Sir Edmund Hillary, Everest conqueror, dies
New Zealand has lost its great icon, Sir Edmund Hillary.
He died this morning at the age of 88.
Once an unknown beekeeper from Tuakau, Sir Edmund soared to instant fame on the day of Queen Elizabeth's coronation when it was announced to the world that the New Zealander was the first to stand on the world's highest peak, Mt Everest.
The festive crowd gathered at Parliament in Wellington to mark the coronation on June 2, 1953, cheered ecstatically and waved flags as acting prime minister Keith Holyoake told them that Hillary had succeeded in conquering Everest and had "put the British race and New Zealand on top of the world".
"What a magnificent coronation present for the Queen! How proud we all are that it is from our loyal little New Zealand!"
The ostentatious words of the politician contrasted with the succinct way Edmund Percival Hillary described his achievement.
As he and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay descended from the May 29 attempt on the mountain, Hillary told fellow climbers: "We knocked the bastard off."
Hillary, who came to characterise the typical "rugged Kiwi individual", was born in Auckland on July 20, 1919.
Educated at Auckland Grammar School, where he admitted he was "no great shakes", Hillary eventually became a beekeeper, like his father.
During World War 2 he trained as a navigator in the Royal New Zealand Air Force and flew anti-submarine patrols in the Pacific on Catalina flying boats. During his training he began climbing with his long time friend, George Lowe from Hawke's Bay, honing his skills on the Kaikoura Ranges.
After the war he returned to beekeeping and began to climb extensively, including three Himalayan expeditions.
His chance to make his mark in history came when selected for the 1953 British expedition to climb Mt Everest, led by former commando Colonel John Hunt, later Lord Hunt.
On the mountain, the first assault team that tried to reach the 8848m summit was driven back by altitude sickness. Hillary, who was renowned for his fitness and speed, was chosen along with Sherpa Tenzing to try next.
The words which were to become as immortal as his historic climb, came almost without thinking, he said in his later book View from the Summit.
"We came down the mountain and George (Lowe) came to meet us across the South Col and he had a thermos flask of tomato soup.
"George is an old climbing companion I had known for many years and when I made my comment I was not thinking of the world in general.
"George said `Well how did it go?' and I said, `Well George, we knocked the bastard off'."
The comment reverberated around the world, cementing the legend of Edmund Hillary as the ordinary Kiwi bloke who had done the extraordinary.
For a long time he refused to say who reached the summit first, but View From The Summit eventually made it clear.
"I continued cutting a line of steps upwards," he wrote.
"Next moment I had moved on to a flattish exposed area of snow with nothing but space in every direction. Tenzing quickly joined me and we looked round in wonder. To our immense satisfaction we realised we had reached the top of the world."
The conquest of Everest brought Hillary, then 35, lasting fame which was swiftly recognised when he was knighted on June 6, 1953.
Sir Edmund was typically modest about the award.
"I could see myself walking down Broadway, Papakura, in my tattered overalls and the seat out of my pants, and I thought `That's gone forever. I'll have to buy a new pair of overalls now'."
In September of that year he married Louise Mary Rose, the daughter of the president of the New Zealand Alpine Club. They later had three children, Peter, Belinda and Sarah.
But his pace of life did not slow. He embarked on another great adventure in 1957, establishing Scott Base in Antarctica and leading the first vehicles overland to the South Pole.
The controversial crossing made headlines around the world as the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic expedition was led by Sir Vivien Fuchs and Sir Edmund's job had just been to lay the supply trail.
However, after the trail was laid, Sir Edmund decided to push on to the Pole with a party of three small tractors and reached it first on January 3, 1958.
Sir Edmund continued climbing but was often plagued by altitude sickness. In 1961 on an American-sponsored expedition to research Yeti sightings in the Himalayas, Sir Edmund suffered a mild cerebral stroke while climbing without oxygen, but recovered to walk out.
His ties with the Himalayas were still strong, and in the early 1960s he and his family began a long-term project building schools and hospitals for the Sherpas. Later he was to initiate the Himalayan Trust to continue similar works.
He said in an interview once that helping the people of the Himalayas was the most worthwhile thing he had ever done.
