Tributes were paid last night to Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb 29,035ft Mount Everest along with sherpa Tenzing Norgay, following the mountaineer's death, aged 88.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark described the explorer as a heroic figure and said all New Zealanders would deeply mourn him.

British adventurer and environmentalist Pen Hadow said Sir Edmund's death "closes one of the great chapters of planetary exploration".

The 88-year-old former beekeeper shot to fame when he scaled Everest along with Tenzing Norgay, just days before the coronation of Elizabeth II, on May 29, 1953.

Sir Edmund's adventures were not confined to Everest alone. In later years he led expeditions to the South Pole and to the source of the Yangtze River. He also committed himself to humanitarian work among the sherpas through his Himalayan Trust.

Dr Charles Hornsby, a GP from Newcastle, who has lived in Scotland since 1980 and met Sir Edmund in New Zealand in 1990 four years before he climbed Mount Everest himself as part of a medical expedition, said: "This is indeed an historic moment. He was an iconic figure, not just in the climbing world but in the wider world.

"He was not only known for being the first person to conquer the highest mountain in the world but also for his tireless Third World charity work and his special involvement with the Nepalese people, whom he dedicated his life to."

The young Edmund attended Auckland Grammar School, where he was younger and smaller than most of his class and not socially adept. Years later he was to say: "I was a shy boy with a deep sense of inferiority that I still have."

His taste for mountaineering began when, aged 16, he went on a school trip to Mount Ruapehu. It was there that he saw snow for the first time.

Sir Edmund served as a pilot during the Second World War and earned renown as an ice climber.

He followed his father as a beekeeper, but became seriously involved in climbing. He served in the New Zealand Air Force for two years as a navigator, but was discharged after an accident.

After the war, he spent as much time preparing for Everest as he could, practising rock climbing and ice pick work, as well as taking up wrestling. In 1951, he made his first trip to the Himalayas and the following year joined a British Everest Committee training team.

Sir Edmund had climbed 11 different peaks of over 20,000ft before tackling Everest with Tenzing by his side.

The pair became instant icons. Sir Edmund was knighted and Tenzing was given the George Medal and they were toasted and feted around the world. He then turned to Antarctic exploration and led the New Zealand section of the Trans-Antarctic expedition from 1955 to 1958. In 1958 he participated in the first mechanised expedition to the South Pole.

Sir Edmund went on to organise further mountain-climbing expeditions but, as the years passed, he became more concerned with the welfare of the Nepalese people. In 1960, he returned to Nepal to help develop their society, building clinics, hospitals and 17 schools.

This involved the building of two airstrips which had the unforeseen consequence of bringing more tourists and would-be climbers. The Nepalese cut down even more of their forests to provide fuel for the mountaineers, and Sir Edmund became concerned about the degradation of the environment. He managed to persuade the government to pass laws protecting the forest and to declare the area around Everest a National Park.

His devotion to helping the sherpas of Nepal's Khumbu region led him to being made an honorary Nepalese citizen in 2003.

He had also served as New Zealand's ambassador to India in the 1980s.