Peter Hillary: „My father would have sighed“

Edmund Hillary (1953)

Selfies weren’t in then. Therefore there is no picture of the New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary on the summit of Mount Everest. It would have been too complicated to explain the camera to Tenzing Norgay up there at 8,850 meters, Hillary said later. And so the first ascender of Everest photographed his Nepalese companion at the summit on 29 May 1953. It remained the only summit picture.

“Sir Ed”, who died in January 2008, would have turned 100 this Saturday. On this occasion I spoke with Peter Hillary, the oldest of Ed’s three children. The 64-year-old is himself an adventurer with more than 40 expeditions behind him. Peter scaled Mount Everest twice (in 1990 and 2003), in 2008 he completed his collection of the “Seven Summits”, the highest mountains of all continents.

Peter, your father would have turned 100 on 20 July. The whole world knows him as the first ascender of Mount Everest. What kind of father was he?

Hillary in 1955 with his first wife Louise (she and their daughter Belinda were killed in a plane crash in Nepal in 1975) and Peter

I was incredibly fortunate because he was a father who included us in his activities. When we were on school holidays, we used to jokingly say that we never knew where we would end up. It could be the deserts of Australia or helping to build up a school or hospital in Nepal or climbing or skiing in the south island of New Zealand in the Southern Alps. So he really included his family in a lot of his activities. We were really privileged for this and it really positively influenced all of us.

I guess he was typical of a father from that generation. He was born in 1919, his father came out of the 19th century. But he changed his parenting style quite considerably throughout the time that I was a child in his household. I think he really moved through the times.

Peter Hillary

Again and again he had to tell how he reached the summit of Everest with Tenzing Norgay. Did he complain to his family that people reduced him to the role of Everest’s first ascent?

He realized that it really was an incredible privilege that he got the opportunity to be on the expedition and to be given an opportunity to make that first ascent. And I think he also realized that it also gave him all sort of opportunities. For example it really helped him to go on and build all these schools and hospitals and organize many other expeditions to the Himalayas or down to the Antarctica. He realized that it was part of the role. But I think the other thing about my father and I saw a lot of examples of people who differently felt that their privacy was being intruded upon. For example, I went to a trip to the North Pole with my father and Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Neil was a very private guy and he definitely got to the stage, he just felt, I don’t want to talk about it.

I think the trouble with doing that is if you feel bad about it, the person who wants to talk to you about it also feels bad about it. My father would always just have a nice chat to them, sign their book, have a photograph, listen to their story of maybe a climb in the Alps or whatever. And everyone was happy. He really cooperated with people. I think he was very generous with his time.

What was his relationship to Tenzing Norgay like?

Hillary (l.) und Tenzing Norgay

They were very good friends. Tenzing and his (third) wife Dakku came down to New Zealand on several occasion to visit us and go into the mountains together. The first time, I met Tenzing was in 1962, when we visited him in Darjeeling. We had a wonderful few days there with Tenzing and his young children and members of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute where Tenzing worked for many, many years. They were in a very good relationship and they both worked in similar areas trying to put a lot back to local communities. That was certainly the most important thing, I think, my father did. But they also worked in some of these tourist hike activities and different businesses. So there paths crossed quite often.

With his foundation Himalayan Trust your father has done a lot for the Sherpas in the Khumbu region. How important was this charity work to him?

For several decades, he openly declared that in fact it was the work of his life, the most important thing he did. He loved the expeditions and he was very satisfied with having climbed Everest. But in the end the work with the people of the mountains in Nepal he felt really was the most important contribution.

Hillary Stupa above Khumjung

We do continue. Dad was amazing in partnering with people around the world. There are foundations in Germany, the UK, Australia, New Zealand of course, America and Canada. There is a passionate group of people behind them. And the reality is: the legacy of my father is with us all still to this day. He is an important part of why these organizations operate and he continues to help them just by the fact that his name is there and he was a key part of these organizations.  

Is it difficult to continue this work without him?

What do you think would he say if he saw what is going on at Everest today? 

Even 15, 20 years ago he was terribly upset by some of the behavior up on the mountain. There were some reports that a group of climbers ascending up the mountain had passed a badly injured climber, he probably had mountain sickness, not actually helping him. And he thought, this really was terrible that people were not coming to this person’s aid.

But he was also very involved in encouraging people to go to the out of doors, particularly young people. To go to the mountains, to have wonderful experiences, to challenge themselves and to have wonderful adventures. I think in many ways going to whether it’s Mount Everest or other great peaks in the Himalayas, it’s a wonderful thing. However, Nepal is a very poor country. And when you think of adventure tourism in Europe for example, skiing, trekking, climbing, aviation sightseeing, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. I think it is very inappropriate to some westerners to say to Nepal: You should close Mount Everest, no one should go there. I think what we have to encourage is that the Nepalese run their tourism better. They deal with the pollution issues and the numbers of people just as you have in the European Alps.

Queue on the Everest summit ridge (on 22 May)

But how would he have felt looking at last season’s picture of a queue on the summit ridge of Everest?

That was a disturbing picture, there is no question about it. And I’m sure he would have looked at it and just sighed: What on earth is going on? But what happened there is that they had tried to space out these very large numbers of people going up. But the day before the photograph was taken the weather was bad and the group of the previous day had not been able to make the climb. So on that day they had two days’ climbers going up the same time. And that certainly contributed to that congestion.  

It seems that the Everest gene is firmly installed in your family. You’ve scaled Everest twice, and your children are also fond of climbing it.

Sir Edmund Hillary with his grandchildren Lily, Alexander and George (from l. to r.)

It’s a possibility that myself and my youngest son may go on a filming expedition to Mount Everest next year. We are just sort of finalizing arrangements. It’s not confirmed but it’s looking quite likely. Whether I go the summit I don’t know but my son Alexander is very keen to climb the mountain to be the third generation of Hillarys to climb Mount Everest.

Over the last couple of years my two sons and my youngest daughter, we’ve been going all on some wonderful mountaineering trips in different parts of the world. We were in Chamonix on Mont Blanc, we went to Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus last year. So we had a lot of fun and we continue to do some very pleasant mountaineering trips as a family.

What will be your feeling when your son will climb Everest?

My Memory of Sir Ed: a New Zealand banknote signed by him

As long as he goes to the mountain and I think he is well prepared, he is in the right psychological space, he is motivated and is climbing with the right people, I will encourage him and I think he will be successful and have an absolutely amazing transformative time. Obviously I am worried, I am his father, but I think under the right circumstances there is every reason to be very confident that he will be successful and that it will be a great experience for him.

And your father would like it too, wouldn’t he?

I think he’d be pretty thrilled to think that his grandson was going to stand on the summit of that mountain. It’s just we are following in his footsteps and we are proud to do so.

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