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Everest legend Edmund Hillary dies

  • Story Highlights
  • One of the 20th century's greatest adventurers has died at age 88
  • In 1953, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach top of Mount Everest
  • Hillary devoted much of his life to aiding the mountain people of Nepal
  • Hillary's life marked by grand achievements, adventure, discovery, excitement
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(CNN) -- Edmund Hillary, who gained worldwide fame after he and guide Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest, has died after suffering a heart attack.

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Sir Edmund Hillary took his fame in stride and considered himself just an ordinary beekeeper.

New Zealander Hillary, who was 88, died at Auckland City Hospital on Friday morning at 0900 local time, Hillary family spokesman Mark Sainsbury said. "He had been in good form and been looking forward to coming home, and had remained in good spirits to the end," Sainsbury said in a statement issued by the Hillary family.

"The family are honored to accept the government's offer of a state funeral, recognizing the impact he had on all New Zealanders. They are also comforted by the messages of support from around the country and around the world.

Funeral arrangements would not be set until family members had returned from overseas, Sainsbury said.

"His great friends the Sherpa people have called [his wife] June and are organizing their own memorial service in Nepal." Video Watch a friend pay tribute to Hillary »

On May 29, 1953, Hillary and Tenzing became the first men known to have climbed the 29,035 feet to the top of Everest and safely return.

A beekeeper who served during World War II in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Hillary began climbing while in high school and traveled to the central Himalayas to join a British party exploring the southern face of Everest in 1951.

He returned in 1953, when he and Tenzing made their ascent -- spending 15-30 minutes at the summit. Hillary left a crucifix at the top of the mountain and Tenzing, in keeping with his Buddhist beliefs, left an offering of food.

Hillary took a picture of Tenzing at the peak but, because the Sherpa guide did not know how to use a camera, there are no pictures of Hillary there.

He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II upon his return to England, but continued exploring -- reaching the South Pole by tractor in 1958, joining the first group to climb Antarctica's Mt. Herschel in 1967 and boating east Himalayan rivers and the Ganges.

Prime Minister Helen Clark paid tribute to Hillary, describing him as the best-known New Zealander ever to have lived. Video Listen to a friend of Edmund Hillary recollect his fellow Everest veteran »

"Sir Ed described himself as an average New Zealander with modest abilities," Clark said.

"In reality, he was a colossus. He was an heroic figure who not only 'knocked off' Everest but lived a life of determination, humility and generosity."

Flags throughout New Zealand flew at half-mast on Friday, while callers flooded talkback stations with tributes to Hillary.

Many shared anecdotes of personal meetings with the late adventurer, describing him as an iconic New Zealander whose achievements were important to both the country and the world.

Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Lou Sanson said his enduring image of Hillary was his love of the natural environment of the frozen continent.

"Most of all you could tell he was in love with what was outside, which was that wild, harsh continent and the ability to live in that," Sanson said.

In his later years, Hillary became a strong supporter of environmental causes and worked to improve the lives of Nepal's Sherpas.

His Himalayan Trust has helped build schools, hospitals and airstrips in Nepal since 1961.

Hillary was not always complimentary of the more than 1,300 people who have climbed Everest since he did. In 2006, he harshly criticized a group of about 40 climbers that left Englishman David Sharp, 34, to die as they kept climbing to the top of Everest.

"Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain," he said at the time. "I think the whole attitude toward climbing Mt. Everest has become rather horrifying -- the people just want to get to the top," he said of the mountain.

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In 2003, Hillary was made an honorary citizen of Nepal on the 50th anniversary of his historic climb.

Mount Everest is 8,848 meters (29,028 feet) high, according to the widely accepted Survey of India, which took place between 1952 and 1954.

But controversy has raged during recent years as to the height of the world's tallest mountain, which has been variously said to be 8,848.11 meters high (29,029.24 feet, determined by a Chinese survey in 1975), 8,872 meters high (29,108 feet, judged by an Italian survey in 1987) and 8,846 meters high (29,023 feet, from a further Italian survey in 1992). E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Julie Clothier contributed to this report

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