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Son of Everest

A Conversation with Peter Hillary
  • Vaamika Island

    A Himalayan valley in Bhutan (background); Peter on the summit of Everest (center); Peter on the summit of Mt. Rimo, India (top right, image courtesy of Roddy Mackenzie); Peter with his wife Yvonne Oomen in Tibet (bottom right)

  • Wildflower Hall, Shimla in the Himalayas

    Wildflower Hall, Shimla in the Himalayas

  • Ananda in the Himalayas

    Ananda in the Himalayas

  • Monastery

    The “Tiger’s Nest” Monastery in Bhutan

  • Jele Dzong Trek

    Prayer flags and the Jele Dzong in Bhutan

  • The Peninsula Beijing

    The Peninsula Beijing

  • The Peninsula Beijing

    The Peninsula Beijing

QUICK LOOK:
Peter Hillary
WHO

One of the world’s most accomplished adventurers. Thirty-seven years after his father Sir Edmund Hillary completed the first ascent of Everest, Peter followed suit, making the Hillary family the first to have two generations reach the summit.

WHERE

Peter makes his home in Auckland, New Zealand, and travels frequently to the Everest region of Nepal for his work with the Himalayan Foundation.

WHAT’S NEXT

Attending the 60th anniversary of the first successful Everest expedition as a guest of the British royal family.

“Our forebears did not go around shaking all the time about security. They were bold; they went out to places.”

James Freeman
Peter Hillary’s life of travel began at a young age, with regular family visits to the Everest region of Nepal. He went on to accompany his father Sir Edmund Hillary, who made the first ascent of Everest in 1953, on a series of adventures: jetboating up the Ganges from the Bay of Bengal to the high Himalayas, making first ascents of multiple Himalayan peaks, and flying a small aircraft with Neil Armstrong to the North Pole. Peter’s forty-plus expeditions include climbing each continent’s highest peak (the “seven summits”) and the first high-altitude traverse of the Himalayan range. He recently called from his home in Auckland, New Zealand to talk with us about his travels.

You recently traveled with your two sons to the Himalayas. Could you talk a bit about that?

Early last year I had my sons George and Alexander over in Nepal with me, and we just had a wonderful time. It was going to be the whole family but it ended up being just us, the Hillary boys let loose on the Himalayas. We were racing up hills, and we actually even spied a snow leopard. I wouldn’t have seen it if it hadn’t been for the sharp eyes of my boys. It was probably half a kilometer away, this big cat just racing between trees in a high meadow over 13,000 feet. So that was pretty special. And then we climbed up onto a ridge on Ama Dablam, one of the prettiest places in the Everest area, up to about 19,000 feet.

I think that’s something all travel organizations ought to focus on, facilitating those once-in-a-lifetime trips for fathers and sons or mothers and daughters or whatever the combination is. I’ve taken the kids on a lot of trips like this, and they end up being recurring themes in our conversations. I was climbing on Mount Blanc with my daughter Amelia in France three or four years ago and she’s still talking about various aspects of that trip all the time. She’ll be out with friends and she’s saying, “Oh, I was in a snow-cave with my father on Mount Blanc when…” And you think, well, you’ve actually given them something pretty special, a real experience, and in a way you have to go to a snow-cave somewhere to have it — whereas if you’re in a big city somewhere, well, going out to a nightclub with your father probably just isn’t going to happen. [Laughs.] But going off on an adventure somewhere like that, particularly when the father’s paying for all of it, it’s an eminently attractive proposition.

You went on expeditions with your father starting from quite a young age, didn’t you?

I certainly did, and I feel that that was sort of the way my father really shared things with us. I think like a lot of men, particularly from that generation, he wasn’t given to sitting around and talking about his feelings. It was more like you go out and you do things together. That’s certainly the way Ed Hillary was. These journeys that I went on with him, as a child and as a son, they really meant something to me.

Did you ever take just a leisurely family vacation — like a low-key trip to the beach?

We’re not a family that likes just lying around on the beach. [Laughs.] In fact it makes me smile thinking of one occasion when we were invited to an event on a Fijian island, you know, one of those small tropical islands in the South Pacific. I know to a lot of people that’s already sounding like paradise. Well I just remember for my sister Sarah and I, it felt like incarceration. It was a really small island, maybe three or four acres, something like that, and at low tide we would start running around the beach. There was nowhere else you could run because there was a little top-knot of coconut palms on the actual island, and so we’d just run round and round for the distraction. We really wanted to get out of there. So yeah, lying around is just not a characteristic of my Hillary family upbringing, that’s for sure.

There’s probably no one else on the planet who has as much perspective on both Everest and a place like the Peninsula Hotel in Beijing, where some of the trips you lead for National Geographic begin. Does bouncing between those extremes feel odd? Does it feel comfortable?

