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Last Updated: Friday, 11 January 2008, 12:05 GMT
Obituary: Sir Edmund Hillary

Sir Edmund Hillary who, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, climbed Mount Everest in 1953
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered Everest together

Sir Edmund Hillary, who has died at the age of 88, made it to the summit of Everest in 1953, and became the first man on the planet to reach its highest point.

As a boy in New Zealand, Edmund Hillary's fragile appearance belied his ground-breaking potential.

At school, he was in a gym group for those lacking co-ordination and admitted to feeling a "deep sense of inferiority".

But the 40-mile journey to school in Auckland each day gave young Edmund many hours to pore over adventure stories and travel ever further in his mind.

Unrecorded achievement

Although Sir Edmund briefly worked as a beekeeper after he left school, he had found his true vocation at the age of 16 while on a school trip to Mount Ruapehu, 320km (200 miles) south of Auckland.

He had seen snow for the first time as well as learning to climb.

After spending two years as a navigator in the New Zealand's air force, he joined a local Alpine Club to take on all the national peaks.

Unsatisfied by these local triumphs, he also travelled to the Himalayas and started wrestling to improve his strength.

This was all with the idea of taking on the ultimate challenge, becoming the first man to climb Everest.

Edmund Hillary on the icewall of Everest
Part of the Everest ascent involved climbing a 40ft ice-wall
By the time Sir Edmund attempted his ascent, seven previous expeditions to the top of the world's highest mountain had failed.

Sir Edmund recalled: "We didn't know if it was humanly possible to reach the top."

Despite this general trepidation, the determined New Zealander joined a trip led by British climber, Sir John Hunt.

After a gruelling climb up the southern face, battling the effects of high altitude and bad weather, Sir Edmund and Tenzing Norgay managed to reach the peak at 1130 local time on 29 May.

'All this - and Everest too!'

When they finally reached the top Sir Edmund, who lost four stone on the expedition, reported his first sensation as one of relief.

He took the famous photo of his Sherpa companion posing with his ice-axe, but refused Tenzing's offer to take one of him, so his ascent went unrecorded.

Well, George, we've knocked the bastard off
How the laconic Sir Edmund reported his ascent of Everest to a team mate

On the morning of Queen Elizabeth's coronation in May 1953, her subjects were told that Sir Edmund had made it to the summit.

As he was a New Zealander and therefore a citizen of the Commonwealth, British subjects celebrated his achievement as their own.

On the day the Queen was crowned, one newspaper headline crowed "All this - and Everest too!"

Sir Edmund was knighted for his efforts, and Tenzing given a medal.

The pair initially reported the ascent as one made in unison. Only after the Sherpa's death in 1986, did Sir Edmund reveal that he had been about 10 feet ahead at the final ridge.

Personal tragedy

Sir Edmund was apparently so shy that he even proposed to his wife with a message via her mother.

In the years that followed his famous ascent, he shunned the celebrity that had become his overnight.

Queen Elizabeth II and Sir Edmund Hillary
Sir Edmund declined the Queen's invitation on the 50th anniversary
On the 50th anniversary of his achievement, he even turned down an invitation from the Queen, so that he could instead travel to Kathmandu to be with lifelong Sherpa friends.

He was made an honorary Nepalese citizen in 2003.

Sir Edmund was far happier exploring.

During the next two decades, he led expeditions to the South Pole, searched for the fabled Yeti, and completed six Himalayan ascents.

And he became increasingly concerned by the plight of the Sherpa people he had met on his expeditions.

A man of true virtue and courage whose life and work should serve as an inspiration
Ian, Leicester

He spent two years as New Zealand's High Commissioner to India, and founded the Himalayan Trust in 1964, which helped establish clinics, hospitals and nearly 30 schools.

It also supported the construction of two airstrips, bringing in more tourists than Sir Edmund liked.

He continued this work after personal tragedy in 1975, when his wife and daughter died in a plane crash on their way to meet him at a construction site.

Although the explorer was inconsolable for a long time, he found solace in the Nepal landscape and its people.

'Life's a bit like mountaineering...'

He was a vociferous opponent of what he considered the commercialisation of the mountain, rich tourists paying their way to the ultimate altitude thrill, and often leaving rubbish behind them.

Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary on Everest
Sir Edmund enjoyed the friendship of Norgay and the Sherpa people
Seemingly forgetting his own determination to conquer the high ridges, Sir Edmund urged these later climbers to "leave the mountains in peace".

Although he will always be remembered for reaching the world's highest plateau, for the explorer himself, his greatest satisfaction came with the Nepalese people he befriended.

He said: "My most worthwhile things have been the building of schools and clinics. That has given me more satisfaction than a footprint on a mountain."

Sir Edmund Hillary remained philosophical about living with such an early achievement. He explained: "I've had a full and rewarding life. Life's a bit like mountaineering - never look down."

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