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Edmund Hillary formed with Tenzing Norgay one of the most celebrated partnerships of the twentieth century. The beekeeper and the Tibetan-born Sherpa were the first humans to set foot on the highest point on earth – the 29 035 ft summit of Mount Everest. Both were ambitious to snatch this ultimate prize in mountaineering, but neither had any idea of how their success would resonate in the public mind for decades to come and dictate the rest of their lives.

Hillary was one of two New Zealanders on the 1953 British Everest Expedition led by John Hunt. He described his arrival at the summit at 11.30 am on 29 May in plain words: ‘I looked up to my right and 40 ft above me was a rounded snow cone. A few blows of the ice-axe, a few weary steps, and I was on the top. My first reaction was that of relief. I then took off my oxygen apparatus and photographed Tenzing as he stood on top’. When they returned triumphant to the South Col that evening, Hillary broke the news to his fellow Kiwi, George Lowe, with typical nonchalance: ‘Well’, he announced, ‘we knocked the bastard off’.

For Hillary, Everest proved a passport to an agreeable lifetime of globetrotting – on expeditions, including to the South Pole, lecture tours, award ceremonies, book signings and doing good works for the Sherpa people of Nepal. It was the last of these that he came to regard as his most important achievement: building schools, hospitals, clinics and bridges in the Khumbu valley on the trekking route to Everest. The Himalayan Trust he founded has helped give many Sherpas the education and ability to cope with the social and economic upheaval wrought in their homeland as hundreds of thousands of trekkers and climbers have followed in Hillary's footsteps – at least part of the way.

A year after Everest, Hillary returned to Nepal, leading an expedition up the Barun Valley and exploring the upper slopes of Makalu (27 790 ft). However, he had three ribs crushed by a rope while carrying out a crevasse rescue and eventually turned back weak and in pain at 22 000 ft. He would lead more expeditions in Nepal during the 1960s, but his days climbing at high altitude were effectively over.

Hillary led a New Zealand party supporting Vivian Fuchs on the first ever crossing of the Antarctic continent through the South Pole. The press billed it as ‘the last great journey in the world’, and then it became another ‘race for the Pole’ as Hillary decided to press on beyond the line of supply depots he established for Fuchs and make a dash for the Pole himself. Hillary had started from Scott Base and Fuchs from Shackleton Base. Deaf to instructions to turn back, Hillary and his team, on three adapted Ferguson tractors, arrived at the Pole on 4 January 1958 – 16 days ahead of Fuchs.

The origins of Hillary's great determination may be traced back to his austere childhood, walking barefoot to Tuakau Primary School, as did most pupils. ‘As a youngster I was a great dreamer’, he wrote, ‘reading many books of adventure and walking lonely miles with my head in the clouds’. His father, a newspaperman turned beekeeper, was a strict disciplinarian. After Auckland Grammar School, Hillary went on to the university where he joined a tramping group for winter walks in the Waitakere Ranges, pushing himself at any opportunity. But he dropped out after a couple of years preferring to work full time with his father, and brother Rex, managing 1600 hives on dairy land south of Auckland and manhandling the 80 lb boxes of comb honey.

In 1944 he was called up from this reserved occupation and became a navigator on Catalina flying boats, on search and rescue duty in the Pacific. He was now becoming hooked on mountaineering. An early notable ascent was Mount Tapuaenuku (9465 ft) on South Island, tackled solo on a weekend off from air force training. Back in civilian life he took every opportunity to slip off climbing, skiing or tramping. He learnt his craft from the great New Zealand guide Harry Ayres and then teamed up with George Lowe and others to create brilliant first ascents like the South Ridge of Mount Cook (12 349 ft) and the North Ridge of Mount Elie de Beaumont.

Once the Everest celebrations in London were over, Hillary returned to New Zealand in August 1953, stopping off in Australia to propose to Louise Rose who was studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Marriage seemed to complete Hillary's good fortune. Louise accompanied him on lecture tours and, while he continued with expeditions, brought up their two daughters, Sarah and Belinda, and son Peter, destined in May 1990 to follow his father's route up Everest.

Hillary, the most famous of all New Zealanders after his Everest and Antarctic adventures, was now a top draw celebrity – though an outwardly unassuming one – and was able to explore for the Yeti, climb in the Himalaya and in 1977 jet-boat up the Ganges, with the generous sponsorship of two Chicago corporations – Sears Roebuck, for whom he was an adviser on outdoor gear, and the publishers of the World Book Encyclopaedia, for whom he did lecture tours.

Hillary was bereft when in 1975 Louise and Belinda were killed in a light aircraft crash near Kathmandu. After their deaths he had five years of depression and misery until his long friendship with June, the widow of his close Antarctic and climbing friend Peter Mulgrew, blossomed into a much warmer relationship. In 1985 Hillary was appointed New Zealand's High Commissioner to India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Lacking a hostess, he was delighted when June agreed to accompany him as his official companion. It amused her no end to have the letters OC after her name on official correspondence, but this proved a most happy and successful arrangement. In November 1989 they were married in their Auckland home with all their children, grandchildren, relations and friends gathered around.

Hillary deplored the commercialisation of Everest. However, he still loved to spend time with the Sherpa people and when, in 2003, the golden anniversary of the first ascent came round, he understandably decided he would rather be with them on the 29 May, celebrating in Kathmandu, than with the Queen and his fellow climbers from 1953 at a gala in Leicester Square. He flew to London a few days later in time for the Coronation anniversary service at Westminster Abbey.

Hillary died of a heart attack on 11 January 2008 in Auckland, at the age of 88. As New Zealand‘s most famous Kiwi he was given a moving State Funeral on 22 January, normally only accorded to Governor Generals and Prime Ministers dying in office. This was complemented by the Memorial Service in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 2 April, when his personal banner as a Knight of the Garter was taken down and laid on the high altar before being returned to the family. On the following evening, a special celebration of his life was held at the Royal Geographical Society, at which his son Peter and Tenzing Norgay's son Norbu both spoke. I pledged our continued commitment and support as long as required to the work of Sir Edmund Hillary's Himalayan Trust, which he created to help improve the lives of the Sherpas and hill people of Nepal. Even more than Everest, he has said he would like this to be a perpetual memorial to his life and achievements. Let him have the last word:

I have had the world lie between my clumsy boots and seen the red sun slip over the horizon after the dark Antarctic winter. I have had more then my share of excitement, beauty, laughter and friendship . . . Each of us has to discover his own path – of that I am sure. Some paths will be spectacular and others peaceful and quiet – who is to say which is the most important? For me the most rewarding moments have not always been the great moments – for what can surpass a tear on your departure, joy on your return, or a trusting hand in yours?

Sir Edmund Hillary, mountaineer and author: born 20 July 1919, Auckland NZ; educated Auckland Grammar School; apiarist 1936–43 and 1951–70, RNZAF navigator 1944–45, British Mount Everest Expedition 1953, leader of NZ Antarctic Expedition 1957–58, NZ High Commissioner to India, Bangladesh and Nepal 1985–88, founder Himalayan Trust; books include High adventure (1955), Nothing venture, nothing win (1975) and View from the summit (1999); married twice, first in 1953 to Louise Rose (died 1975), one son and two daughters (one died 1975), second in 1989 to June Mulgrew (née Anderson). He died in Auckland, NZ, 11 January 2008.

An extended version of this obituary is available online at http://www.rgs.org/GJ+societynews+obituaries