It was when Sir Edmund Hillary stepped off the plane in Auckland that the terror of celebrity hit him. As hard a slap as the freezing, gale-force winds of the Himalayas. Walking across the tarmac before thousands of cheering fans, it struck home that this "Everest thing" was going to change his life for ever.

Until then he and his climbing mate, George Lowe, had been able to laugh off the attention. The knighthood, the parties with royalty, the fawning British press, they had all been a game for these wild colonial boys.

Then they arrived home, back to reality, and found all the stuff and nonsense continuing. Hillary, a down-to-earth local boy from Tuakau , felt vulnerable among his own people.


He needn't have worried. The fact that he has never seemed anything other than a local boy - humble, direct and unaffected - is what has endeared him to New Zealanders.

He had left in 1952 an unknown beekeeper. He returned in 1953 a conquering hero, instantly recognisable and universally praised. That story, in which the scruffy 33 year-old had become the first person to reach the top of the world's highest mountain, is remarkable enough. What is more extraordinary is that half a century later his reputation has not been diminished or deconstructed. Where living heroes typically fall, his mana has grown.

In the coming week people around the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of that first ascent. They will rightly emphasise the mighty efforts of a large team that enabled Hillary and Tenzing to reach the summit.

Yet in this country, the celebrations will gravitate towards Ed - hero, symbol, and for most of us, the closest thing we have to a personification of the qualities this country values.

Somehow, a beekeeper-turned-mountaineer-turned-fundraiser has come to be regarded as the greatest New Zealander.

Sir-Ed, as we call him in a mix of respect and familiarity that runs title and name together, is a distinctly New Zealand hero.

As historian and author Michael King says, "every country, if they're lucky, has someone quintessential to that country and how it sees itself. Ed is ours".

Adventurer Graham Dingle, who drove jet boats up the Ganges with Hillary, believes finding such a person is a prerequisite to achieving true nationhood, and that Hillary is our equivalent of George Washington in the United States. He embodies many of the values we admire, that we like to think of as our most central, and that we fear belong to an era that has passed.


Which values? Some barely need repeating - courage, determination and humility are given. But ask around and the list gets longer. Over the years it seems Hillary has become a screen on which we project the values on that list that we admire most.

"A fair go, equality. He always understates," says King. "He's an easygoing guy. He's not somebody who's wanting more and more," says Lowe. "Determined, no-nonsense and very honest," says sociologist Avril Bell.

"Unassuming, intelligent but not in a bookish way, very competent," says historian Professor Barry Gustafson.

"Immensely strong, immensely honest, immensely straight-forward, could turn his hand to almost anything and has a huge amount of charity in him," says Dingle.

Put the pieces together and you get not a man, but a symbol.

"Our national mythology of blokehood, " says Bell, who teaches nationalism and national identity at Massey University. "He's the kiwi bloke figure; the nicest type of kiwi bloke. It's been a constant theme since the pioneers came - getting out there and doing things and being self-reliant."

It helps that what made him famous was unquestionably physical, adds sports historian Dr Geoff Watson, also of Massey. "He's a very manly man, so even though he's been so humble and a little too liberal, he could not be knocked as a softie."

Dingle believes it's important that, like his famous climb, he's larger than life. "Had he been a weedy little character without that smile I doubt we would have held him up as the icon he is."

Consider his most famous quote, made to Lowe, his best friend, when he returned from the summit of Mt Everest: "We knocked the bastard off." It was a throwaway line, but it's endured for a reason. While Hillary regretted the swearing - because it upset his mother - those words ring true in the New Zealand psyche. They're not rude; they're real.

They set the tone for Hillary's relationship with New Zealand since. They are the kind of words any kiwi bloke might use after a bit of hard yakka. They are both proud and understated.

The mountain that had conquered so many, that had defied the best mountaineers and killed others, became merely a "bastard", like some old joker in the pub. That unparalleled effort to reach the summit was just something Hillary and Norgay "knocked off", like a beer or mowing the lawns. "We", he said. Together. Although we now know Hillary was the first man on top, for years Hillary and his companions dissembled on the point, stressing the team effort.

"He never, never looks like he's inflating himself," says King.

