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Sir Edmund Hillary Dies at 88

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The revered Sir Edmund Hillary, icon of mountaineering, world explorer, environmentalist, humanitarian, beekeeper, writer and mentor to the climbing community, has passed. Hillary died at Auckland City Hospital at 9 a.m. local time on January 11, 2008. He was 88.

Hillary is best known for being the first, with Tenzing Norgay, to stand on the earth’s highest point, but conquering 8848-meter Mt. Everest was only one of many great accomplishments in his life. Born in 1919 near Auckland, New Zealand, Hillary started climbing as a teenager. After serving in World War II as a navigator in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, he began to climb seriously in the early 1950s.

After learning alpine and ice climbing techniques from British mountaineers in the Swiss Alps, Hillary joined a New Zealand expedition to Nepal and climbed eleven peaks of more than 20,000 feet. After proving himself on those climbs, Hillary was asked to join two British Everest reconnaissance expeditions in 1951 and 1952. Based on Hillary’s reputation as a competent mountaineer, Sir John Hunt chose him to be a member of his 1953 expedition.

The expedition, sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club, included twelve climbers, thirty-five Sherpas and 350 porters who carried more than eighteen tons of equipment to base camp. The team followed the South Col route, climbing it in siege style.

After two other team members failed to summit, Hillary and the experienced Nepalese climber Tenzing Norgay established a bivouac at 27,900 feet and spent the night with raging winds in -30 degree F temperatures on a sloping six-foot-wide ledge. As the skies cleared in the morning on May 29, 1953, Hillary and Norgay roped together and started for the summit. After encountering the step that would later bear his name–a formidable 40-foot-high face of ice and rock–and finding a vertical crack that made it possible to proceed, the pair climbed up the last few easy yards until there was nowhere higher to go.

Up until this date, seven expeditions had tried and failed to reach Everest’s summit. After seeing a number of their experienced peers die in attempts to conquer the 29,035-foot peak, many climbers considered its summit unattainable. Hillary and Norgay’s first ascent proved to the mountaineering community that climbing at such rarified altitudes was possible.

“We had one problem that the modern mountaineer doesn’t have,” he said in a 1991 interview. “That is, this psychological barrier. We didn’t know if it was humanly possible to reach the top of Mt. Everest. And even using oxygen as we were, if we did get to the top, we weren’t at all sure whether we wouldn’t drop dead….”

In the twenty years after Everest, Hillary continued his father’s profession as a beekeeper, but he led expeditions to explore the Antarctic, the South and North Poles and continued to climb Himalayan peaks. In addition to his contributions to the climbing and exploration communities, Hillary formed the Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust, a foundation that raised millions of dollars devoted to increasing the quality of life in Nepal. The foundation has built twelve clinics, two hospitals, thirty schools, airfields, bridges, water pipelines and has helped preserve the Himalayan region by having laws passed declaring the area surrounding Everest a national park. Nepal granted Hillary honorary citizenship in 2003; he was the first foreigner given that distinction.

His philanthropy in Nepal was his life’s work, and when he saw the once-pristine Everest overrun by commercial expeditions, he did not hide his disdain.

“I’m not very happy about the future of Everest,” he said in a 2003 interview. “Yesterday there were 1,000 people there and some 500 tents. There was a booze place for drinks. Sitting around in a big base camp and knocking back cans of beer–I do not particularly view that as mountaineering.”

Hillary wrote or co-authored thirteen books. They include The Conquest of Everest (1953), with John Hunt about their Everest expedition; No Latitude for Error (1961), about his Antarctic expeditions; his 1975 autobiography, Nothing Venture, Nothing Win.

Hillary married Louise Mary Rose, the daughter of a mountain climber, in 1953. They had three children, Peter, Sarah and Belinda. In a devastating loss, Lady Louise and Belinda were killed in a plane crashed on takeoff in Katmandu in 1975. Hillary remarried in 1989, to June Mulgrew.

Hillary was an unpretentious adventurer whose ethics and humanitarianism serve as a model to the mountaineering community. He saw how mountaineering was changing, but he placed great value on being part of a team and not losing the camaraderie climbing creates when trying to reach a summit.

“I think that the whole attitude of mountaineers has, in many ways, been forced to change,” he said in a 1991 interview. “Most of the big mountains have been climbed, the summits have been reached. The poles have been reached. All the grand things have been largely done. So the really good explorer today gets his challenges by doing things in different ways. He will climb a mountain by a much more difficult route. So the modern explorer with his greater technical ability and better equipment is able to do harder challenges and, as a consequence, he gets the same satisfaction out of that as we did forty years ago with less effective equipment doing more modest achievements.

“Nothing is better fun that sitting down with a group of your peers and just talking about your experiences. Maybe boasting a little bit here and there too, but sharing experiences that you all know have been frightening and dangerous and have been successful.”

Sir Edmund Hillary was an inspiration to climbers the world over. He showed us what was possible in a time when much about mountaineering was unknown, but he will be remembered as much for his humility and his devotion to the mountains and their people. His legacy will live on for generations.

Sources: The Academy of Achievement website, The New York Times