You could almost feel the great man's presence in the air.
As the sun set and a cool breeze swept across the top of Mauao late yesterday afternoon, 350 or so people gathered to remember Sir Edmund Hillary and pay tribute to the New Zealand icon.
Clear blue skies were painted red as dusk approached and the crowd huddled together for a minute's silence to honour the man who conquered Everest.
School children, Girl Guides, families, babies and grandparents were among those who met at the Mount Maunganui Surf Club at 4pm to walk up Mauao as part of the national Summit for Sir Ed Tribute Tour.
An array of brightly decorated rocks and pebbles with messages like: ``New Zealand's greatest hero' were left in a pile to be taken to the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre at Tongariro and incorporated into a memorial cairn.
"It's a tough walk," commented one woman struggling halfway up Mauao's dirt track. "But nothing compared with what Sir Ed did."
Similar conversations about what it must have been like conquering Mt Everest could be heard during the 20-minute journey up the 232m-high Western Bay landmark _ a fraction of what Sir Ed had accomplished in 1953.
All of those spoken to last night by the Bay of Plenty Times _ young and old _ regarded Sir Ed as a hero, a man who had inspired them in some way.
"I think he's a really cool guy," 10-year-old Tayla Forward said at the summit surrounded by her Matua Primary School mates. "Yeah", they all chimed in.
Tayla was also joined by her 69-year-old grandmother, Colleen Pryce and 67-year-old grandfather Ian Pryce.
For Mr Pryce the service was important because he had once helped in a mountain rescue with Sir Ed in the South Island over four decades ago.
"He was a big, powerful man _ physically and mentally," he said.
Outdoor Pursuits Centre trustee Cliff Tilby had also met Sir Ed.
"Even though he was already a hero then I remember him sitting there in his home spun jersey.
"He was a very approachable man," he said.
"He was my hero."
About 5.30pm, when everyone had made it to the summit, speeches were made by sportswoman Fiona Wilson, artist Graham Hoete and Waihi Beach councillor Ross Goudie.
All reflected Sir Ed's contributions in New Zealand and throughout the world and his unwavering attitude to the best he could be.
"It's not the mountains we conquer, it is ourselves," Mr Hoete said, quoting Sir Ed.
He finished with a quote from the Bible, summing up our national icon: "All things are possible to those who believe."
Yesterday's tribute was the 24th across the country, run by the Outdoor Pursuits Centre, which started on March 25 in Bluff and will finish at Cape Reinga on April 19.
Event manager, Darren Ashmore said the turnout at Mauao was one of the biggest.
"What an awesome turnout," he said. "It's a real buzz."