his first marriage. Peter has followed in his father's footsteps and also climbed Everest .

Tributes pour in for Sir Edmund

"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. But most of all he was a quintessential Kiwi."

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark

"The loss of Sir Edmund is a loss for all those who sought to improve our world. Through his many achievements in the Himalayas, Nepal, Antarctica, India and elsewhere, Sir Edmund was an important role model. He was a leader who showed how to set goals and achieve them."

Governor-General Anand Satyanand

Hillary was a "a great human mirror of who we are, or who we like to think we are," calling Hillary "a national treasure".

Mountaineer Graeme Dingle

"He was an utterly sensible person. He enjoyed spending time amongs New Zealanders because for him it was being back in the environment that he had worked his way up through."

Brian Wilkins, who climbed with Hillary in the Himalayas in 1954

"Sir Ed dramatically changed the lives of everyone he touched."

Double amputee climber Mark Inglis

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