Everest conqueror Hillary makes last journey
By Chris Brokensha
AUCKLAND (Reuters) - Saffron-robed Buddhist monks, Nepali Sherpas and grey-bearded mountaineers paid homage on Tuesday to Sir Edmund Hillary, the man who conquered Everest, as thousands gathered in New Zealand to watch his state funeral.
"His loss to us is bigger and heavier than Mount Everest," Ang Rita Sherpa told the service in a small church in Auckland.
"He is our true guardian and our second father, but he has left us behind today," he said.
The funeral of the first man to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain was, in keeping with the man himself, modest, with 600 family, friends and dignitaries in the church.
Hillary's coffin was draped in the New Zealand flag, cream-colored Nepali prayer scarves, and Hillary's climbing axe and specially carved walking stick.
"We mourn as a nation because we know we're saying goodbye to a friend," Prime Minister Helen Clark told the service. "Sir Ed described himself as a person of modest abilities. In reality he was a colossus. He was our hero. He brought fame to our country."
Among those attending the funeral was the son of Tenzing Norgay, the Nepali Sherpa who accompanied Hillary to Everest's 8,850 meter (29,035 feet) summit.
"While we mourn his loss, his spirit will forever live and protect the great mountain and the people he loved so much," said Norbu Tenzing Norgay.
Thousands, young and old, had filed past the coffin in the previous 24 hours to pay their last respects to the former beekeeper, adventurer, and humanitarian, who died at the age of 88 on January 11 after a heart attack.
On Tuesday, thousands of mourners around the country gathered to watch a live broadcast of the service, which was also televised in Nepal and at New Zealand's Scott Base in Antarctica, which Hillary founded.
"This is an enormous loss to the nation," said Heather Galbraith, an art gallery curator from Wellington. "He was a man from a different era, and his generosity of spirit was unflagging."
After Everest, Hillary led a number of expeditions. In 1958, he and four companions traveled overland in three modified tractors to become the first to reach the South Pole by vehicle.
Tributes to Hillary talked of his tenacity, sense of adventure and modesty.
"Adventure was compulsory in the Hillary family," his son Peter told the service. "We always feared where dad was going to take us in the upcoming school holidays."
"That shared adventure was one of the greatest gifts he gave to his family and friends," he said. Peter Hillary followed in his father's footsteps and became a mountaineer.
Hillary set up the Himalayan Foundation and through it raised millions of dollars to build schools, hospitals, and roads to the Everest region. He was made an honorary citizen of Nepal in 2003.
He had asked that no memorials be set up "when he kicked the bucket" other than to continue the work of the foundation.
"His love and dedication to the Sherpas was like that of a parent to a child; absolute and unconditional," said Norbu Tenzing Norgay.
After the service Hillary's coffin was carried from the church to the strains of a lone piper, through an honor guard of mountaineers with ice axes and on to a traditional challenge of the indigenous Maori people performed by pupils of a school named after Hillary.
The funeral cortege traveled through Auckland streets lined by thousands, who stood and applauded, to a private family service at which Hillary was to be cremated. He had asked that his ashes be scattered on Auckland's harbor.
(Writing by Gyles Beckford; Editing by Michael Perry and Alex Richardson)