Key Points:

It should surprise no one that, even half a century after the achievement that carved his name indelibly into history, Ed Hillary remained the New Zealander most admired by New Zealanders.

A survey in 1996 named the conqueror of Everest as the top choice of men and women of all ages and across all ethnic groups - far ahead of any All Black, any political or artistic figure - as the person who best embodied "the spirit and essence" of our small nation.

It was not his achievement as a mountaineer that they honoured. Indeed, in the annals of mountain-climbing history, Hillary's list of achievements were modest, more distinctive for its firsts than its bests.

What lent him status was the fact that he parlayed the makings of an ordinary life into a truly extraordinary one - and showed us in the process that greatness is possible for anyone.

Certainly he was always at pains to underline this. "I discovered," he wrote in the foreword to his 1975 autobiography Nothing Venture, Nothing Win, "that even the mediocre can have adventures and even the fearful can achieve." Elsewhere he told an interviewer that his life had been "a constant effort to illustrate how a very mediocre person with very mediocre talents which I have can create quite a lot if they really drive themselves."

Few of us would share Sir Ed's self-deprecating assessment of himself as mediocre - it was a word he often used. But, early on at least, his extraordinary life was most remarkable for its ordinariness.

He was born in Auckland on July 20, 1919, of tough Yorkshire stock.

His mother's family had farmed and run a general store in Northland and his father was the son of a watchmaker who as family legend had it, had done well in business in India - the country that would become Sir Ed's second home in later years - and set up a successful jewellery business in Dargaville.

"He bought a few racehorses," Sir Ed later recalled, "and over the next few years successfully disposed of his fortune on the racetrack [so that] by his middle sixties he was almost destitute."

His grandmother, as a result, was forced to fend for the family and Sir Ed says his father, Percy's character was "moulded by this uncertain environment into a mixture of moral conservatism and a fierce independence and pride."

Sir Ed's childhood was in Tuakau, south of Auckland, where Percy - a veteran of Gallipoli - established a weekly newspaper, the Tuakau District News and was well respected by local Maori - "he enjoyed the friendship of Princess Te Puea ... who was renowned for her lack of enthusiasm for most Pakeha."

His early years were "happy enough," he wrote. He hardened his feet and his spirit by walking the kilometre to school each day barefoot "wet, fine or frosty."

But his relationship with his father was problematic.

"He was something of a martinet and my childhood became dominated by fear of his displeasure and finally into unspoken resentment [and] fierce arguments which carried on unabated during my teens."

That experience - he was frequently physically punished at home and school - doubtless contributed to his famously prickly relationship with his own children, in particular his son Peter, in later years.

Certainly Sir Ed was in no doubt that, despite the input of his mother, Gertrude ("a woman of admirable character [who] gave me the affection and encouragement I needed") it played havoc with his self-esteem. He cried easily and never forgot the frequent humiliations visited on him by teachers at Tuakau School, although he was an industrious pupil.

His mother was determined that he would get a good secondary education and at 13, Ed enrolled at Auckland Grammar School even though it meant 12-hour days and long train journeys to the city.

The small-town boy found the big city "a terrifying experience."

"I was academically and emotionally lost and ... I slipped off and munched my sandwiches in solitary fashion."

But worse was to come. In the first week a physical education teacher "cast his eye over my scrawny physique, rolled his eyes to the heavens, and muttered: "What will they send me next".

"He placed me in the misfit class with the other physical freaks," Sir Ed recalled years later. "I developed a feeling of inferiority about my physique which has remained with me to this day, not about what [it] could achieve but a solid conviction about how appalling I looked."

Through his teens, the body of the gangly youth from Tuakau sprouted - nine inches in two years at one point - and though the daily train schedule denied him the chance to play sport he learned to excel physically by running alongside the train and leaping on at the last moment. But his life took a fateful turn in his last year at Grammar when he went on a school trip to Mt Ruapehu.

