WELLINGTON (AFP) — Edmund Hillary, the modest New Zealand beekeeper who shot to global fame as the first person to climb Mount Everest, died Friday at age 88.
A hero to millions for his derring-do, dry wit and dedication to others -- he spent much of his life working to help the people of Nepal -- Hillary had a heart attack after a spell of bad health, Auckland Hospital said.
The lanky, plain-speaking Kiwi made history on May 29, 1953, when he and Nepalese guide Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made it to the top of the world's tallest mountain, a feat that had defied mountaineers for decades.
On the way back down, Hillary lifted his mask and uttered what would become one of the most famous phrases in the annals of climbing: "Well, we knocked the bastard off."
Tributes quickly poured in for the legendary adventurer and philanthropist, who also led the first expedition to reach the South Pole by vehicle just four years after conquering Everest.
"Sir Ed described himself as an average New Zealander with modest abilities. In reality, he was a colossus," Prime Minister Helen Clark said.
"He was an heroic figure who not only 'knocked off' Everest but lived a life of determination, humility and generosity."
She called him a "quintessential Kiwi" and "the best-known New Zealander ever to have lived."
Hillary was always modest about his achievement, and it was many years before Tenzing revealed that Hillary had actually been first to reach the peak. They said at the time that they had reached the top together.
"The names of Hillary and Tenzing went instantly into all languages as the names of heroes," Jan Morris, the British historian and journalist who accompanied their expedition, wrote in Time magazine.
News of the success of the British-led expedition to the top of the 8,848-metre (29,028-foot) mountain was announced on the day of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation on June 2, 1953.
She awarded Hillary a knighthood, which he greeted with characteristic self-effacement.
"I could see myself... in my tattered overalls and the seat out of my pants," he said. "And I thought, 'That's gone forever. I'll have to buy a new pair of overalls now.'"
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown hailed Hillary as "a truly great hero who captured the imagination of the world."
His death was mourned by the Sherpa community, for whom he set up the Himalayan Trust in the 1960s, helping to build dozens of schools and hospitals.
"We consider him as a second father," said Zimba Zangbu Sherpa, vice president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association. "His work changed the life of the whole Sherpa community. Without his work, especially the schools, the Sherpas would be nowhere."
The Himalayan country's tourism minister said Hillary's death was a huge loss for Nepal.
"We have lost a dear friend of Nepal and a worldwide hero," Prithvi Subba Gurung, Nepal's Minister of Tourism, Culture and Civil Aviation, told AFP. "He was an undeclared ambassador for Nepal.
Hillary was born in Auckland on July 20, 1919, and as a scrawny youth showed no hint of the strength and skill for which he would became known around the globe.
He was never meant to be the first to the top of Everest. Other team members got first crack at the summit but were thwarted several hundred feet short, hampered by fatigue and low on oxygen.
After a night of little rest, Hillary and Tenzing made a second try -- and the New Zealander led the tricky trek to the summit.
"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," he wrote in his book "View From The Summit."
"To our immense satisfaction, we realised we had reached the top of the world."
Hillary embarked on another great adventure in 1957, establishing New Zealand's Scott Base in Antarctica and leading the first vehicles overland to the South Pole.
He had not been meant to be the first to do that, either.
He was part of the trans-Antarctic expedition of British explorer Vivien Fuchs.
As Fuchs set off from one side of the continent, a group led by Hillary set off on tractors from the opposite side to set up supply depots and map the terrain for the second half of Fuchs's crossing.
But Hillary instead stole his thunder by defying the Briton's wishes and heading to the Pole.
In 1960 he led another Himalayan adventure, this time in search of proof of the mythical yeti or abominable snowman -- a topic of great interest since Tenzing had said his father had twice seen one.
Among the sherpa community, tales of the yeti were common but Hillary had no success. He got sick mid-way through the expedition -- possibly due to some uncertain fishcakes -- and pulled out.
Prime Minister Clark said the death of Hillary -- who was the only living New Zealander ever to appear on the country's currency -- was a profound loss for the country, where flags were lowered to half-mast nationwide.
A state funeral is being planned, and New Zealand's cricket team will wear black arm bands and observe a minute's silence at the start of their Test match against Bangladesh in Wellington on Saturday.
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