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My life in the mountains: in conversation with Peter Hillary

Son of Everest explorer Sir Edmund Hillary, Peter looks back at his life among peaks and poles.

Peter Hillary in the Summit coat from the Edmund Hillary Collection.

Photograph by Peter Hillary
By Nick Dalton
Published 15 Feb 2022, 10:24 GMT

It’s 55 years since mountaineering adventurer Peter Hillary had his 12th birthday party, but he remembers it well. “It was at Everest Base Camp,” he says. “It was an extraordinary experience, to be able to look around, with dad saying, ‘This was where one of our old tents was’ — seeing things that had been left from that momentous expedition.”

Dad, of course, was Sir Edmund Hillary, and the expedition Peter refers to was in 1953, when Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first conquerors of Mount Everest. It left his son Peter, who grew up in New Zealand, with a passion for mountaineering (despite his father’s attempts to deter him from following in his footsteps). “He’d taken us on these marvellous trips every school holiday — skiing on South Island, helping to build a school in Nepal, driving into Australia’s Outback,” Peter explains. “The topic would come up of what I should do. Dad would say, ‘Go to university and get a job — become an engineer. I found myself staring back, saying, ‘I want to do what you do!’.”

And he did. Peter has made five Everest expeditions, including two to the peak — the second in 2002 for the National Geographic documentary Everest: 50 Years On The Mountain, which celebrated his father’s feat. He’s also climbed the Seven Summits (the world’s highest mountains by continent) and is one of few people to have made it to both the South and North Poles. The latter was reached in 1985 as part of a father-and-son expedition that included astronaut Neil Armstrong and round-the-world balloonist Steve Fossett.

Skiing looms large among Peter’s many trips. “I love it; I got into ski racing, then started skiing the biggest peaks in New Zealand,” he says. “I made the first descent of Mount Aspiring, New Zealand’s Matterhorn; no mistakes, no falls — and no restaurants!”

And no ski lifts, so getting to the start point was a two-day mountaineering adventure. “We had to climb and walk up these great big valleys, skis and boots on backs, on to the subalpine level, up on to the glacier,” he says.

“The wind was getting up, so we went to a hut and found some old blankets, leftover food and a few candle stubs, which we put together so we could cook. Next morning, we climbed, then I clicked my skis on.”

Peter also skis terrain that the rest us might manage. “My daughter Lily and I went to Japan two years ago and enjoyed the wonderful powder of Hokkaido amid the almost-bonsai birch trees,” he explains. “My other skiing has been in the US and Canada — Utah, Colorado, California, around Banff — but never Europe.”

Another socially distanced 2021 getaway started at New Zealand’s Milford Sound. “We paddled across and headed up a valley full of untouched old-growth forest,” says Peter. “Five days, crawling through undergrowth, multiple rivers, high passes, eventually into the great Kaipo Valley, which I’d visited with my father on an expedition 45 years ago, then around the coast to Lake McKerrow. A hard trip but amazing.”

Peter — who also works as a philanthropist speaker and writer — serves as a host on Antarctic cruises with Lindblad Expeditions’ National Geographic ships. It’s a job he’ll be resuming this winter a Covid-enforced break, sailing from Ushuaia, on Argentina’s southernmost tip. “I love the Antarctic,” he says. “Only one way to get there, by ship, across Drake Passage.” Peter also leads his own small-group adventure holidays, generally to the Himalayas and the Everest region.

Peter still climbs, with Lily, 21, and sons Alexander, 25, and George, 29, and hopes to resurrect a Covid-delayed family Everest adventure in 2022. He and the children keep the family flag flying with the Edmund Hillary Collection: outdoor clothing created using the classic techniques and materials used to make the 1953 expedition gear, often made by the original companies, from Manchester to Nepal.

“It’s clothing that tells a story,” says Peter. “Little features like the blue and white strips on almost every garment — a connection with the sun hat he wore on Everest. Lots of detail to connect to the amazing story.”

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