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What Sir Edmund Hillary recalls most vividly about standing at the top of Mount Everest 35 years ago is the ice - prickly, biting slivers of ice billowing around like a white halo.

"They bore into your face, cutting and tingling," he said. "And exhilarating."On May 29, 1953, Hillary and the Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay became the first men to conquer the world's tallest mountain.

Neither Hillary nor Norgay, who died in 1986, ever said who got there first.

"We reached it together, that's all," Hillary said in an interview, abruptly ending any further discussion of the question.

Since their ascent, 202 men and women have followed them up the massive 29,028-foot mountain on the border of Nepal and Tibet.

To many, Everest symbolizes the literal and figurative high point of a mountaineer's career.

But Hillary views it as "a beginning rather than the end of adventurous activity."

It won the New Zealander a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. More important, he said, it earned him the financial backing to climb scores of other peaks in the Himalayan chain, to trek to the South Pole and even to go off on a lark, an unfruitful quest for "yeti," the legendary abominable snowman.

Hillary, now 68, now spends much of his time behind desks in the capitals of India, Nepal and Bangladesh as New Zealand's ambassador to all three countries.

Although his broad shoulders and 6-foot-3-inch frame suggest he could still take on Everest, he holds to trekking, hiking and other lower-altitude sports.

"I'm finding the hills are getting steeper," he said.

Friends, including the Indian teenagers he has led on white-water rafting trips and the tribal Sherpa children he visits at mountain schools, call him "Sir Ed."

Born Edmund Percival Hillary in Auckland on July 20, 1919, he spent a good deal of his childhood reading adventure books and daydreaming.

"There was a phase when I was the `fastest gun in the West,' another when I explored the Antarctic," Hillary said. "I would walk for hours with my mind drifting to all these things."

There wasn't much money available in his family for adventure, however. His father, a newspaper editor-turned-beekeeper, was "energetic and very active but never very good at making money."

Hillary took up skiing in high school but didn't try climbing until he was 19 or 20. His first summit was the 7,500-foot Mount Olivier in southern New Zealand.

"It wasn't a difficult mountain by any manner or means, but making it through the snow to the ridge, then along the ridge and up to the summit really captured me," Hillary recalled. "It was then that I resolved I was going to do a lot more mountains. And I did."

Hillary was already a veteran of numerous Indian Himalayan peaks when he was asked to join a British expedition in 1951 to the Everest region. The reconnaissance team explored the Khumbu glacier and an ice fall in the shadow of the great mountain.

"We were the first to realize there was a potential route up Everest from the south side," he said.

Two years later, he and Norgay and 11 others set out with the British Everest Expedition on that route. Hillary was 33 at the time, Norgay 38. At least 14 expeditions before them had failed.

Hillary said their equipment was less sophisticated than the gear available now. Although they had early nylon ropes and oxygen cylinders, they struggled with primitive, metal-spiked clampons for their boots and ice axes that lacked the curve that facilitates vertical climbing nowadays.

There was also a psychological barrier: "Physicians had warned us that even if we got to the top with oxygen, we might collapse and die because of the thin air."

Just short of the summit, Hillary and Norgay hit what appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle, a vertical "rock step" 40 feet high. Maneuvering carefully, they found a crack where the ice was breaking away from the rock and eased their way up. The spot is known to mountaineers today as "Hillary's step."

Hillary says he is most often asked if reaching the summit was accompanied by some religious or spiritual experience.

"For me, no," Hillary said. "It was mostly a sense of satisfaction and surprise actually." Norgay, he said, was more emotional.

"I shook his hand," Hillary recalled. "He threw his arms around my shoulders and gave me a tremendous hug." Later, Norgay, a Buddhist, buried bits of candy and biscuits in the snow as "a gift to the gods," Hillary said.

Atop Everest, Hillary said, he quickly found his attention turning to other unconquered peaks. With the ice particles cutting into his face and frosting his cheeks, he scanned nearby Makalu peak (27,807 feet) and worked out a climbing route.

Hillary failed in an attempt on Makalu in 1954, but a French team made it up several years later.

If his vocation today is diplomacy and the outdoors, his avocation is working to improve the lot of the poor Sherpa tribesmen who live in the hills below Everest.

Since 1961, he has raised about $200,000 a year to build schools, hospitals and water systems for the Sherpas of Nepal.

The effort has cost him more than time and energy. His wife Louise and 16-year-old daughter Belinda were killed in a plane crash in 1975 en route to join him at one of his Sherpa hospitals.

His son Peter, 33, of Melbourne, Australia, makes his living as a ski instructor and mountaineer. Peter has failed twice in efforts to climb Everest. A daughter, Sarah, 31, is an art restorer in Auckland.

Thirteen people have climbed Everest more than once, including the Nepali Sungdare Sherpa who has been to the top four times.

But Hillary said he never had any desire to repeat the trip.

"There were so many other mountains."