Sir Edmund Hillary's son still spreading message of the mountains

Having walked lesser-known trails, he brings valuable idea of wandering to our life of routine

To our urban landscape of stone and steel comes the eloquent evangelist of the outdoors. His white hair is now like the receding snow of summer and you can see the crevices of time cut into his weathered face. To our life of rigid routine he brings the valuable idea of wandering.

Now he is 62 but he was raised to walk life's lesser-known trails. Your childhood holidays might have been in city hotels, his were in the hills and deserts of a simpler, fantastic world. At 12 - in 1966 - he was walking past Tengboche Monastery in winter time to the base camp of Everest with his father, who would say: "Ah, this is an old broken tent from our Everest expedition."

Yes, the one in 1953 to the very top of the world.

His late father was Edmund, he is Peter, their surname is Hillary, their language was mountains. The snow eventually covers all tracks yet he walked proudly in the footsteps of his father who first climbed Everest with Tenzing Norgay. When Peter reached the summit for the second time in 2002, they spoke on a satellite phone: the father in Auckland, the son crying at 8,848m.

Peter cannot escape his surname and even at US immigration, not famous for its friendliness, it once elicits a smile. As he recounts, the officer says: "'Wait a minute, Hillary. You're not the son of Sir Edmund Hillary?' And I go, 'Yes.' So we ended up having this rather nice short conversation about climbing mountains and what my father had done, which was great, and then he goes back to being an immigration officer, you know: 'You're not going to overstay?'"

The children of the famous can occasionally wear the scowl of resentment for they are inevitably reduced by being compared to the exceptional deeds of a parent. But Peter seems to have worn any ordeals well and perhaps it helped that he was not the son of a distant writer locked in a study, but of a father who he says "actually shared the experience with us. You know, he took us on expeditions".

The result, he says, was that "I wanted to go on and develop my own life, similar to my father's, climbing mountains but also continuing to build schools and hospitals (of which there are now 42)".

I've come to speak to Peter partly to understand his father who climbed a peak so intimidating that humankind had flown passengers across the Atlantic, discovered antibiotics and developed the hydrogen bomb before Everest could be summited. These men were actual heroes, who trekked to new worlds within an old planet, before we replaced them with plastic celebrity.

But I also want to know - and he tells me over 79 minutes with his hands semaphoring his excitement - about mountains, about the elation and vulnerability and emotional extremes of these travellers on their personal missions. He speaks of blood that turns viscous and "almost black with the haemoglobin in it from your acclimatisation", of the "extraordinary boredom because you've had two weeks of bad weather", of the intuition of when to abandon a climb. Once on K2, instinct leads him to descend and six of the others who climb on will die.

Mr Peter Hillary says his famous father shared his experience with his family and took them on expeditions. The result, he says, was that "I wanted to go on and develop my own life, similar to my father's".
Mr Peter Hillary says his famous father shared his experience with his family and took them on expeditions. The result, he says, was that "I wanted to go on and develop my own life, similar to my father's". ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

I ask about exhaustion, up there in the icy, thin air, and he says: "Sometimes you'll go, 'I'm just going to take two moves' and then you hyperventilate again, and then you go, 'Oh maybe I'll just do two more'. I mean that's how you're moving... You're teasing yourself on. You are so tired, you're exhausted and you just want to go home. And in some respects you'd be happy just to curl up in a ball and lie there and die."

Somehow the best storytellers can almost let you feel the bleakness and beauty of the mountain and so it is with him. I wonder about fear and he admits there are "moments where you're really scared, you're anxious. In fact, there are moments where you think: I could die. I may not make it..."

"Normally we walk around in a bubble of 99 per cent safety. It's really unlikely that this window frame is going to fall out of the side of this building. It could happen but it's really unlikely. But up on a mountain it's about 20 per cent likely that this ledge might come off, and as you climb out of the window frame to climb up to the next floor, your exposure brings it up to 50 per cent. And then if you're making a move on very steep ice, it might throw you into a position of being 95 per cent exposed and so you're actually going: I know I can do this but this could go very badly."

Peter is a listener to voices that call him to adventure and surely we need people like him - and dancers, playwrights, sculptors - who embrace the restless spirits of their nature. Humans find security in sameness and yet communities require difference. As Peter says: "You want people who will devote their lives to flying A-380s around the world. You want people who want to climb mountains. You want people who will write unusual, thought-provoking poetry... What I'm saying is we want to encourage our communities to embrace variety."

It's been 64 years since Everest was first summited and its allure never quite dims. It is 81/2km of vertical awe, it is nature flexing its muscle, and it has an aura that still compels writers - such as Wade Davis in his magnificent Into The Silence in 2011 - to peer into its past.

It is immaterial how many times it is climbed for the mountain has many routes and anyway it changes form like a living thing. May 25, 2005 on Everest, for instance, is not May 25, 1995. One year blinding winds, another a clear blue sky. "The same date," explains Peter "is not the same mountain." People also ask, why ascend a mountain climbed so often, to which he says: "The answer is, you haven't, and it will change you and who you are by having that experience."

But should anybody be allowed to climb this crowded mountain, where hundreds show up in a given year, some not adequately experienced. It is a subject that elicits a 541-word answer from Peter, but at its heart he believes in climbers doing their apprenticeship. "I think in a way we shouldn't interfere with people climbing Everest... I would like to see common sense define who goes to climb and common sense would say that you should have the appropriate experience.

"You should go rock climbing, go alpine climbing in New Zealand, go to the European Alps, work your way up... do higher and higher peaks until when you go to Everest you're really a mountaineer on your own standards, whether you choose to join a guided expedition or your own expedition I don't think matters. But people who just want to get dragged up, I think that's not a very helpful attitude."

Peter, who has also flown to the North Pole with Neil Armstrong, does not speak of heroism but instead of the experience the outdoors allows, the chance to taste the simplicity yet adversity of the nomadic life and to witness a society beyond our swiped phone screens.

As he says: "I think it's one of the good things about going to the outdoors... it keeps your feet on the ground... I think it breeds a little modesty." Indeed, his father, who didn't even have a picture of himself on the summit of Everest, was apparently once asked about his own modesty and replied: "I have much to be modest about."

In town to speak at a SIM Professional Development event, Peter still yearns to climb and I see him as a messenger from a natural world. To leave a conversation with him is to feel refreshed and suddenly you want to escape the perimeter of paved roads that imprison us. Out there in the wild it is not conquest that is the idea, but an exploration of the unknown boundaries of ourselves.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 05, 2017, with the headline 'Hillary still spreading message of the mountains'. Print Edition | Subscribe