Key Points:

It had been a happy morning for Sir Edmund Hillary. On a beautiful Auckland summer day, he was feeling better than he had for a while, pleased to be leaving Auckland City Hospital after another bout of treatment for lingering pneumonia.

In his 88 years, Sir Ed had known the worst of human misery, as well as the joy of conquest and triumph.

To the people of the Himalayas, he was a god. Around the world, he was regarded as the greatest of adventurers, the man whose extraordinary endurance forever changed perceptions of human possibility.

And for New Zealanders, Sir Ed was everything a good bastard ought to be - modest and humorous, brave and compassionate, and just grouchy enough to remind us he never sought, nor particularly enjoyed, adulation.

When death came about 9am yesterday, it was kind - a sudden heart attack, ending the slow discomfort of illness and his increasing frustration with frailty and fatigue.

Upon news of his death, accolades that would have made Sir Ed groan and roll his eyes began ringing around the globe.

In Antarctica and around New Zealand, flags were lowered to half-mast.

In Nepal, Sherpas prayed for a good reincarnation and lit butter lamps to remember the man who, with their own Tenzing Norgay, first climbed the sacred Everest.

Political leaders, fellow thrillseekers and admirers around the world praised his accomplishments and his philanthropy.

But from Auckland to Kathmandu, the mood of Sir Ed's mourners is not grief, nor sadness, so much as appreciation of all that he was and all that he gave.

"Sir Ed was simply the greatest living New Zealander so there's a profound loss for all of us," Prime Minister Helen Clark said from Hong Kong late last night as she flew home from a holiday in Europe.

She said he had lived a life of determination, humility and generosity.

Her British counterpart, Gordon Brown, praised "a truly great hero who captured the imagination of the world, a towering figure who will always be remembered as a pioneer explorer and leader".

Sir Ed's ascent of Everest was celebrated as an achievement of the Empire, especially as the feat was made public on the day of the Queen's coronation in June 1953. Early today, however, there was no comment from Buckingham Palace about his passing.

Australia's Acting PM, Julia Gillard, described him as "one of New Zealand's giants. [His] name is synonymous with adventure, with achievement, with dreaming and then making those dreams come true."

Broadcaster Mark Sainsbury, asked by Sir Ed's widow, Lady June Hillary, to be the family's spokesman, said he had been "in good spirits - he had been sitting up and chatting. It was just his time."

As the Government announced it would cast aside protocol to hold a state funeral, plans were announced for a memorial service tomorrow in the chapel of the US Antarctic base, McMurdo Station.

The Black Caps will wear black armbands and observe a minute's silence at today's test against Bangladesh in Wellington.

Through all his years as one of the world's most famous men, Sir Ed kept his name and Remuera address in the telephone directory - he enjoyed yarning with the people who had the guts to ring up.

Aucklander Ollie Bradshaw, who 12 years ago famously rang Sir Ed to ask for help with his school essay, joined the tributes.

"Out of all the very important people in the country, the fact I could call up the greatest New Zealander out of the blue and he had the time to yarn to a 14-year-old pretty much sums the guy up," Mr Bradshaw said.

Twenty years ago, Sir Edmund said children were often surprised to meet him because they assumed he must be dead, like all the other characters in history books.

But today, we have nothing to be sad about, not really.

Sir Ed had a life full of adventure, laden with admiration. He lived his last years surrounded by the love of a close family and friends beyond number.

He was an old 88, frustrated by the physical limitations of bad knees, stiff joints and shallow breath - all legacies of exploits in the thin air of altitude.

And he had had enough. "I'm on the way out," he told friends during his last year.

For someone who chanced death so many times, clinging to cliff edges and shivering through the coldest nights, Sir Ed was blessed with enormous fortune in his longevity.

As an old man he had come to accept the love showered upon him by New Zealanders and the world, after many years of feeling uncomfortable with praise.

Edmund Hillary never wanted to be famous. He and Tenzing climbed Everest because they wanted to - because it was there - not for the sake of Nepal or New Zealand, and certainly not for the glory of the British Empire.

He certainly didn't want a knighthood - when the young mountaineer heard the news that he was to be honoured by the new Queen for his ascent of Everest, his immediate thought was that he had nothing to wear.

"I was aghast. I had never approved of titles, and couldn't imagine myself possessing one," he later wrote. "I had a vivid picture of walking down the main street of Papakura dressed in my torn and dirty overalls and thought I'd have to get a new pair."

It was a difficult, and often sad, life. His father, Percy, was cold and physically unkind, and the young Edmund, born in Tuakau, south of Auckland, in 1919, struggled to fit in at school, bullied and lonely. It was only as a young adult that, through a tramping club, he discovered the mental strength that made him a natural leader. Sir Ed often said he was physically average and owed his achievements to stubbornness.

He dropped out of university to join his father's beekeeping business and was a keen climber by 1943 when, having overcome his pacifist urge to stay out of World War II, he became an Air Force navigator.

Back in New Zealand, Sir Ed devoted himself to climbing, and joined Himalayan expeditions in 1951 and 1953.

It was the latter climb, on which he was supposed to be only an "end link", that Sir Ed joined Tenzing in the final drag-crawl to the summit - although he refused to confirm for many years that he was the one who first touched the summit.

In 1960, Sir Ed created the Himalayan Trust to fund aid and development work in Nepal, and he was working there when, in 1975, his wife Louise and 16-year-old daughter Belinda were killed in a plane crash. Sir Ed had to identify their bodies amid the wreckage. He sank into depression and heavy drinking.

Four years later, his close friend and fellow adventurer Peter Mulgrew died while filling in for Sir Ed as a commentator on Air New Zealand flight 901, which crashed into Mt Erebus, killing all on board.

Sir Ed later married Mr Mulgrew's widow, June, who had accompanied him as secretary on his 1985-88 posting as High Commissioner to India.

In 2003, Sir Ed marked the 50th anniversary of the Everest climb with ceremonies in around New Zealand and in Nepal.

He had one last great adventure, a trip to Antarctica in January last year to mark the 50th anniversary of his creation of the New Zealand research station at Scott Base.

Later in the year he made one final trip to Nepal to raise awareness for his aid work, but a fall on the trip put him briefly in hospital.

Sir Ed's greatest wish was for the Himalayan Trust work to continue after his death.

His life was one of a humble man, but occasionally there were hints at the pride he kept so well hidden.

"I really like to enjoy my adventures," he said in 1991. "I get frightened to death on many, many occasions but, of course, fear can be also a stimulating factor.

"When [it] is a stimulating factor, then I think you can often extend yourself far more than you ever believed possible. And instead of being just a mediocre person, for a moment anyway, you become someone of considerable competence."

* Claire Harvey travelled to Antarctica with Sir Ed last year.

Reports by Herald staff Stuart Dye, Paula Oliver, Angela Gregory, Martin Johnston, Claire Trevett, Phoebe Falconer, Elizabeth Binning, James Ihaka, Martha McKenzie-Minifie, Wayne Thompson, Maggie McNaughton, Beck Vass, Errol Kiong, Yvonne Tahana and Andrew Koubaridis.