Word that the world's highest mountain had been climbed reached the public the same day Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, in the same year that DNA was discovered, less than a decade after World War II had ended.

May 29, 1953, was a day of celebration in Britain, New Zealand and the rest of the home country's steadily shrinking empire.

A new Queen was crowned and men stood on the top of the world for the first time. In retrospect we know the jubilation the news caused and that it became one of those touchstone moments - like the deaths of President Kennedy or Princess Diana - where people could say, "I remember where I was when ... "

But 50 years on it seems reasonable to ask why it generated such excitement. Why did the ascent of Mt Everest cause such a fuss and why does it engage us still?

Any mountaineer will tell you it was neither the last mountain left unclimbed nor the most difficult. Unlike the moon landing and the discovery of DNA, it neither represented nor promised any great scientific advance and had no ongoing implications for humanity.

As Jan Morris, The Times reporter with the expedition, writes elsewhere in Weekend Review, "it was only a slab of rock".

Sir Edmund Hillary, and the other expedition members, were flabbergasted by the glaze of publicity they met when they came down the mountain.

"My feeling was that the mountaineering world would be interested in our success, but I really had no idea as to whether the world in general would be the slightest bit interested," Hillary says, his still imposing frame hardly contained by an armchair in the living room of his Remuera home. Just how that climb has defined his life is apparent by the pictures of the Himalayas that cover the wall.

"Of course, I was absolutely wrong," he continues, "When I started coming down we got mail runner after mail runner with newspaper cuttings and telegrams and goodness knows what. I started to realise it really had made quite a big impact."

His surprise, which now seems remarkably naive, is understandable when you consider his upbringing in Tuakau and then Auckland at a time when New Zealand's distance from world centres meant isolation. Remember, too, that he had scaled several unclimbed mountains in the Himalayas in 1951 to nary a flicker of public interest.

Ask Hillary why it had such an impact in 1953 and he talks of the history of the mountain, given its English name in 1865, to honour the former British Surveyor General of India, Sir George Everest. And the fact that others had come so desperately close.

"People had been trying to climb Everest for a long time. George Mallory was the famous character in the 20s, and he was the one who really made Everest famous. He reconnoitred the routes and did all sorts of formidable challenges. Then of course he disappeared and died. This was really good press material and there was lots of publicity about it. After that there were many expeditions and people got pretty high, but they didn't get to the top. So when we finally reached the summit, it was regarded as a pretty big deal."

Hillary also has a theory why people are still interested.

"A lot of it is because of what we carried on doing with the Sherpas. We worked for them. We built schools. We built hospitals and all the rest. And I think that's kept stimulating people's interest."

It's easy to forget, 50 years on in the midst of the information age, that the expedition was climbing into the complete unknown. Because of Hillary's humble and matter-of-fact telling of the climb, New Zealanders often forget the sheer danger of the climb, at mind-numbing altitude, through brutal cold and pummelling winds, over deep crevasses, jagged icefalls and, in a sense, death itself.

"All the physiologists, all the experts, had told us they didn't think we could get to the top of the mountain, even using oxygen, and still survive. They thought at that height the lack of oxygen and so on would be too much for us," Hillary says.

"Well I didn't entirely believe this," he adds with a deep laugh. "I've never been a great believer in that sort of thing. But hanging over our heads was this psychological barrier."

Psychology mattered in this challenge, perhaps more than in any great exploration since. It was still seven years before humans would reach the bottom of the world - Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh descended 10,911m to the base of the Marianas Trench in 1960 - and 16 years before Neil Armstrong would walk on the moon. But those successes - both significant firsts - were both dependent on technology. While newly developed oxygen apparatus was crucial in the Everest ascent, it seems an altogether human achievement, representing the success of sinew and will rather than the functional reliability of a machine. What adventurer Graeme Dingle calls "the raw cunning and courage of people".

As technology has since come to dominate not just humanity's historic advances, but our everyday lives, the mental and physical strength they showed is regarded with increasing awe.

Everest mattered - and continues to matter - because it was an absolute place. It was the highest.

There is something in the human spirit that draws us to absolutes - being fastest, going farthest, climbing highest. And Everest is a true absolute. The best sprinters can always find a faster fastest. Hillary and Tenzing closed the door on higher. They achieved the highest, end of story.

Everest was regarded as the last great adventure on earth. Its "final geographical barrier", as Dingle says.

Since those last physical barriers were overcome, human endeavour has sought new challenges. Some explorers turned to space, leading to the moon landing in 1969. Others turned their sight within and the uncharted territories of life itself. In hindsight, Crick and Watson's discovery of DNA's double helix structure just three months before Hillary and Tenzing's ascent was indicative of the way human exploration was headed.

Everest was the end of an era.

Clues to the enduring significance of their ascent can also be found in the newspaper reports of the day.