In early 1975 his autobiography, Nothing Venture, Nothing Win was published, but soon after, tragedy struck. In April that year an aircrash at Kathmandu airport killed his wife and youngest daughter, Belinda, 16.
Sir Edmund was hit badly by the deaths, but by 1977 he was off adventuring again, this time with the Ocean to Sky expedition, travelling in jet boats up the Ganges River to its source in the Himalayas.
Another book was published in September 1984, Two Generations, this time co-written with his son Peter who obviously inherited the explorer gene, going on to climb Everest also and attempting a self-supported Antarctic trek to the South Pole and back to Scott Base.
In October 1984 Sir Edmund was named New Zealand High Commissioner to India. The decision was greeted warmly by the Indian government as his work with the Sherpas had endeared him to the country. He held the post until July 1989.
The respect in which he was held in India was clear when former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi attended a special This Is Your Life television programme for the famous mountaineer in New Zealand in 1986.
In December 1989 Sir Edmund married June Mulgrew, widow of his old friend Peter Mulgrew, the in-flight commentator on the Air New Zealand DC-10 which crashed into Mt Erebus in 1979 killing all on board.
His serious climbing days finally ended at the age of 72, after another serious bout of altitude sickness. However, he remained keenly interested in the fate of Everest, continuing criticism of commercialisation of the surrounding area.
Meanwhile the honours continued, among them one of the inaugural awards of the Order of New Zealand, New Zealand's highest award given in recognition of outstanding civil or military service.
In 1992, Sir Edmund became the first living New Zealander to feature on a banknote, when his well-known craggy face graced the new $5 bill. He remained one of the most popular New Zealand celebrities and a poll in March 1994 voted him the most popular choice for Governor-General.
In June 1995 he was installed as a Knight Companion of the Order of the Garter, the most senior order of chivalry, at a lavish ceremony at Windsor Castle. He was only the third New Zealander to be given the honour, limited to 24 living members.
In July 1999 he knocked off his 80th birthday in style at a formal Government House bash put on in his honour in Wellington. Before 164 guests, Sir Edmund listened quietly as the compliments, including a message of congratulations from Buckingham Palace, were heaped upon him.
Former prime minister David Lange said he had done much more than "just climb a mountain".
"It was a rather ridiculous thing to do: it was extremely high, very cold and he might have died... but it made a huge impact on us, more even than Armstrong landing on the moon."
Sir Edmund's craggy earnestness and sincerity had become a symbol of New Zealand, Mr Lange said.
He stood for steadfastness, bravery, determination, fortitude, intelligence, caring and the ability to love and be loved.
When he finally got a chance to talk, Sir Edmund agreed that "in some ways I epitomise the average New Zealander".
"I have moderate abilities but a good deal of determination... I rather like to succeed," he said.
In an interview before visiting Kathmandu for the golden jubilee celebrations of his ascent of Everest, Sir Edmund joked about the terms used to describe him as he called out to Lady Hillary, "June, what am I?"
"An icon," she responded.
Sir Edmund said he would rather people thought of him as an "ordinary bloke".
There was no chance of that in Nepal where he was thickly garlanded with Buddhist prayer scarfs and mobbed during his visit for the jubilee. He also became the first foreigner to be conferred with honorary citizenship.
In January 2007, Sir Edmund went to another 50th celebration of another of his achievements -- the establishment of Scott Base in Antarctica.
Stepping on to the ice, he said he felt at home there but also noted it would probably be his last trip to Antarctica.
He told reporters that his Antarctica journey overland to the South Pole was one of his great achievements.
"For me, undoubtedly it was. After all, we were using an unknown route to get to the Polar Plateau and that was quite (hard)...," he said.
He had been driving the lead tractor and was also the navigator, at times wondering "whether I was heading in the right direction".
Then he saw a tent the team had left there the previous spring.
"I thought, `well Ed, me boy, we've done it'."
Sir Edmund made his last visit to the Himalayas in April 2007 when he and Elizabeth Hawley -- the unofficial chronicler of expeditions in the Himalayas for 40 years -- met the 2007 SuperSherpas Expedition in Kathmandu.
Unlike many climbers, Sir Edmund had said he had no desire to have his remains left on a mountain when he died. He wanted his ashes scattered on Auckland's Waitemata Harbour.
"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."