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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

This morning, we're remembering the man who was the first to reach what's been called the Third Pole. There's the North Pole and the South Pole, and then there's Mt. Everest.

Climbers had been trying for decades to get to the top of that mountain, when in 1953, a 33-year-old New Zealand beekeeper named Edmund Hillary made it to the top. Years later, he told an audience in Washington, D.C., that the climb defined his attitude to life.

(Soundbite of archived speech)

Sir EDMUND HILLARY (Mountaineer/Beekeeper): I believe that if you set out on an adventure and you're absolutely convinced you're going to be successful, why bother starting?

INSKEEP: Edmund Hillary died at the age of 88. We've called Phillipa Tolley, a reporter with Radio New Zealand.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. PHILLIPA TOLLEY (Reporter, Radio New Zealand): Hello. How do you do?

INSKEEP: Was he considered a national hero to New Zealanders?

Ms. TOLLEY: Absolutely. I mean, Sir Edmund has been described as the greatest living hero for New Zealand of the 20th century. He was a absolutely iconic figure for the country. He was hugely important.

INSKEEP: We just called him a beekeeper, which he often referred to himself as, giving himself a relatively modest title.

Ms. TOLLEY: Indeed. And he was hugely self-effacing. He seems to epitify(ph) a lot of what are typically seen as New Zealand attitude of gritty, can-do, great determination, but not overly effusive in self-promoting. He even described himself as not very bright, you know, I was just a beekeeper. I wasn't even very bright. But there were some things I want to do, you know, I had this great determination to sort of get to the top and achieve the feat of climbing Mt. Everest.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to Edmund Hillary's words as he describes that moment of determination. He's describing what the prospect was like as they prepared to climb Mt. Everest.

(Soundbite of archived speech)

Sir HILLARY: And we really didn't know it was humanly possible to set foot on top of Everest, even using oxygen. All the physiologists had warned us that it might be impossible. We had nobody to help us. We just had to do it ourselves.

INSKEEP: How huge was this accomplishment?

Ms. TOLLEY: Well, since then, there were all sorts of records that have been broken. But you know, this was a time when technologically things weren't very advanced. People weren't even sure that individuals could survive as they got to the top of the Everest and he talked about this huge psychological barrier. But, you know, he did it with his Sherpa colleague and obviously they had a great bond. They worked together. And it wasn't just an achievement for a New Zealander. It was one of those big challenges for explorers and adventurers around the entire world.

INSKEEP: What did he do after 1953?

Ms. TOLLEY: He was given a knighthood by the British Queen, almost before he, you know, got down the end of the mountain - from when he conquered Everest. Later on in the '50s, he made a dash to the South Pole using a tractor. He was the first person to take, and I think probably almost the only person, to take tractors to the South Pole…

INSKEEP: You mean like a farm tractor? He went to the…

Ms. TOLLEY: Indeed.

INSKEEP: …South Pole?

Ms. TOLLEY: Absolutely. Tractors that were used on New Zealand farms, he had great faith in them, hugely reliable, and that was just in the late in the '50s. He was also given a diplomatic post to India and did a search for the source of the Ganges. So he continued to be an adventurer and explorer. But the most important thing for him personally was the trusts that he set up in Nepal itself, in the 1960s.

And those thrusts were to improve education, to improve health for the local people, to improve access. They built small bridges, some airstrip and he himself - this is what he wants to be remembered for, his humanitarian work. It was very important to him. So he wasn't just a man who had one great achievement and then sat on his laurels.

INSKEEP: That's New Zealand journalist Phillipa Tolley, speaking with us about the death of climber Sir Edmund Hillary who died today at the age of 88.

I'm here at npr.org looking at the Web site, looking at photographs of Edmund Hillary as a young man, as he was climbing Mt. Everest. You can see them, again, at npr.org.

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