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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 May, 2003, 18:56 GMT 19:56 UK
Profile: Sir Edmund Hillary
Sir Edmund Hillary
Sir Edmund has devoted his life to charity work
Sir Edmund Hillary is remembered for being the first man to climb Everest.

But the lanky New Zealand beekeeper who ascended the world's highest mountain on 29 May, 1953 could quite easily have vanished into obscurity.

Ferrying loads on John Hunt's 1953 expedition with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay who was to accompany him on the famous ascent, Sir Edmund made an good impression.

But Englishmen Charles Evans and Tom Bordillon got the first shot at the summit.

However, they were thwarted at 28,700 feet by diminishing oxygen, fatigue and a vertical rock step that they considered perhaps impossible to climb.

Tenzing and Sir Edmund launched the second assault after a fitful night's rest.

The New Zealander led the way up the 40-foot spur that became known as the Hillary Step.

Tenzing followed close behind with much of the 30-foot rope coiled in his hands. Together they walked up the final ridge to the snowy dome of the summit.

Summit controversy

Later the world demanded to know which man had stood on the summit first.

Both dismissed the question as foolish, and to defuse controversy they signed a statement: "We reached the summit almost together".

Tenzing revealed years later in his book that Sir Edmund had been a few steps ahead.

"So there it is," he wrote, "the answer to the great mystery."

Born 19 July, 1919, in Auckland, New Zealand, Sir Edmund served as a pilot during World War II and earned renown as an ice climber.

In the 1980s he served as New Zealand's ambassador to India.

Before this school was built, people were illiterate and didn't understand about education
Mahindra Sherpa

But in the region around the mountain he was best known for building schools, hospitals and bridges in the region, through his Himalayan Trust.

Since his ascent in 1953 he has devoted his life to helping the Sherpas of the Khumbu region.

The teachers and pupils at Khumbu high school are devoted to the climber.

In the yard outside the headmaster's office they are erecting a statue of him to mark the anniversary of his ascent of Everest.

The school that has transformed the life of this region, since it was built in 1961, stands in a breathtaking valley, towered over by Himalayan peaks.

"Before this school was built, people were illiterate and didn't understand about education," said headmaster Mahindra Sherpa.

Sir Edmund's trust has founded around 30 schools. The climber says he considers the trust's work to be his greatest achievement.

'Sir Ed'

"I believe that of all the things I have done, exciting though many of them have been, there's no doubt in my mind that the most worthwhile have been the establishing of schools and hospitals, and the rebuilding of monasteries in the mountains."

His humble, direct and unaffected manner is what has endeared "Sir Ed" has he is known to New Zealanders, says the New Zealand Herald.

New Zealand historian and author Michael King says: "Every country, if they're lucky, has someone quintessential to that country and how it sees itself. Ed is ours".

However, he has his critics who say he is pushy and over-competitive, insensitive and bloody-minded as well as being at times a distant father.

I have never regarded myself as a hero, but Tenzing undoubtedly was
Sir Edmund Hillary

Sir Edmund has participated in many other climbs and expeditions, including a motorized, overland journey to the South Pole.

Bradford Washburn, of Lexington, Massachusetts who mapped Everest, has said the world is lucky a man like Sir Edmund made the first ascent.

"He could have made a fortune from being the first person atop Everest," Mr Washburn said.

"Instead he has focused a large part of his life to benefit the Sherpas of Nepal and their families."

In April 1997, when a statue of Tenzing was unveiled in Darjeeling, Sir Edmund made a speech reflecting on the humble beginnings his friend overcame.

"I have never regarded myself as a hero," he said, "but Tenzing undoubtedly was."



1953 file photo of Edmund Hillary Hillary lament
The mountain's first conqueror criticises those who buy their way to the summit

Everest collection
A history in pictures






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