Look at the stories he tells most often. The ones he's told thousands of times. A favourite is what happened when he and Tenzing reached the summit. "I had a very strong feeling of satisfaction," he says, "but Tenzing was more excited than I was. I sort of reached out to shake his hand in good old Anglo-Saxon fashion, but that wasn't good enough for him. He threw his arm around my shoulder and I threw my arms around him and we had a real good old hug."

Another is when, on the way down the mountain he got the letter informing him of his knighthood. "It said Sir Edmund Hillary KBE and I thought, 'Oh God, someone's trying to be funny'. But George [Lowe] laughed and laughed. He's a bit smarter than me. He realised that I'd got a title. I have to admit, I was really a bit aghast. I couldn't see myself wandering around Papakura in my dirty old overalls having a title. I remember thinking to myself, you know, I'll have to buy myself a new pair of overalls."

They're perfect kiwi bloke yarns - self-deprecating, stoic, funny.

As Watson says, "What he did required enormous physical strength, courage and drive, but he made it seem ordinary. Hillary was able to give the impression anyone could do it, that he was one of us."

"And it's not just when he speaks," King adds. "His whole manner is so much that of the New Zealand man."

"It's all coherent," says Bell. "Everything he's done fits with our impression of the person he is. There's nothing that jars."

The 83-year-old, naturally, doesn't see himself as an icon. He views "Hillary the great" as an imposter. As Lowe drily said recently, "icon - well that's a four-letter word to him".

Hillary's mountainous body is slumped in an armchair in his Remuera home, where he has lived since the mid-50s. His face is as long as the Lhotse Face, which he scaled on the way up Everest. The hearing aid is turned up, as is the smile. Until heroism is mentioned.

"I was never a heroic figure," he says frowning. "Not in the way I look at it. But the media, then the public made me into a heroic figure and it's been very hard to get rid of that."

So what do you do with that?

"I say 'thank you very much' and carry on doing the next thing."

Does the mythology surrounding you annoy you?

"Not really. I refuse to take it seriously."

It's true he's never bought into the hero way of life. Famously, his name and number has always been in the phonebook. A token? No. Phone calls from strangers - mostly journalists - are a daily occurrence. It's also not unusual for people to just turn up on his doorstep to say hello. When I was there a man brought his son - maybe 6 or 7 years-old - to meet Hillary. The man almost bowed as he shook Hillary's hand and stumbled over his words, thanking him for all he'd done for the country. Hillary patiently smiled and thanked him.

In these days when sporting heroes - the Jordans and Beckhams - make tens of millions from endorsements, Hillary does not have a shoe or energy bar named after him. He has acted as a consultant on camping equipment for US retailers Sears and Roebucks, but it's been more than name association.

"I worked jolly hard testing it," often on family holidays, he says.

Did he get offers for other endorsements?

"Not a hell of a lot. When I came back to New Zealand people used to say to me, 'Ah, you'll never have to worry again. You'll be director of this and director of that.' Well nobody made me a director at all. I didn't get any offers."

If he'd made the climb today, he could have been a multimillionaire. At the suggestion he makes a sound that might be described as a "harrumph".

"I've no desire to be a multimillionaire ... I did reasonably well over the years and I have no great concerns about my finances. I don't need large sums of money."

Immediately after Everest expedition members gave public lectures all over the world. Their sponsor, the Royal Geographic Society, ruled everyone would be paid the same - £25 a lecture. For several years that was his income.

"Then I wrote my first book, which I regarded as mine. And I got a good return from that. In fact it was good enough for me to be able to build this house here."

There was the tractor trip to the South Pole, the hunt for the Yeti and the Ocean to Sky journey up the Ganges, but since the 60s his life has been dominated by fundraising for his Himalayan Trust, which has built 27 schools, 12 medical clinics, two hospitals and two airfields for the Sherpas. His personal income has come from writing and lecturing. For a shy boy who became a famously laconic man, he's rather good at it.

"The majority of the fundraising I do is for the Sherpas," he explains. "But there are other things which have nothing to do with the Himalayas and the Sherpas. I may give a lecture, for example, which I feel it's only reasonable that I should get the return from."