"As our bus carried us steadily up towards the Chateau perched high on the mountainside, its powerful headlights sparked into life a fairyland of glistening snow and stunted pines and frozen streams. I was in a strange and exciting new world.

Yet the man who would one day stand higher than anyone before him was more interested in what was beneath his feet than above his head.

"For ten glorious days we skied and played on the lower slopes of the mountain, and I don't think I ever looked towards the summit."

Sir Ed enrolled at university but found it hard to study and make friends. After two years he dropped out to work full-time for the beekeeping business his father had by then established but he had joined a tramping club and spent his winter Sundays walking in the Waitakeres. Already he was beginning to feel the physical strength that would one day carry him higher than any man before him. "I knew I had more physical energy than most and revelled in driving myself to the utmost."

When war broke out, the 20-year-old Hillary applied to join the Air Force but later withdrew his application, before it had been considered, after being "harassed by my religious conscience."

The war years were the most miserable of his life, but, by now firmly bitten by the mountain bug, he found his outlet in the Southern Alps, travelling there twice a year - for rock climbing in February and ice work in September. As his skill and sureness grew he conquered peak after peak and found new tracks in the rugged spine of the islands ranges. He saved his pennies to pay for the best guides, keen to equip himself with the best advice and training, and developed a reputation as a safe and cool-headed climber.

The Japanese threat in the Pacific and the arrival of conscription finally undermined Ed's pacifist inclinations. Although his father had applied for the young man to be excused service on the grounds that honey production was an essential service, he finally yielded to his sons importuning.

Ed's initial training was in Marlborough and he spent all his off-hours in the mountains, starting with a solo ascent of 2885m Mt Tapuaenuku.

He reached Blenheim late in the evening and as he waited - dirty, unshaven and very tired - for the bus to leave for camp, he listened to the young airmen discussing their social conquests of the evening. "I didn't care! I had climbed a decent mountain at last."

In the last year of the war he found himself serving in the Pacific Islands. His memories were mostly of enjoyable times - VJ Day occurred shortly after he was posted there and he did not see the worst of the war - but a boating accident served to both test and prove his physical endurance. When a broken petrol tank on a motor boat burst into flame and Hillary braced himself to leap overboard, the boat hit a big wave and he was thrown backwards onto the sizzling engine cover.

"The pain was quite considerable," he would later remark with characteristic mildness.

"I remember thinking `Now I know what its like to be a rasher of bacon'."

He had to swim 500m to shore and walk, badly burned, another kilometre or so for help.

Doctors feared for his chances - the Air Force sent a message to his parents warning he was "critically ill" - and he was told he would convalesce for many months. But he was up and about in three weeks and discharged with sick leave back to New Zealand.

The years between 1946 and his first trip to the Himalayas were spent conquering every peak of note in the Southern Alps, many of the climbs under the watchful eye of Harry Ayres.

"At no time," Hillary later said of his mentor, "did I approach his technical standard but I absorbed a good deal of his philosophy of safe but forceful mountaineering."

But not everything went his way. An expedition to climb the unconquered South Ridge of Mt Cook went awry when, on La Perouse, a rope broke and one of the party, a young medical student called Ruth Adams slipped 20m and crashed against a boulder, breaking her arm.

For three long nights, Hillary sheltered and protected the injured woman, digging an ice cave and caring for her until a rescue operation could be mounted. The experience impressed him profoundly, confirming his growing belief that the sound judgement conferred by wide experience was every bit as important as technical skill in making a mountaineer.

In 1950, on a trip to Europe to his sister June's wedding in London, he again tested his mettle by climbing five 3000m peaks in five days in the Austrian alps.

He was developing into a climber of solid technique and extraordinary strength and in 1951 his years of rigorous training met their biggest test when he was invited by George Lowe to join a New Zealand party to the Himalayas.

The four-month trip was a magnificent introduction to the area and good news was waiting at the end of it - an invitation to join the British expedition led by Eric Shipton to survey the west and southwest approaches to Everest.

