WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Sir Edmund Hillary, the unassuming beekeeper who conquered Mount Everest to win renown as one of the 20th century's greatest adventurers, died today. He was 88.

The gangling New Zealander devoted much of his life to aiding the mountain people of Nepal and took his fame in stride, preferring to be called Ed and considering himself an "ordinary person with ordinary qualities."

Hillary died at Auckland Hospital at 9 a.m. Friday, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark's office said. Though ailing in his later years, he remained active, but no cause of death was immediately given.

Hillary's life was marked by grand achievements, high adventure, discovery, excitement — yet he was humble to the point that he only admitted being the first man atop Everest long after the death of climbing companion Tenzing Norgay.

He had pride in his feat, yet he irreverently referred to it as he returned to base camp as the man who took the first step onto the top of the world's highest peak: "We knocked the bastard off."

The accomplishment as part of a British climbing expedition even added luster to the coronation of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II four days later, and she knighted Hillary as one of her first acts.

But he was more proud of his decades-long campaign to set up schools and health clinics in Nepal, the homeland of Norgay, the mountain guide with whom he stood arm in arm on the summit of Everest on May 29, 1953.

He wrote of the pair's final steps to the top of the world: "Another few weary steps and there was nothing above us but the sky. There was no false cornice, no final pinnacle. We were standing together on the summit. There was enough space for about six people. We had conquered Everest.

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"Awe, wonder, humility, pride, exaltation — these surely ought to be the confused emotions of the first men to stand on the highest peak on Earth, after so many others had failed," Hillary noted.

"But my dominant reactions were relief and surprise. Relief because the long grind was over and the unattainable had been attained. And surprise, because it had happened to me, old Ed Hillary, the beekeeper, once the star pupil of the Tuakau District School, but no great shakes at Auckland Grammar (high school) and a no-hoper at university, first to the top of Everest. I just didn't believe it.

He said: "I removed my oxygen mask to take some pictures. It wasn't enough just to get to the top. We had to get back with the evidence. Fifteen minutes later we began the descent."

His philosophy of life was simple: "Adventuring can be for the ordinary person with ordinary qualities, such as I regard myself," he said in a 1975 interview after writing his autobiography, "Nothing Venture, Nothing Win."

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