Sir Edmund HillarySir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb the world’s highest mountain, has died.

His death was announced this morning by New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who said of the modest Kiwi: “Sir Ed described himself as an average New Zealander with modest abilities. In reality, he was a colossus. He was a heroic figure who not only ‘knocked off’ Everest but lived a life of determination, humility, and generosity”

Sir Edmund Hillary

Greame Mulholland

Hillary, 88, had been ill since he fell during a visit to Nepal last April.

He and Tenzing Norgay made history with their 1953 summit of the 8,848m (29,029ft) Everest. The two never disclosed whose feet actually first trod on the highest point on Earth, maintaining it was a joint effort. Only in 1999 did he admit that he had “Stepped 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. To our immense satisfaction we realised with had reached the top of the world.”

Hillary waited until after Norgay’s 1986 death to reveal the circumstances of the conquest.

Fellow climber George Lowe approached Hillary as he descended to the South Col. He asked how the ascent had gone. He replied: “Well George, we knocked the bastard off'.”

The announcement of the conquest, by the hitherto little known beekeeper from Tuakau, coincided with the coronation in the UK of Elizabeth II. He was knighted on 6 June, 1953.

After his 29 May ascent, he devoted much of his life to setting up schools and health clinics in Nepal. He was known to his friends in Nepal as ‘big man’ – he stood 6ft 2in tall – and raised thousands of pounds for projects in the country. He returned to the Himalayan nation more than a hundred times to take part in humanitarian work. He was also a keen conservation campaigner and recently had expressed his disgust at what he saw as the lack of humanity among some modern-day Everest climbers who failed to help their fellow mountaineers in distress.

Hillary said: “Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.”

He became New Zealand’s High Commissioner to India midway through the 1980s but he never took to the job, finding it constricting after the freedom of mountaineering.

One of Hillary’s endearing traits was his modesty. He said of himself: “I don't regard myself as a cracking good climber. I'm just strong in the back. I have a lot of enthusiasm and I'm good on ice.”

His first wife, Louise, 43, and 16-year-old daughter Belinda died in a plane crash in Nepal in March 1975. He leaves a son Peter, daughter Sarah and his second wife June.