January 11, 2008

Climber Reached Top of the World

Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Tenzing Norgay, his Sherpa guide, won worldwide acclaim in 1953 by becoming the first to scale Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak, died today in Auckland, New Zealand. He was 88.

In the annals of great heroic exploits, the conquest of Mount Everest by Hillary, a lanky New Zealand mountaineer and explorer, and Norgay ranks with the first trek to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen in 1911 and the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight by Charles Lindbergh in 1927.

By 1953, nearly a century after British surveyors had established that the Himalayan peak on the Nepal-Tibet border was the highest point on Earth, many climbers considered the mountain all but unconquerable. At 29,035 feet, the summit was 5 1/2 vertical miles above sea level (up where today's jets fly): an otherworldly place of yawning crevasses and 100-mph winds, of perpetual cold and air so thin that the human brain and lungs do not function properly in it.

Numerous Everest expeditions had failed, and dozens of experienced mountaineers, including many Sherpas, the Nepalese people famed as climbers, had been killed - buried in avalanches or lost and frozen in sudden storms that roared over the dizzying escarpments. One who vanished, in 1924, was George Leigh Mallory, known for snapping when asked why he would try to climb Everest, "Because it is there!" His body was found in the ice 75 years later, in 1999, about 2,000 feet below the summit.

Hillary's life was marked by grand achievements . Yet he was humble to the point that he admitted being the first man atop Everest only long after Norgay's death .

He wrote of the pair's final steps to the top of the world: "Another few weary steps and there was nothing above us but the sky. There was no false cornice, no final pinnacle. We were standing together on the summit. There was enough space for about six people. We had conquered Everest.

"Awe, wonder, humility, pride, exaltation - these surely ought to be the confused emotions of the first men to stand on the highest peak on Earth, after so many others had failed.

"But my dominant reactions were relief and surprise. Relief because the long grind was over and the unattainable had been attained. And surprise, because it had happened to me, old Ed Hillary, the beekeeper, once the star pupil of the Tuakau District School, but no great shakes at Auckland Grammar (high school) and a no-hoper at university, first to the top of Everest. I just didn't believe it."

Afterward, Hillary devoted much of his life to aiding the mountain people of Nepal and took his fame in stride, considering himself an "ordinary person with ordinary qualities."

Close friends described him as having unbounded enthusiasm for both life and adventure.

"We all have dreams - but Ed has dreams, then he's got this incredible drive, and goes ahead and does it," friend Jim Wilson said in 1993.

Hillary died at Auckland Hospital at 9 a.m. today, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark's office said. Though ailing in his later years, he remained active, but no cause of death was immediately given.

It was on a visit to Nepal that his first wife, Louise, 43, and 16-year-old daughter, Belinda, died in a light-plane crash March 31, 1975.

Hillary remarried in 1990, to June Mulgrew, former wife of adventurer colleague and close friend Peter Mulgrew, who died in a passenger plane crash in the Antarctic. He is survived by his wife and children Peter and Sarah.