It was the first step in a long journey which would bring, to him first and unforgettably, the dream of all serious mountaineers.

Chosen as the "end links" (the words are his) in a carefully forged chain on the 1953 expedition led by Colonel John Hunt, Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit and gazed in triumph over the world at their feet.

News of their achievement reached London just in time for the coronation of a new Queen - "All this and Everest too!" one newspaper rhapsodised - and the happy coincidence caused some to proclaim the inauguration of a new Elizabethan era.

Hillary, who had announced his success to others in the party with the ringingly vernacular and now immortal phrase "We knocked the bastard off", was not prepared for the world-wide attention he would now face.

Descending from the foothills towards Kathmandu he was met by a mail runner carrying a letter addressed to "Sir Edmund Hillary, KBE."

He and the expedition had joined the small company of recipients of knighthoods who have their titles conferred on them immediately after their achievement.

"I was aghast," he would later write. "I had never approved of titles and couldn't imagine myself possessing one. 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."

The new Queen's desire to confer the honour quickly demanded his presence in England where he was received as a conquering hero and it was not until August that he returned home.

En route he made an important stop in Sydney to call on one Louise Mary Rose, a young musician studying at the Conservatorium of Music. She was from an Auckland family which Ed had known and liked for many years.

More significantly he had been "enamoured of Louise for some time, even though I was 11 years older." His proposal of marriage was accepted and they were married on September 3 - Louise's 23rd birthday. It was the fairytale end to an extraordinary year.

A public appeal to raise money for a wedding present raised more than 270 contributed in shillings and pence (the running tally was published almost daily in the New Zealand Herald) Their honeymoon - a lecture tour of Britain and Europe - was an early taste of what the rest of their lives together would be like: dominated by Sir Ed's fame and the projects he used that fame to further.

Hillary often referred to the marriage ("the most sensible action I have ever taken") as the happiest years of his life.

Louise was, by general consensus, the extrovert who eased his social awkwardness "the yeasty element," as one friend put it, "that made the bread rise."

They raised three children - Peter was born on Boxing Day, 1954, Sarah 18 months later and Belinda barely two years later again.

For months after the Everest expedition he underwent trial by adulation. The couple's movements were reported like those of royalty; a 1955 piece in this newspaper noted that "instead of going back to Auckland as they had originally planned Sir Edmund Hillary and family have remained in Wellington" and even named the family in whose house they were guests.

Sir Ed for his part was not really comfortable with that treatment. His old climbing mate George Lowe who flew back into Auckland with him when he returned to a hero's welcome remembered that he saw the crowd waiting for him at Mechanics Bay and said: "Gosh this is going a bit too far."

He regarded the knighthood as a great annoyance, Lowe said, fearing that titled fame would bring more restriction than advantage. But typically, pragmatically, he used his fame to the advantage of others.

The sponsorship he enjoyed - from Field Educational Enterprises in Chicago and outdoor gear manufacturers such as Sears Roebuck - provided a financial basis for a life jam-packed with adventures.

Most notable among these the was the 1958 British trans-Antarctic expedition led by Sir Vivian Fuchs.

Hillary set out from Scott Base to lay supply dumps for Fuchs's party which had left from the continent's opposite coast. He was then meant to turn back to Scott Base after his dump-laying.

When the New Zealand Antarctic committee gave Hillary permission to carry on further than planned, Fuchs welcomed Hillary's offer to scout a route through the crevasses the British would meet as they approached Hillary's last supply dump.

But instead of testing only part of the route Hillary forged on and
became the first man since Scott to lead an overland expedition to
the South Pole. It took years for the rumbles to die down.

By then even Hillary was beginning to lose count of the Himalayan expeditions he had led and any other man might have been pleased to retire from adventure and devote himself to pet projects such as Volunteer Service Abroad, of which he was to become president.