Hillary and Tenzing were good copy - not conventionally handsome, but with winning smiles, unblemished pasts and engaging personalities.

Even more importantly, their timing was immaculate. To have the news announced on what the coronation had already ensured would be a historic day added to its lustre.

"The Crowning Glory: Everest is Climbed", read one headline linking the day's two big events. "No monarch ever rode to Coronation with such splendid tidings ringing round her realms," The Daily Mail wrote.

The New Zealand Herald banner read: "Everest a Crown Jewel" and its lead story reported that "Thousands packed in Piccadilly Circus [on the coronation route] threw their hats in the air and cheered."

In New Zealand, it continued, the same cheers went up at coronation ceremonies and acting Prime Minister Keith Holyoake said: "What a splendid present this is for the Queen".

The public mood was one of celebration, so the achievement fitted the moment. The party had already started.

It was a party, too, to which much of the world was invited by mere membership of the British Empire. A Swiss expedition had come desperately close to the summit the year before, yet if they had succeeded, it's hard to imagine quite the same fame.

With the expedition organised by the imperial power and the summiteers from the colonies, great chunks of the world felt connected.

"It was certainly a triumph for the British," says sports historian Dr Geoff Watson of Massey University, "but it was a triumph for the Empire as well. It showed what they could do - both a colonial white man and a native, to use the language of the time."

Holyoake publicly congratulated Hillary, saying he had "put the British race and New Zealand on top of the world".

Note the order: Britain first.

"It was our uncertain phase," says historian and author Michael King. "We were still tied to Britain, but wanted to show we were standing on our own feet. We were like a lion cub wanting to show off to the mother lioness and have her be proud of us. Hillary helped us do that."

It was an achievement, too, that the New Zealand psyche could admit and admire. The climb required strength, courage, teamwork and single-minded determination. The ascent came at a time when the mighty British Empire - and the assumptions of cultural superiority that went with it - desperately needed a boost.

It was only eight years after the end of World War II. Britain, her colonies and allies had been on the winning side, but they had paid a huge price. Much of a generation had fallen and food rationing continued long after the war.

"One of my first memories of the expedition was the wonderful food we got on the ship because it was much better than we normally got in England," expedition member Mike Westmacott, who now lives in Cumbria, said last week.

"There was this sense of release from dull wartime and reconstruction, and everybody was optimistic about it."

Here was hope among the ruins - a young new Queen and a young new hero promising glories to come.

A new Elizabethan, one newspaper called Hillary, putting him in the role of a 20th-century Francis Drake. Exploring and conquering had been the core of that age and of the empire.

It showed strength and character.

Prince Philip, the expedition's patron, has said "there was a tremendous lot of interest and discussion about it. So the person who actually achieved [the summit] was almost an exhibit."

Expedition members have always hated the thought that they conquered Everest. It relented, they said. But in the public mind, as Philip says, Hillary was a conquering hero on display. And for the British, conquest had always been about mastery - not just over other people's but over nature itself.

"By climbing Everest," says Dr Watson, "they beat nature on her own turf. It was in a way the ultimate away fixture."

Where the great Victorian adventure - Scott and Amundsen's race to the South Pole - ended in glorious failure for the British, this adventure at the dawn of a new Elizabethan age brought glorious success.

Could this be a sign of an empire being reborn?

No, as we now know. What at the time hinted at a new era resonates still because in many ways it represented the end of so many things.

It was arguably the last time Britain could feel it truly led the world; a last gasp of empire.

The greater symbolism was that it was men from the colonies, not from Britain, who reached the top. Britain's young were stepping out and making it on their own.

The empire was evolving into a Commonwealth. India had become independent in 1947, and through the 50s, Britain's other Asian and African colonies would follow suit. Across the Atlantic, America was laying the foundations of a new empire.

From the New Zealand point of view the climb can be seen as a marker in this country's coming of age. Remember, New Zealand had thrown off dominion status and become an independent country only in 1947.

"Thus there was a sense of national pride in this small and distant new country that, after many unsuccessful attempts by famous climbers from many other countries, this great challenge had been met by a New Zealander and that it was being celebrated all over the world," says historian Professor Barry Gustafson.

Hillary's success was an early proof of what we could do. It won us international tributes - which New Zealanders, in our insecurity, have always treasured - and marked a transition between our colonial childhood and independent maturity.

Sir Ernest Rutherford, perhaps the only other New Zealander to achieve so notable a feat, had to move to Britain to do so. Hillary, although part of a British-led team, came from and returned to New Zealand.

As such, Hillary now stands as a bridge between Rutherford of the Dominion and some son or daughter of this country who will be recognised for greatness on entirely New Zealand terms.

Herald Feature: Climbing Everest - The 50th Anniversary