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From Base Camp on Mt Everest, a yellowing page of scrawl reveals a young New Zealand mountaineer's feelings to his mother, Gertrude.

With typical understatement, Edmund Hillary writes: "Well, I may not have produced much joy or happiness in the world but at least I've helped make the Hillary name a bit famous".

The letter, dated June 1, 1953, is pictured in his autobiography next to a tiny piece of rock that Sir Edmund took from the summit the day before.

These ordinary objects are a glimpse of author Alexa Johnston's visual approach in documenting the life of the national hero. Sir Edmund and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to climb Mt Everest, with the Kiwi achieving many other firsts, making him famous worldwide.

In Sir Edmund Hillary - An Extraordinary Life, his family is candidly revealed. Johnston has used images of memorabilia such as books, diaries, expedition notes, maps, paintings, photographs, letters, slides, newspaper cuttings, telegrams and even family Christmas cards to illustrate his 85 years.

Johnston became close to the Hillary family through her friendship with Sir Edmund's daughter, Sarah. Both worked at the Auckland Art Gallery, where Johnston was curator for 20 years.

Johnston said from Kathmandu, where she has spent three weeks compiling information for a book on the two hospitals and 20 health clinics Sir Edmund built in the Sherpa region of Nepal, that she wanted to encapsulate his life, using personal touches.

From the humble beginnings of his grandparents' immigration from Yorkshire to Northern Wairoa in the mid 19th century, Sir Edmund had a wealth of strong family characteristics to draw upon for inspiration. His ancestors were adventurous, overcoming hardships to forge productive lives in their new homeland.

Johnston has not glossed over the controversies and tragedies in Sir Edmund's life. He describes himself as a lonely, puny boy who experienced too much physical punishment at home and at school but grew into a fiercely determined individual.

Johnston writes poignantly of the deaths of Sir Edmund's first wife, Louise, and their daughter Belinda, in a plane crash in Nepal in 1975.

Sir Edmund plunged into a five-year abyss of depression, numbing the grief with sleeping pills and several whiskies each night. Although he continued to work, completing the Phaphlu Hospital and spearheading expeditions, his family and friends feared he would never recover.

Sir Edmund eventually remarried. Longtime family friend June Mulgrew became the second Lady Hillary in 1989. He has always been outspoken on social, environmental and political issues. He clashed with Prime Minister Keith Holyoake over New Zealand's low contribution to overseas aid.

Sir Edmund is critical of the mountain expedition debris littering the Himalayas and has worked with environmental projects to control pollution in the region.

Johnston said writing the book had been a real privilege. She wanted it published "while Ed is around as well to enjoy it".

A portion of her royalties will be donated to the Sherpa people through Sir Edmund's Himalayan Trust and to New Zealand's Antarctic programme.

* Sir Edmund Hillary - An Extraordinary Life by Alexa Johnston, published by Penguin Books, rrp $59.95.