Sir Edmund Hillary refused to climb the Matterhorn at Disneyland in 1966.

He is not the most articulate man in the world, but his decision was eloquent. "Look here, I'm not going to climb that thing," he told the press agent who had orchestrated the publicity stunt. "I save my mountaineering for mountains."

Hillary has never gone Hollywood. He never made any movies exploiting his mountaineering prowess the way Johnny Weissmuller did his swimming abilities. There are no Sir Edmund Hillary T-shirts.

This is one secured man of 58 who has survived the idolatry surrounding his scaling of Mount Everest in 1953 and the tragedy of losing his wife and daughter in a plane crash in Katmandu in 1975.

With the possible exception of Charles Lindbergh, there has been no greater overnight sensation in this centurey. When Hillary and his Sherpa guide. Tenzing Norgay, became the first men to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain on the morning of May 29, 1953, he promptly became an international celebrity and the new hero to an empire badly in need of one.

His timing was impeccable. Four days after he scaled Everest, Queen Elizabeth was crowned in Westminster Abbey. His feat injected a sense of pride into the pageantry in London that had been lacking there for years. He had refueled the fires of British invicibility, and the ensuing months would become one long, glittering blur for him.

"It was a bit of a scream, really," he said recently of his hero's welcome in London, where he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth."Rubbing shoulders wth dukes and lords; champagned, Scotch and smoked salmon; Hangovers every moring. It was rather entertaining for a while." Hillary's only problem at the time involved such weighty matters as his personal appearance. As a former bee-keper from New Zealand, he had never wore tails before ("I finally figured them out") ad has absolutely no idea where on his considerable chest his various medals should be placed. He adopted a pin-the-tail-donkey approach that succeeded in passing the muster of protocol during the endless festivities in his honor. Since then, he has continued to make headlines with other elemental tests of endurance that elicit awe from anyone aware of his own body.

He led an overland party to the South Pole in 1958. Armed with a highly touted hypodermic needle-gun and a tremendous amount of press, he searched for the Abominable Snowman in the Himalayas in 1961, only to be carried down a mountain with what he describes as "a mild stroke" due to the high altitude.

Most reently, he lead a party in jet boats from the mouth of the Ganges River at the Bay of Bergal to its mountain source in the Himalayas in 1677. That experience led to a book, "From the Ocean to the Sky," the inevitable publicity tour in this cuntry, and his appearance in New York.

He already has another expedition in the works, but he won't talk about it at this point. One cannot imagine this bear of a man being relegated to inactivity. One day, though, it will all end, and he will confront the ultimate nightmare of any active person.

"I hope that my last days are active," he said. "The crisis will come. I'm still a very strong walker, but when I can't walk anymore, it will be a very difficlut situation for me. My big-time mountain climbing days are definitely over now," he continued. "I did climb a nice little (8,000 ft.) mountain in New Zealand last January though."

Hillary has found the middle ground between tawdrt commercial exploitiation of his name and total repudiation of the filthy lucre. He has lent his name to a lone of camping equipment sold by Sears of which he claims to be quite proud, and he is now ensconced in the pantheon of figures used by American Express to sell it credit card.

Hillary stresses, though, that most of the money is funneled into the Himalayan Trust, which he helped found to built schools and hospitals in Nepal.

"I do a great deal of lecturing, but not on the circuit as such," he explained. "Its all fund-raising for the trust in Nepal. I have a considerable sense of responsibility to the people in Nepal. I have ongoing firendships with many of the Sherpas there."

He spends three or four months a year supervising the work of the trust. The rest of the time, he is either at home outside Auckland or on tour somewhere in North America. Hillary is stunned at the drawing power of the mountain that brought him fame.

"Everest is booked four or five years ahead," he said. "It's amazing the amount of interest there still is in the mountain. I can understand the new routes, but they're lining up to repeat our old one.

"In our day, the altitude and distance were the major problem," he continued. "Now there are a lot of technical improvements in equipment and skills. The whole standard of mountaineering has gone up. The challenge is still there, but the routes are harder.

"We look for the most obvious and easiest route. Now, they ask you, 'Which route did you use?'"

If Hillary is gracious about the technical advantages he never had, he is less supportive of what he sees as a movement toward superstars among the top mountaineers today.

"Our objective was that someone would reach the top," he explained.

"Today there are a lot of prima donnas who want to make sure that they're the first. That's not what climbing is all about as far as I'm concerned."

Equally distressing, says Hillary, is the scale of recent assaults.

"The trend over that last 15 years has been towards big expeditions," he said, "It's very unfortunate. There was a Japanese expedition four or five years ago with about 35 members plus Sherpas. That must have cost close to half a million dollars. The whole point of mountaineering is the contest between the individual and the mountain."

Second is world attention only to his scaling of Everest in 1953 was his search for the Abominable Snowman on Malaku in 1960, funded by the Field Enterprises Educational Corporation in Chicago. Although Hillary became seriously ill, he declared the trip a success and said it put to rest the yeti myth.

"We approached it a little more scientifically than previous parties who were convinced that it existed" he explained. "We saw some strange snow tracks, but they all had rational explantations. They were usually made by Himalayan foxes and then the snow would melt the tracks together.

"The lamans in the monasteries clamed to have seen the," he continued.

"But we never found on who had actually seen one. They would say, 'Oh, go talk to Lama Bill Jones over the next hill.'

"It was good fun," he concluded. "I wasn't disappointed. I think that we dampened the yeti market for years."

Hillary exudes honesty. All three major parties in New Zealand asked him for his support in the last elections, he said, and he probably could have forged a successful political career had he been so inclined.

But polities is an foreign to him as assaults up 147-foot Matterhorns in amusement parks. He knows his limits, and he detests cosmetics. He's got a wonderful smile, one that could win votes. But his teeth are awful, and he hasn't even bothered to have them fixed, an omission to aspiring politician would make.

Hillary radiates peace of mind, in part because he has maintained a sense of proportion through the 26 years since he climbed Everest. "The important things in life -- my friends and relationships -- haven't changed much at all," he concluded. "I'm not a social butterfly, I'm still the local boy when I'm home in New Zealand."

And he has humility. "I've been carried off a few mountains," he said with no embarrassment. CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Sir Edmund Hillary; by Donal F. Holway for the Washington Post