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Edmund Hillary, 1919-2008

Conquered Everest, Advocated for Planet

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2008

Edmund Hillary, 88, a beekeeper-turned-mountaineer from New Zealand who with his Sherpa guide in 1953 became the first men known to conquer Mount Everest, the world's tallest peak, died early today at Auckland City Hospital. No cause of death was reported.

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Hillary's 29,035-foot climb up the Himalayan mountain was achieved amid subzero temperatures, unpredictable winds and daunting crevasses, and with a grade of equipment now considered primitive. The ascent ended a decades-long quest undertaken by countless men to test human endurance. In the 1920s, English adventurer George Mallory memorably quipped that he wanted to climb Everest "because it's there" and perished trying.

On May 29, 1953, the successful ascent and return by Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in a team led by British army Col. John Hunt made them instant international celebrities.

"Well, we've knocked the bastard off," an exhausted Hillary famously said upon his return from the apex.

The climbers were heralded as pioneers in the tradition of transatlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1927 and moonwalker Neil Armstrong in 1969.

The newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II knighted Hillary. His triumph over Everest also came to symbolize for many Britons a postwar era of prosperity, even as the British empire was shrinking.

The Everest climb brought Hillary his most enduring fame, and he went on to adventures in India and Antarctica and became a globe-trotting advocate of environmentalism and conservation.

In 1958, via snow tractor, he led the first overland team to reach the South Pole in generations. Two years later, his fruitless yeti-searching excursion in Tibet led him to declare the Abominable Snowman a "mythological creature, probably based on rare sightings of the Tibetan blue bear."

Edmund Percival Hillary was born in Auckland on July 20, 1919, and was raised south of the city in Tuakau. His father, a journalist-turned-beekeeper, brought his family into a fringe Christian movement called Radiant Living.

Hillary described a strict upbringing that led to a lonely childhood and fostered a desire for escape. Mountain climbing, which he discovered at 16 on a school trip to New Zealand's Mount Ruapehu, provided the freedom he sought.

It was especially rewarding to him that, despite his shyness and frail body, he could outpace his peers on the hike. As a young adult, Hillary grew to resemble a mountain himself -- craggy, sinewy, almost 6-foot-5.

During World War II, he served as a navigator in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. After seeing combat in the Solomon Islands, he returned to beekeeping with his brother, a trade he maintained until 1970. He began to formalize his mountain-hiking skills in the offseason to combat his dread of complacency.

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