But the work of which he would be proudest lay ahead of him. The big fees he commanded from product endorsement and personal appearances were, as often as not, banked to the credit of the Himalayan Trust, a worldwide conglomerate of which he was the corporate head and which built classrooms in the clouds and hilltop hospitals for the people of Nepal.

Through his tireless work, much of it hands on, more than two dozen schools, two hospitals, 12 bridges and landing strips in high narrow valleys were built to improve the lot of the people he loved so much and who revered him so profoundly. In between times he found time to mount, in 1960, an expedition to search for the Himalayas' fabled yeti ("There seems," he concluded, "good reason to believe that the blue bear is to blame and I am inclined to think that the realm of mythology is where the yeti rightly belongs") and to ride Hamilton jet boats up the Sun Kosi and Arun Rivers in an expedition that would culminate in a 1977 "Ocean to Sky" trip up India's holy river, the Ganges.

By the bitterest of ironies it was his devotion to the building projects that dealt him the most tragic blow of his life.

On 31 March 1975, heading back home after a year in Nepal, Lady Hillary and the couple's younger daughter Belinda were killed when their plane crashed shortly after taking off from a Kathmandu airfield.

The loss shattered Sir Ed. He sank into a deep gloom and later confided that he had more than once thought of taking his own life. The climb out of the depths of that despair was, in many ways, his most heroic ascent.

Sir Edmund's long life was notably free of scandal and controversy though he ruffled a few politicians feathers when, addressing an assembly of school prefects in 1967, he deplored the "expediency and just plain dishonesty of utterance in government and politics" and later when he denounced this country's relatively low levels of foreign aid.

In 1975 he was prominent in the Citizens for Rowling campaign which - vainly as it turned out _ tried to boost the Labour leader's chances against Robert Muldoon in the election.

But he was not about to be prevailed upon to enter politics. He rebuffed approaches to stand against Muldoon in Tamaki in 1978. "My attitude was that it wasn't a very satisfactory sort of suggestion."

But he could not avoid high office forever. In October 1984, the new Labour Government prevailed on him to accept the role as High Commissioner to India.

The appointment was blindingly logical - Hillary himself observed that "there's probably no Westerner who's better known in India" - and was the ideal one to heal the wounds caused when Muldoon had summarily closed the commission several years earlier.

He was accompanied on the posting by June Mulgrew, once the wife of his old climbing mate Peter, who was one of the 257 killed in the 1979 Erebus disaster.

The Hillarys and the Mulgrews had always been close and the shared tragedy - both had been widowed by air crashes - seemed to bring them closer. Mrs Mulgrew went as Hillary's social secretary but was soon being referred to as his constant companion.

Partnership and marriage soon followed and it was an index of the unconditional esteem in which Hillary was held that the arrangement attracted not a breath of disapproval.

Hillary once wrote that he would keep working in Nepal "until they throw us out" - an event less likely than a heavy frost in hell. But in the end, the altitude beat him back.

He had diced with death as early as 1954 when he had a cerebral stroke on Mt Makalu and in the 90s he had to be stretchered down to a lower altitude when he took ill while filming a television documentary on his life.

On each new visit, he took an ever greater risk with his cardio-vascular system. And it is doubtless true that the second greatest anguish in his life was having to give up returning to the high country he loved.

He gave the world another scare in 1998 when he succumbed to pneumonia on a cruise ship sailing the waters round Antarctica. It took him months to fully recover.

In his twilight years, Sir Edmund Hillary spent much of his time at his rambling Remuera Rd house with its dress circle view of the harbour and gulf. When in 1992 he was asked to give permission for his likeness to be used on the $5 note - the first living New Zealander so honoured - he quipped that it meant he would have to be respectable for the rest of his life.

The comment was vintage Ed - casually self-deprecating and down-to-earth. But it was superfluous: he had earned our respect on that May day in 1953. The rest of his life simply served to confirm that he had always deserved it.