Well I think it feels incredibly comfortable! In fact, I think going on those hard trips makes you appreciate staying in the Peninsula Hotel in Beijing or wherever you are to an absolutely most marvelous degree. I think a lot of expeditionary people, if we go and stay at a really nice hotel, we appreciate it maybe even more than most people. You see the comfort of the bed and the supply of hot water and excellent food as being the luxury that in fact it is.

What’s it like that first night back in a hotel after you get off the mountain?

It’s really one of the great pleasures. Whenever you’ve been mountaineering or even just trekking, you come back to town and you check into a good hotel and that first really good shower, it’s a luxury. In fact these are things that we look forward to immensely.

I’m a great believer that you want to have contrasts in your life. I think they amplify the enjoyment of the things you do. If all you do is eat caviar, you’re not going to think much of caviar. And I think the same thing goes for a great hotel or a trek into the Himalayas. I mean, if a trek was actually going to last forever, you’d start not really enjoying the experience. When you have a variety of experiences, each one amplifies and contributes to the other.

Among serious adventurers there tends to be an emphasis on firsts — first ascents, new routes… What are your thoughts on the value of returning to the same places again and again, the way you do in Nepal?

I think there’s huge value in that. I understand the attraction of first ascents. I mean, that’s an exciting thing to go where no one has gone before. But I actually think there’s immense value in having a few places that are particularly special to you, too. My family has connections like that with a simple little mountain hut on the coast of New Zealand, and we love going there, just like we love returning to the Everest region in Nepal. I think it would be unfortunate if you only went to brand new challenging locations, because yeah, that is certainly part of the journey, but the other part is developing your relationship with the place.

Are there any hotels that you feel the same way about? Places you’ve developed a relationship with?

I’m thinking of a number of places. I do enjoy going to the Peninsula. Obviously it’s a very beautiful hotel, it’s in a very convenient location and they certainly make you welcome. But I’m also thinking of Khumbu Lodge in Namche Bazar, up near the foot of Mount Everest. I always stay there. They give me a simple little room. I’ve known the people, the family, all my life. So although it certainly doesn’t compare to the Peninsula, if you’re in Namche Bazar at 11,000 feet, it’s the best accommodation in town. [Laughs.] And it’s always nice to come back to that.

Where are you going next?

I’m going to England for the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest. When it comes to celebration of pomp and circumstance, the British really do know how to do it. I’m looking forward to it.

You’re being hosted by the royal family, right? Do they do a good job spoiling their guests?

I think the feeling is that the osmosis of rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous is such an absolutely marvelous experience that there’s no renumeration required whatsoever. [Laughs.] They’ve invited me to a couple events over the years, but there’s never been any mention of a first-class ticket. That’s been uniformly missing from the invitations. But they are great experiences and it’s a tremendous honor.

What do you think the first ascent of Everest ascent represents sixty years on?

I think it is a great thing to celebrate because it’s more than just climbing the world’s highest mountain. It was one of those extraordinary human feats that expanded the realm of possibility for everyone. That doesn’t mean everyone goes, “Oh, well I’ll go climb Mount Everest.” It’s sort of like when Neil Armstrong went to the moon. We didn’t all go off and try to go to the moon. But it sends this amazingly liberating message which is that people can do this. Even I can do this.

Do you think that sense of possibility is getting rarer, or is it becoming easier to be adventurous as the world becomes more accessible?

Ironically I think the answer is both. Things have never been so accessible, but the issue unfortunately on the other side is that there’s never been a time in the Western world when we’ve been so unfit, and so concerned about our security.

Our forebears did not go around shaking all the time about security. They were bold; they went out to places. Whereas now we are progressively living in communities where people are concerned about their safety, and if a single act of aggression happens against someone from their nationality they think the world is attacking them. And these are actually flatly narcissistic views of things. I think people need to take a few precautions and then go anyway. You get out there and enjoy your life because you only live once. There are so many incredible things to do and all you’ve got to do is take the first step and get on with it.

Mike Parker
QUICK LOOK:
Peter Hillary
WHO

One of the world’s most accomplished adventurers. Thirty-seven years after his father Sir Edmund Hillary completed the first ascent of Everest, Peter followed suit, making the Hillary family the first to have two generations reach the summit.

WHERE

Peter makes his home in Auckland, New Zealand, and travels frequently to the Everest region of Nepal for his work with the Himalayan Foundation.

WHAT’S NEXT

Attending the 60th anniversary of the first successful Everest expedition as a guest of the British royal family.

“Our forebears did not go around shaking all the time about security. They were bold; they went out to places.”

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