He has also won admiration for dignity in the face of tragedy. His first wife Louise and a daughter, Belinda, died in a plane crash in Nepal. For two years he was "very low". There was whisky and sleeping pills.

His surviving son and daughter have spoken of how he turned in on himself in grief. But he decided to carry on his work in Nepal, "doing the things we'd been doing together, so in a sense my life wasn't changing quite so much and I was doing worthwhile things as they had been and they wanted me to do".

His most constant friends were Peter and June Mulgrew, and when Peter died in the Erebus crash in 1979, Hillary and June were drawn together, first by shared grief, then by love. They decided to marry.

"That has replaced, in a way, the sorrow of having lost Louise," says Hillary softly. "They're different people, but as it happens, what I got with Louise and what I got with June were things that were just right. June is stronger in some things, Louise was stronger in others. So I've been damned lucky. I've always realised that."

There are other criteria for an icon that are not value-based. You must avoid scandal, stay local and loyal (just ask Russell Coutts), keep a high profile, and, especially in New Zealand, be well-known overseas.

Those last three have been fatal to other much-loved New Zealanders who might have claimed Hillary's status.

Sir Ernest Rutherford and Peter Snell moved away, Kate Sheppard and Apirana Ngata weren't world famous, and Colin Meads didn't have much of a profile after rugby, except for the tainting Cavaliers' tour. Sir Peter Blake? Perhaps he just didn't have long enough. We'll see.

Hillary is not perfect, of course. We have had glimpses of a pushy competitiveness, of an insensitive bloody-mindedness, an at times distant father, and competing with that humility is an ego. He confesses that he becomes bored easily.

Because his brother Rex was a conscientious objector in World War II and, without asking, his father got Hillary reserved occupation status at the start of the war, there were occasional rumblings in the RSAs. (For the record, after wrestling with his anti-war conscience, he served with the Air Force in the South Pacific).

Left-leaning, his one party political statement was to join "Citizens for Rowling" in the 70s, earning the ire of Sir Robert Muldoon and some National supporters. (It probably cost him a governor-generalship, too, notes Gustafson). Neither grew into a scandal.

When it came out that in the Antarctic he had secretly planned to go to the South Pole all along, usurping expedition leader Sir Bunny Fuchs, he was criticised in Britain. Here, such is our relationship with him, it was seen as a nice bit of bugger-the-establishment independence.

We like our heroes to bend the rules, as long as it's done with a cheeky grin.

Hillary's smile and good-humoured patience have always put people at ease. "That's a particular gift," says King. "He has a comfort zone around all sorts of people."

He also benefited from being famous for one great moment, says Watson. His entire sporting career in the public eye was a single and singular victory.

"Unlike a rugby player or cricketer, there was no muddied glory or public ups and downs."

But there's one more thing - the magic ingredient. It's what he's done since the ascent that moves our respect to affection. He has spent his life giving something back to the Sherpas who helped him to climb Everest in the first place.

In a counterpoint to today's flash harrys and five-minute wonders who expect public acclaim for building self-serving careers, his service-centred response to fame looks increasingly admirable.

"I think a lot of people felt this was a worthwhile activity. We'd climbed the mountain, they'd helped us, and now we were giving back to them something for all of the effort they'd given us," says Hillary.

It's the part of Hillary we're most proud of.

"It fits with our national image in the world," says Bell. "Even though we're a smaller country, we like to make our mark."

As with our peacekeepers, we want to be seen as the can-do good guys, she says. Partly because we've always felt lucky to live in Godzone, we've felt a duty to share our good fortune .

Hillary says he absorbed that from his parents. "They had very strong beliefs about the responsibility of better-off countries to help the Third World countries. So when it finally happened in Nepal, I just sort of slipped into it. It just seemed the right thing to do."

And for having that good gut instinct, we celebrate him like we celebrate no other.

New Zealanders are frequently told by self-proclaimed tall poppies that we're terrible knockers. But maybe we just know that if you claim to be a tall poppy, you're not one. Maybe when we look at Hillary, we know the difference between tall poppies and gilded lilies.

He has spoken more in deed than in word, and we like that. He's got on with the job. And he does what he says. No, more than that. He is what he says.